Why do we lie about how many hours we work?

Alistair-Clark's picture
Rank: King Kong | 1,066

Back when I was in my second year of consulting, I worked with literally the busiest person in the world.

At least, that's what she wanted everyone to think...

She would rush around the office with a permanent frown on her face, clutching her laptop and a stack of papers. I don't know where she was headed, but it always looked important.

A few times I tried to stop her and ask, "how's it going?" but all I'd get was a quick response of "crazy busy..." before she'd charge off to a another critical meeting.

Sometimes, at the end of the day I'd do a lap of the office before heading home. Without fail, she'd still be there at her desk, furiously working away and staring intently into the glowing screen of her computer.

At the time I thought, "I wonder what kind of super interesting project work she's staffed on right now?"

I even caught myself feeling a little self-conscious that I wasn't as busy as she was.

And so I did what any competitive person would do -- I pretended to be busy.

I started exaggerating how much I was working. An 8-hour day always become 10. A 60-hour week always became 80. I mean, who wants to admit that they didn't even think about work on the weekend when everyone else is in the office getting killed?

But beyond just exaggeration, I started working longer hours as well.

Even if I finished all my work by 7:00 p.m., I wouldn't think about leaving. I would stick around for a few more hours, surfing the Web and re-reading emails so that I didn't come off as a slacker.

This probably sounds ridiculous to anyone who hasn't worked in that type of environment. But if you have, then you'll know it's just part of playing the game.

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I was looking for some answers for this phenomenon over the weekend, and came across an interesting HBR article: "Why Some Men Pretend to Work 80-Hour Weeks".

The article is based on a research study at a top strategy consulting firm, and gives an answer for why people lie about their hours at work.

Like many finance jobs, consulting comes along with the basic expectation that you will sacrifice your work-life balance for your job.

"In many professional jobs, expectations that one be an "ideal worker"--fully devoted to and available for the job, with no personal responsibilities or interests that interfere with this commitment to work--are widespread."

And linked to these expectations is the ingrained belief that becoming an "ideal worker" and devoting yourself to your job is the key to success.

"At this firm, people believed that success indeed required ideal-worker-like devotion. Many reported 60- to 80-hour weeks, with little control over when those hours were worked and whether they might have to travel. Work was expected to come ahead of other life responsibilities."

Employees that didn't fit with these unwritten expectations were ostracized, overlooked for promotions, and sometimes even fired.

These two pressures -- the expectations to work long hours and the myth that it leads to success -- caused employees to lie about the hours they worked. One example from the article hit especially close to home, because I used to do the exact same thing:

"Our email program has a time client built into it. So you can actually see in your email box who's online and who's not. And there's an implicit culture [here] that if you don't see somebody on at the same time at a certain hour of the night, you're wondering what the heck they are doing."

I've done the exact same thing before. Some analysts at my firm took it a step further, and used to literally leave their laptops awake over the weekend so that it looked like they were working more. That's f&*#ing crazy!!

The real kicker is that we all know results are rarely linked to the number of hours you work. The article admits as much in it's conclusion, saying that:

"a critical implication of this research is that working long hours is not necessary for high quality work."

But it's not all doom and gloom.

There was one glimmer of hope in the article. A single team was able to wall itself off from the expectations of the rest of the company and create a little utopian environment that ignored the myth of the "ideal worker".

"They traveled little, worked reasonable days (e.g., 9-5) and often worked from home, without apparent penalty[...] We kind of have a shared agreement as to what work-life balance is on our team[...] We've really designed the whole business [unit] around having intellectual freedom, making a lot of money, [and] having work-life balance. It's pretty rare."

#

Remember the 'busiest woman alive' I was telling you about earlier?

Well, after two years of being insanely busy she was set to get promoted. It was a forgone conclusion. After-all, no one who worked that many hours could be bad at their job... right?

Wrong. A few weeks before promotions came out she was let go for poor performance.

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but when I found out she was fired I was actually happy. Learning that someone else had failed made me feel better about myself, and it meant I had a better shot of getting promoted.

I cringe admitting that, but it's the truth.

At the heart of it, our internal competitiveness with one another is why we lie about how many hours we work. For most of our lives we're told that the world is a zero-sum game. In order for you to succeed, someone else has to fail. Only one person can be top of the class at school. There are only so many of those coveted banking, consulting, law, and tech jobs. There are only so many employees that can get a top-bucket bonus.

But the world isn't a zero-sum game. We're not all competing against each other. It's ok to be honest and vulnerable and ask for help sometimes. You'd be surprised how many people are going through the same thing as you.

I sent this post out to my website email list, and dozens of people agreed that working long hours for optics was stupid. But they said they did it anyways because "it's the culture in finance."

So next time someone asks you, "How's it going?", don't lie and by saying you're "crazy busy." Give an honest answer. Don't try and sound important and make them feel inferior because they aren't as busy as you.

The true top-performers don't need to pretend to be busy and important. They don't need someone else to fail so that they can succeed. They go about their work quietly and efficiently, and let their results do the talking.

At least that's my take on this phenomenon.

Now I want to hear yours.

Why do you think we lie about how many hours we work?

Leave a comment below and let us know.

Comments (33)

Best Response
Mar 28, 2016

Because people are insecure and want others to be impressed with how devoted they are to the job. It's the same reason people:

-Over-exaggerate the difficulties/stress of their work in college.
-Tell people they were a Summer Analyst at a BB, but never expand when asked, and turns out they were in the BO/MO.
-Write "Incoming Analyst/SA" on their LinkedIn.

All of this just serves to try to make others feel inferior because they aren't "putting in as much blood, sweat, and tears" as you. It's like if we were all on the same sports team, and I kept telling everyone else how I ran to practice an hour early, ran suicides/shuttles the whole time, and stayed after another hour to get more shots up. If I really did that, it should show on the field.

Let's be honest, with any high-level career, there's going to be a lot of insecurity. Everyone's worried that someone else is going to outwork them and move up the rungs faster. So that's why people fabricate these tales, to not only keep others on their toes thinking that they are "doing what bankers do", but also to trick themselves into thinking they're meeting some implicit expectation on what they should be doing.

    • 11
Apr 1, 2016

Or you're Allen Iverson and don't give a fuck about that noise

Mar 28, 2016

Because we have some relatively fixed time components (eating, sleeping, commute, shower, etc) which cause our leisure time to be leveraged to our working hours. As a result, a small increase in working hours results in a large decrease in leisure time. And it's hard to explain how taxing this is without embellishing.

The difference between a 50 hour week and a 70 hour week is only 20 hours...out of 168 hours in a week, that's nothing! But the difference in terms of leisure time is huge. And we want to convey this, so it becomes easy to bump that "70 hour week" up to an "85 hour week"

    • 2
Mar 28, 2016

Ok but the thing is that some of us ARE regularly in the office for 60-80 hours. We might not be working the entire time, but we do end up being 'crazy busy' during the 25 or so hours that we do actual work. Also, the people who end up working the most hours are either 1) really bad (slow af, not too bright, need a bit of prodding to get shit done) or 2) really good (somehow always entrusted to 'take ownership' of 5 things at once while expected to not explode); interpret that as you may

So I don't know how they did stuff at Canadian Accenture, but very few of us stay in the office late, long after the overlords have left, just 'because.' Some kids really are 'super busy' because they are either being exploited/ overworked or because they are inept and require a lot of time and resources to make a single edit.

Also, the 'crazy busy' bit may just be a strategic performance aimed at deterring your staffer from ruining your life. No staffer will unload a laundry list of insignificant tasks on the twitchy kid who's having a meltdown when there's some zen motherfucker packing up his things right in the next cubicle. Have you heard about how possums vomit and drool and ooze green shit out of their assholes when they play dead? Performance art baby

    • 8
Mar 28, 2016

lmao

wtf at the last sentence

    • 1
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Apr 1, 2016
KREBSCYCLEOMG:

Ok but the thing is that some of us ARE regularly in the office for 60-80 hours. We might not be working the entire time, but we do end up being 'crazy busy' during the 25 or so hours that we do actual work. Also, the people who end up working the most hours are either

But, isn't that part of the problem? There are several shops that DO require face time, particularly for associates and analysts. A couple of friends of mine worked at a larger and more prestigious firm than I work at, but were basically tasked with bullshit to "keep them busy" until 2am every night. It should be no surprise that both of them got burnt out and left for other IBs that have reputations for a better "culture" and "hours".

Apr 4, 2016

Oh yes, it definitely is part of the problem. I am fortunate enough to where the really crazy hours aren't consistent because when the deal is done and we need to take a breather I am told to go home. Even in what I would call a "good" environment the fire drills that are required in client service become tiresome.

Mar 28, 2016

Is this some type of ploy to get everyone else to work less hours while you continue to be ' crazy busy ' so we all get fired and you get that promotion?....

Mar 28, 2016

Why? To avoid having to see / talk to your wife / fiance / girlfriend sometimes.

  • Anonymous Monkey
  •  Mar 29, 2016
Stringer Bell:

Why? To avoid having to see / talk to your wife / fiance / girlfriend sometimes.

Do you like Stringer more than Avon?

    • 1
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Mar 28, 2016

yeah...i see this a lot at my bank. there r three types of ppl at my bank that do this a lot:

-> the really important ones (and we all know indeed they are important). allowed.

--> the ones in "middle office" (risk etc) that want consolation it's not the same as "back office". newsflash: in terms of comp, its the same. no bentley for u baby girl.

--> the ones that don't have a good looking wife/gf at home or ones that don't look fwd to dealing with domestic issues at home

    • 2
Mar 28, 2016
wallstreet246:

--> the ones that don't have a good looking wife/gf at home or ones that don't look fwd to dealing with domestic issues at home

I would argue that it's actually the opposite

Mar 28, 2016

At the associate level, what is the leaving the office protocol? This is assuming you're at a stopping point. I assume your VP is already gone so are you just waiting for some of the other associates to leave or what?

Do any of you guys that are at the associate level leave at a reasonable hour once a week (say 6-7) or is that type of stuff more HR bs that is never actually implemented?

Mar 28, 2016

Hell it's not just a "high powered jobs" thing. I had an ex who works as a freakin middle school math teacher that was constantly bitching about how "busy" she was yet had time for extended facebook browsing sessions.

It's a way for insecure people to feel like they're more important than they actually are

    • 1
Mar 29, 2016

I completely agree with this. Everyone wants to be the "busiest" or so "stressed out" because it means they are more important than everyone else.

Mar 29, 2016

The girl was probably 'crazy busy' because it took her hours to figure out how to do simple tasks. Inefficiency and incompetence aren't traits to be proud of

The person who achieves stellar results and is one of the first people to leave each day is baller. The person who lives in the office and produces average to below average results is a mindless drone

Mar 29, 2016

Most IBD analysts maybe work 60-75 hours per week on average, not the 80, 90, 100+ that's commonly reported (although it happens every now and then). Even then ~80% of the work is done in ~20% of the time.

    • 1
Mar 29, 2016

Ever seen the Seinfeld episode where George does exactly this? Well, Thats why.

Mar 29, 2016

Or, as I'd say...

Apr 4, 2016

I'm sorry, but consulting =/= banking and what Krebs said is actually completely true. 100+ hour weeks are very much a reality for analysts and associates at pretty much any bank I've had an inside look at. I'd like to believe that I fall in bucket 2. The only time I pretend I'm busier than I am is temporary and just so I can catch my breath and hold on to my sanity. Once I feel refreshed, I'll gladly admit I don't even have 60 hours worth of work to do and the flood comes rushing back in.

Mar 29, 2016

It's pretty obvious that IB hours are quite inflated. It's more of a representation of how many hours the person stayed in the office vs. hours worked.

I'm glad my bosses have been always focused on efficiency. The thing is, they are aware of the tasks you are doing and if you are taking long hours to churn out a mediocre piece of work, they will simply think you are incompetent. The bosses I've worked for never hesitated to say "don't fucking facetime with me."

    • 1
Mar 29, 2016

Technically, as a consultant, shouldn't this be an easy answer? More hours= more billability= more money.

    • 1
Mar 30, 2016

this is some RNS

Apr 1, 2016

You can trace a lot of that to the culture. Depending on where you are or what group I feel that a lot of it seems to be a pissing contest.

Any other industry (for the most part) people would be embarrassed or looked at in concern if they told a friend or acquaintance they work 80+ hours a week. In Wall St. culture it is looked at as "badass". I think psychology might have something to do with it but at the end of the day, it is just the "pissing contest culture" speaking.

"Oh, you worked 100 hours last week? I haven't slept in 3 days. Ya, I'm fine!"

Ludacris.

Apr 1, 2016

Ideally hours shouldn't matter.. and people sometimes will say they don't matter... but one thing that does matter is that if you make a mistake but people know you're a hard worker (i.e. you were there all night) you're more likely to be "forgiven." Working fewer hours requires a) control b) very low "mistake ratio"

Mar 28, 2016

I think this is spot on - saw this all the time in my last job when we were doing random projects that went high up in the org. or to the BOD .... guys would stay till 11 pm changing font colors and making bullets different styles, go home and rest for a couple hours then email it to our boss at 3 am.

Whenever there was an error our boss would say "Well... Billy here probably couldn't even see straight at 3 am last night ..Am I right or what ha! ... reminds me of my investment banking days boys..."

but if you left at 8 pm with the same amount of work done you would just get super passive aggressive vibes from the boss, so there was that trade-off.

Apr 3, 2016

part of the issue is that going home at 8 ends up getting you staffed -- so you stay until 9:30 dicking around. otherwise, you end up staying until 11 the next couple days because people saw you going home at 8 and decided you had capacity to take on that additional bullshit pitch.

it's not analysts pretending to be busy to be 'macho.' it's a survival technique.

    • 1
Apr 3, 2016

Cannot agree more. I have had good relationship with one of those "crazy busy" colleagues who were simply not good at what they were doing .... and needed to take 80+ hours weeks to accomplish 50% of what other people do in a normal 40-60 hour week.

we used to go for coffee breaks together and he would complain the whole time about how busy he is and how much our boss must hate him for giving him so much work. And when he finally quit over "stressful work environment" , and our team were dividing up his work, we found that he literally only had 50% the workload of anyone else on the team.

Apr 4, 2016

I read somewhere lately that it is ridicolous to answer the Q: " How are you?" with "Very busy". Everyone has things going in their lives and additionally it is an annoying answer for both yourself and the person you're responding to. From my perspective giving other answers than busy results in a lot less personal stress!

Apr 5, 2016

Never Happened.

Apr 5, 2016
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Apr 8, 2016
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