There’s a common phrase that at first seems benign. But it can sabotage our leadership and erode our well-being over time.
When faced with major difficulty, sometimes we convince ourselves: “I just need to work harder and everything will be all right.”
In True Colors, psychologist Dr. Roger Birkman explains why this common phrase can actually be unhelpful.
At first, pure hard work seems like a good tactic. Who can argue against hard work? Grit. Determination. Fierce positivity. A willingness to go “all in” for the team. At first it does work. Your hard work pays off. You achieve growth, career advancement, and other external markers of success. To state the obvious, hard work leads to visible results. Hard work is socially acceptable. This means that visible hard work usually leads to accolades, social status, and affirmation for all your achievement and dedication.
Don’t get me wrong. A strong work ethic is important. But it can also breed workaholism and burnout, too.
When hard work fails us.
Sometimes more hard work doesn’t make things right. We’re unsuccessful or unhappy in a job – perhaps for years – trying to force a situation to work when it might be time to step away or move on. It requires courage to admit that something isn’t working and to move on.
(In a previous post, I write about why it’s important for us to normalize failure).
1. Insecurity drives success while eroding well-being.
But other times hard work leads to accomplishment and visible success. The problem comes when productivity is fueled by a deeper insecurity. For example, some of us are motivated by an unchecked need to gain the approval of others. For others, workaholism is a way to feel in control when life is unpredictable. For these leaders, gaining and maintaining control becomes a coping mechanism to manage anxiety, uncertainty, or insecurity. Other leaders are driven by a self criticism that feeds an unrelenting perfectionism. Still others simply keep themselves busy as a way to avoid uncomfortable situations outside of their professional lives.
In these situations, life can be productive but unsatisfying. In all these examples, leaders end up trying to work out a deeper need for approval, control, achievement, or status through through their work (or overwork). Hard work fails to resolve the deeper challenges we face.
2. Imposter syndrome doesn't go away.
Some of us are motivated by a healthy and genuine love for our jobs. Still, we might feel like we’re standing on shaky ground.
In my academic career, I’ve met many successful academics who regularly wrestle with an imposter syndrome.
The imposter syndrome is when we experience persistent self doubt internally, despite achieving obvious success externally. Often, some of the most well published and regarded scholars are haunted by a feeling that they’re not as smart as everyone says they are. There’s an insidious fear of being discovered as a fraud or imposter. This mentality makes us afraid that others will somehow find out that we’re not really as competent, skilled, or successful as we appear. Working harder or achieving more doesn’t ever seem to cure the imposter syndrome.
The imposter syndrome illustrates an uncomfortable fact: Many of us live with a significant tension between our public and private self. Although the public self looks accomplished and confident, the private self lacks boundaries or emotional health and mental well-being. We become publicly successful and privately unhappy.
3. Hard work doesn't solve complex leadership challenges.
But the reductionistic hard work = success equation doesn’t only affect individual well-being. This mindset can have consequences for our teams and organizations, too. Without strong emotional intelligence, leaders find themselves causing problems as they project their needs for achievement, acceptance, or control onto their teams. In these cases, the deeper emotional and psychological issues for leaders are not just personal. They lead to concrete business consequences: poor workplace culture, employee disengagement, lost productivity, and employee turnover.
Leading people is complicated business. Simply projecting a hard work = success to your team can feed the insecurities of your team.
Personally, I started my own leadership journey with the hard work = success mentality. I was driven, and experienced some success initial in my career. But then, my assignments got bigger and more complicated. The problems that I started working on were organizational and systemic. These weren’t problems that could be solved alone by just buckling down and working harder. In order to be successful, I had to start relying on a team that I couldn’t directly control. Success required an understanding of interpersonal conflict, motivation, power, and persuasion. I had to get in touch with my own subconscious needs, motivations, and insecurities. Then, I had to develop the self-awareness to see how these dynamics played out in the workplace.
But my story isn’t unique. High performing salespeople get promoted to lead and manage an entire sales team. Effective pastors get asked to become administrative leaders who oversee large and complicated organizations.
Whether in the business or non-profit world, hard working “widget makers” get asked to lead teams and organizations that make widgets.
Too often, we place these “widget makers” in management and leadership positions without sufficient support, training, or development.
A Healthier Approach Toward Work
The world is awash with leadership training materials. Many focus on learning particular behaviors, leadership styles, or tactics. These certainly have their place. But at its core, leadership development is a blend of personal and professional growth. Usually, becoming a more effective leader requires uncomfortable personal growth. We have to become a better human in order to effectively lead other humans.
For example, you can read volumes of case studies to pick up organizational change management strategies and tactics. But you’ll be unprepared to lead major change efforts until you’ve come to grips with how to manage the fear, anxiety, loneliness, and relational discomfort that accompanies most major change.
This is why I approach leadership development from a wholistic perspective in my coaching practice. If your hard work doesn’t seem to be as satisfying and meaningful as it could, here are a few places you might start.
1. Live an examined life.
A simple, but important question to ask yourself is: Why am I working so hard?
Through honest self examination, you might gain some insight. But we all have blind spots, too. Through my coaching practice, I leverage robust assessment tools to help people gain a deeper level of self awareness about their key motivators. Through structured support, leaders can get their “personal house in order” by identifying unhealthy motivations and reclaiming a deeper sense of purpose in their work. A healthier self and energized sense of purpose leads to better overall well-being and effectiveness at work and in one’s relationships. When you’re more self aware, you’re also better attuned to the warning signs that you may be overworking.
2. Maximize Coherence.
A coherent life is one where the tasks of our day to day life align well with our identity, values, and motivations. Rather than being driven by our insecurities, we can arrive at a sense of calling to our work that is value driven At the same time, we can be realistic about our personal needs and insecurities. For example, people who are driven for approval also place a high value on belonging. Rather than letting our fear of rejection drive us, we can direct our efforts toward creating places of belonging, inclusion, and acceptance. Through sober and honest self examination, we can better align our identity, values, and work.
3. Make Commitments.
In The Road to Character, David Brooks constrasts resume virtues with eulogy virtues. According to Brooks, resume virtues are those of status, victory, success, and accomplishment. By contrast, eulogy virtues are those of inner character: charity, love, redemption, and commitment to a larger purpose outside of yourself. A few years back, I heard Brooks speak at Calvin University. He made a simple yet powerful observation. In order to develop character and find satisfaction, we simply need to make ongoing commitments to things we value beyond ourselves. These can be individuals, communities, organizations, or causes. The important thing is the enduring commitment that is aligned to your unique wiring and values. We can be intentional about letting our commitments drive our actions, rather than our insecurities.