Welcome to the first edition of “Ask Dr. Graham,” my online newsletter addressing common client questions. Every other week I’ll share my answer to one work-related question, offering recommendations based on experience and grounded in research. I value your time (and your inbox real estate), so I promise to make each newsletter as useful as possible.

This week I’m responding to an anonymous manager trying to reconcile conflicting company demands. The manager’s question – and my response – might provide helpful insights for both managers facing similar challenges and executives positioned to correct what I call “Corporate Contradictions.”

 

Dear Dr. Graham:

At my firm, I’m considered an efficient manager who doesn’t waste time. But I still have to put in late hours to get the job done. Last week my boss told me I shouldn’t have sent an 11 p.m. email. She said the company wants its people “to have a life outside work,” and that she worries I’m working too hard. At the same time, we are constantly expected to do more with less, and it’s certainly not acceptable to leave work undone. What should I do?

Frustrated Manager

Dear Frustrated,

You’ve identified what I call a “corporate contradiction,” when stated policies and real-life practices don’t match. Effective organizations not only evaluate their policies and practices, but acknowledge contradictions, even if they can’t be immediately corrected. Employees typically respond well when executives say, “We want you to have a life outside work, but we also know you must sacrifice that life during this very busy time. We hope those sacrifices will be temporary. Here’s our plan to make that happen….”

Since your leadership isn’t making such a statement, you may have to choose your sacrifice. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I love this job and this company, and I choose to make the personal sacrifices necessary to do the job.” Making an intentional choice to give up some time outside of work to help your firm succeed feels very different than being forced to abandon important parts of your life. If you choose to sacrifice to do the job, you may have to play your firm’s game. You might have to set your evening emails to send at 8 a.m.

If you are unwilling to make the sacrifice or disinclined to play the game, it’s time for a conversation with your boss to determine if she is willing and/or able to adjust expectations. Most bosses and organizations appreciate the opportunity to try to fix a situation, especially for a valued employee. Sometimes leaders can do something. Sometimes they can’t.

Many of my clients say, “I don’t want to have that conversation. I don’t want them to think I’m not willing to put in 12 hours a day.” My question is, “Are you willing to put in 12 hours a day?” If not, it’s better to be honest and either find a way to change your current situation or look for another better-fit opportunity inside or outside your company. Otherwise you risk getting caught up in other people’s ideas about what success should look like, rather than pursuing what makes you feel fulfilled.

You can’t change your company singlehandedly. But this situation should remind those who can change their companies that corporate contradictions breed frustration. When leaders are honest enough to say, “Here’s what you give up if you work here, but here’s what you get,” workers at all levels can determine whether they’re willing to make the required sacrifices.

In the end, you have the right to choose. Whatever your choice, this experience might lead you to consider how you will lead when positioned to correct such corporate contradictions.

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