There’s No Business in Showing Off

In golf, there’s a saying: “Drive for show and putt for dough.” Every golfer likes to hit it long off the tee, watching the ball soar up and drop far, far down the fairway. But, unfortunately, long drives do not win tournaments. Putting does. The difference is getting onto the green, reading the break, and then stroking the ball into the cup to make par or birdie.

Working for show

This saying came to mind after reading “Office theatrics” by Bartleby, the work and management columnist for The Economist. The column cites examples of how the virtual and even the hybrid workplace turned work into a performance. That is, employees were feeling it necessary to show off how busy they were. “The simple act of logging on is now public,” writes Bartleby. “Green dots by your name on messaging channels are the virtual equivalents of jackets left on chairs and monitors turned on. Calendars are now frequently shared: empty ones look lazy; full ones appear virtuous.”

According to two academic studies from France, research “found that white-collar professionals are drawn to a level of ‘optimal busyness,’ which neither overwhelms them nor leaves them with much time to think.” Such an example, being French, reminded me of the Palace of Versailles, where noblemen and noblewomen competed among themselves to look the grandest. And this being Versailles did nothing productive.

On the surface, these examples are funny, but when you think more deeply, you realize that these behaviors are protective measures. The boss wants me to be busy, so I will show him how busy I am. Busyness is not a goal; productivity is. Yet showmanship praises the former and ignores the latter. The fault lies with management. It has put employees on the defensive. The time is now to neutralize that adversarial stance.

Producing for results

“You can fool all of the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all of the time,” Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” Fooling around hurts not only morale but productivity. 

Ask people how they want to work. People react to the system handed to them. Give them a voice in how they do their work and when. In a hybrid environment, flexibility can be a virtue. 

Make recognition a team affair. Employees know who contributes a great deal and who does less. Honor the team for what it does. Ask the team to cite the contributions of its members.

State clear metrics on productivity. Make it known what people need to do. For example, there will not be bonus points for “showing off.” Instead, there will be recognition and reward for creativity, initiative and collaboration.

Find time to play. There hasn’t been much levity during this pandemic, and it shows. Employees are weary. Insist that employees take time off without the need to check their devices for messages, texts or email.

Fooling the boss is the result of conditions created by management. Undoing those conditions and treating people with respect will change the equation. And get the work done right.

First posted on Forbes.com 00/00/2022