Question: Countering the culture of workaholism

I have recently joined a large commercial finance company, to head the service department in a regional office. The company is known for its great culture, and my position reports to both the regional CEO (dotted line) and a key executive at HQ (solid line.)

One thing that is in sharp contrast to my expectations in this office, is the long-hours everyone is expected to put in. The CEO does it himself, and that drives the expectations down. It is common for people to suggest that office hours are for meetings, and the "real work" starts after 5.

I am positive this is not the broader company culture. It is still early days, but my feeling is HR is not a fan of this culture either... but feels powerless in the situation.

I am excited to be a part of my new team, and want to approach this problem sensitively.

5 Expert Insights

Hmm.  I wonder how other execs feel.  It was amazing how often, when I'd done a diagnostic in a breakthrough-oriented project, that virtually all of the execs in a top management team (approached one-on-one) would lament an aspect of the culture they didn't like, but felt powerless to change it.  In effect (in your case) "I don't like crazy hours, but I have to put them in because everyone else does." If that's close to the case, culture change is possible, but I've seen it only when there's a purpose and vision that the organization can become committed to...and, as a side effect, will generate a shift in how the organization operates.

I know how to generate that as part of a coaching/consulting process...not quite sure how that helps you, though.

Well, maybe a place to start is to find out how other execs feel about the long hours.  Ask them what purpose they serve, and how that links to what the organization values at a higher level.  And also if there are any unintended consequences.  See if you can identify something even more important that the long hours inhibit...and what would have to happen for it be ok to shift to an alternative strategy that supports both this new value, as well as whatever "legitimate" benefit the long hours had in the first question you asked.  And see if there are any experiments you could identify that would allow you to play with a different approach.

Sounds like the CEO would need to be one of the people interviewed fairly early.  If he's not onboard, unlikely others will be.

In my experience it has often seemed that workaholism is highly correlated with busyness, i.e. lots of work related activity that gets in the way of actually being productive. I believe you have identified two of the major drivers: the message sent by the CEO's behavior and the booking of meetings all day long.

There is not likely to be a successful change in your workplace culture without an enthusiastic support from your CEO. Since your CEO appears to believe in the current approach, you will have to persuade him/her otherwise. It might be helpful to first work with your HR lead, who appears to share your concerns - strength in numbers, you know. It will be important to make your case to your CEO from your CEO's frame of reference. Usually that means data, and specifically data relating to organizational performance and productivity. There is also plenty of data about the risk of burnout. Your HR partner might have some great insights into how to communicate your case effectively to your CEO.

Maybe it's better to build some credibility with the boss-in-question by delivering some exceptional results on some of his/her major priorities, first. Then, you can try asking a question or two about his/her workday philosophy and suggest a productivity test you'd like to conduct whereby you assess what happens when your staff gets more "away time" from the office. But don't underestimate the importance of earning the right to raise the issue by first delivering on the boss' priorities instead of just asserting your displeasure, no matter how well-founded you think your rationale may be.

I would start by focusing on what you can control & not try to start an organization wide culture change especially since you are relatively new.

What you can control is whether you conform to the culture of workaholism or whether you work a schedule that you feel is more appropriate for you.
I would talk to your boss & let her/him know that you intend to meet or exceed all expectations for results and you plan to work the hours necessary to get the job done. That may mean you leave the office at more reasonable times than others. Ask if she/he is o.k. with that.
If so, maybe you will become a role model for others.
If not, you may need to conform until you can find a job in an organization that has a better culture fit.

As others have mentioned above, you might have to lay low for a while. You are new  and could easily be seen as a rebel or unwilling to be a player. And organizational culture is one of the most difficult "dynamics" in an organization to change and is almost impossible to change without support and modeling from the top. And in this case the top is driving the workaholism.

I like what Jim had to say. If you can meet or exceed expectation while not being "busy" all the time at work, you have a compelling argument for having a life outside of work. Otherwise, you might have to make a difficult decision about where and how you are going to work. Good luck!