Overwork and fairness

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Overworked managers are pretty common — and let’s be honest, if a manager isn’t overworked, most of them are still going to tell you that they’re overworked, in large part because busy is the currency of the modern age.

The №1 logical problem of “the overworked manager” might be “Well, tasks are going to fall by the wayside because he/she is so overwhelmed.” Right, I’ve seen this happen maybe 728,144 times. That’s not even an exaggeration. Those are usually the 11pm emails. “Where is such-and-such deliverable?” You stare blankly at the screen of your phone. “Oh, the thing we haven’t discussed in six weeks? Oh, OK…”

But what if there’s a bigger issue around fairness of overworked managers?

Some new research on all this

This research is based on three independent studies conducted on overworked vs. lighter-workload managers, and let me serve up two important sections. First:

Using these three independent data sources, we found that bosses with heavier (vs. lighter) workloads prioritized core technical tasks over treating employees fairly, and as a result, were less likely to be reported as acting fairly by their employees.

Alright, so here the managers are saying “the nuts and bolts of the work > being fair to people, so I need to focus on the nuts and bolts of the work.”

Keep that in your brain and read this result:

Notably, at least in the studies we conducted, prioritizing technical work tasks harmed fairness, but did not improve technical performance.

Soooooo … the managers are overworked. The overwork causes them to over-focus on technical tasks. Yet, in doing that, the performance off said tasks does not improve. So they could have been more fair and engaged with their employees, because what they did focus on barely even mattered.

See how hysterical that is?

Why does this happen?

Few different reasons:

  1. Work is largely about control, but we don’t admit that.
  2. We assign the “people stuff” to a department no one really cares about.
  3. Task work is sacrosanct to many people.
  4. Managers are often horrible judges of what their priorities should be.

That’s kinda how we got to this spot.

So what now? How do we get kinder managers?

This is gonna be tough, but here are the steps:

  1. Hire more for soft skills.
  2. Stop promoting just “the high performers,” as they’re often assholes as managers.
  3. Give people time to reflect and grow and be with others.
  4. Redo incentives so that if all your direct reports are saying you’re unkind, you cannot get a bonus despite your numbers. Kindness has to be incentivized and has to matter.
  5. Promote more women?

Will companies ever care about this?

Some already do.

Will this ever be at scale relative to caring about making as much money as possible?


Because that’s the actual goal to most people who come to run companies. You wouldn’t come to run a company if you didn’t believe that was the goal.

So no, will “caring about kindness in managers” ever be at scale? No. Probably never.

But can it be better in your specific spot? Sure.

It requires a starting place of “I care about this, this is an important thing to me” and then going from there.

Try some of the above.

And remember — over-focusing on task work and technical stuff without any increase in productivity is stupid. Just go talk to your employees. There is an increase in productivity there.

Written by

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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