Great job. Did you manage? And here’s another one for you

Give me a minute, and I’ll tell you a story that you’ve probably heard more than once.

So, a certain employee (even if there is an employee) starts a new job. Let’s call her Lisa for simplicity. She is a beginner, so the manager gives her some simple and feasible task to start with. Our Lisa is a good employee, so she does the work efficiently and on time. Her manager is pleased. The commissioning is completed, now she gets more serious and complex tasks – approximately the same as the rest of the employees in her position. Remember, Lisa is a good employee! Therefore, she copes with new assignments once or twice. The boss is pleased again and glows like a brand new penny. It is obvious to him: Lisa is an excellent acquisition for the company, you can load her with might and main with work – she can handle it.

Executive directors bring down a fresh project to the department where Lisa works. This is a new client, a lot of money is at stake, so you need to do everything as best as possible and preferably in the very near future. Liza had just submitted (successfully) the next task, and it so happened that the new project is exactly in the same area. Therefore, the manager, without a moment’s hesitation, gives it to Lisa. She is a good employee, so she will certainly meet the deadline and do the job in the best possible way. Yes, the deadlines are mercilessly running out, but Lisa gives all her best and still copes. This is a holiday for everyone! The company where our heroine is employed is, in general, not bad, so Lisa gets a good salary increase and even a small, cosmetic increase.

Now Lisa receives all such projects. The case is put on stream, so the tasks have lost their “star” status. But now Lisa is a proven expert, who to turn to if not to her? Lisa is always busy. The work is done with high quality. Everyone is happy. The company is growing, naturally there are more and more projects. Lisa overworks, but manages somehow. In some places, deadlines fail, but in such a frantic flow, this is almost normal.

And then…drumroll! There has been a glitch in the flow. Lisa admits a clear failure that goes beyond the usual delay of a couple of days. The situation is getting worse. The bosses are nervous. Lisa’s boss doesn’t eat his bread in vain either: he is not a complete idiot and understands that Lisa is overloaded with current work. Somehow she manages to transfer new projects to other people, and Lisa finally manages to exhale. But not to the end. Deadlines are on and off, the delivery of projects is late. The quality of work has also dropped significantly – lower than the company could afford. Now the boss is not happy. Lisa is also unhappy – but who cares? Days, weeks and months pass. Lisa’s Sisyphean struggle with new tasks continues. However, she no longer wants to work. The boss tears his hair out, tries a thousand and one ways to increase motivation on Lisa, but nothing comes of it. At least crack.

One way or another, Lisa leaves the company.

What happened here? Why did such a seemingly good worker give up and let everything take its course?

And two things happened.

The first is banal professional burnout. Too much work has fallen on Lisa. The work was extremely stressful. As a rule, in this case, it is enough to let off steam and give the employee time to recover. Many leaders make this mistake. It seems to them that a normal workload (instead of three times) is able to restore a person’s strength and motivation. But this is fundamentally wrong: the one who has known burnout needs a period of complete peace and quiet. But we’re not here to discuss burnout. Many good articles have already been written about this.

I want to talk about a second yet unnamed problem that often occurs in parallel with burnout. It lies in the very fact of exceeding the permissible load on an employee, which many managers simply ignore. As a rule, the company rewards those who work hard and give maximum performance. This often happens in so-called consulting companies that pay employees only their working hours: the less a person spends at work, the higher the final margin on the contract with the client (he pays a fixed rate for services). As a rule, crazy hours optimization occurs in the departments that cause the most losses in margins. Companies themselves are rarely interested in investing (read: they don’t want to spend money on something that already works) in teams that do not bring them profit. This implies the following: managers put more and more work on employees – until the latter break down.

You can think of this as a special case of the so-called Peter Principle (people are promoted to their level of incompetence), but instead of promoting employees and giving them new responsibilities, managers simply prefer to overwhelm them with work to the ears.

The fact is that the principle of “getting the most out of your subordinates” is doomed to failure. The notorious “maximum that everyone can do” requires overwork, which ultimately leads to burnout. But that’s only part of the problem. Mastering a profession is where the main component of engagement lies. People need to feel like they are getting better. They need to feel progress and growth to know that their time and effort was not wasted. Deadlines or overwhelming workloads don’t require skill upgrades, they just require increased stamina. Doing a job you’re already good at doesn’t make you a better person, it only creates apathy. Yes, all-consuming loading helps mask boredom, but the feeling of dissatisfaction still remains. As soon as people have time to take a breath, they begin to feel the same lack of personal progress. It would seem that so many tasks have been shoveled, but no significant professional growth has occurred. And there is still a lot of the same monotonous work ahead.

A small digression: this applies not only to individuals. Over-optimization hurts entire teams equally. High-performing teams tend to get more projects or more work until they stop being high performers. When new contracts appear, managers do not give them to teams that have already encountered difficulties. They pass this work on to those who are still able to work profitably and efficiently. When a team killed by optimization finally gives up, no one will come to its aid. Why raise a downtrodden horse when there is another, fresher one? Sometimes really tight teams manage to catch up in time, but this happens at the expense of tuning work processes, maintaining internal culture and constant experimentation. But sooner or later, there is still too much work, and the once cohesive team falls apart. Companies that do not have an internal culture of preventing such situations tend to ruin teams like real serial maniacs.

There is logic in this. Employees receive monetary compensation for performing certain work. They want even more money, so they naturally think that more work will bring them even more money. Managers see that someone is doing well in a particular area, so they will give preference to him, and not someone who has not yet proven himself as he should. At the same time, it seems to everyone that increasing the complexity (and volume) of tasks is an indispensable companion of success. Cognitive dissonance leads people to think that stress and suffering are retribution for being paid more.

All this is reasonable. Most of this is true. But… is that even right?

Unless you’re doing a primitive job that literally anyone can do, you’re not getting paid for the work you do. You get paid for the value you can provide (and maybe a little more if you’re the niche that everyone is chasing). In most modern professions, a little dominance in skill is much more rewarding than a small amount of work. The quality of work matters. Ability—that is, the ability to do what competitors can’t—makes the difference. Career advancement isn’t about extra hours to ship a few more $1 pieces of work, it’s about developing the skill required to produce a $2 job.

Yes, doing more valuable work is harder. If everyone could do it properly, you wouldn’t be in demand. But that doesn’t mean that harder work has to be stressful or painful. If the management does its job well, then subordinates do not face extremely complex projects. They have enough difficulties to study, but there are not so many of them that they want to spit on work and leave. As people master the craft, the hard work gets easier and easier until it becomes a chore. Then it’s time for a new challenge (and usually a promotion). With proper management, work grows with people.

And what if the management eats its bread in vain? When the complexity of a job grows too fast (or staffing is too slow), the Peter Principle kicks in—or burnout occurs. Lisa’s situation, described at the very beginning of the article, occurs when a bad manager gives an employee too much work with a low level of complexity. This is where burnout and unwillingness to work come together.

Management is hard. Even great managers are not able to achieve 100% success. But if you get lost in complexities you’re not ready for yet, or feel the pain of overworking, that’s not good. Suffering is not a normal part of career advancement. Drowning in work is not a normal part of a new position. The worst of the tribe of managers are capable of stepping on the same rake twice. They deify chaos or claim that sacrifice is necessary for success. This is pure gaslighting.

Do not fall for such provocations. The reward for good work is not double the amount of the same work, but something more: skill!

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