P026: The Carrot and The Carrot

Editor’s note: I’m writing this on an airplane with no wifi, so let’s all pretend that the unsupported statements I’m about to make have links to relevant studies.

Had an interesting conversation last week with a client who had just returned from an enforced sabbatical. It is standard policy at his company that once you have accrued five years of service you are required to take four consecutive weeks off. While the story over the meal was about the travel experience this time off afforded my client, the real story was about a company culture that forces their employees to step away from the keyboard periodically.

It’s commonly accepted that burnout is A Thing and that some sort of work-life balance is necessary to get the best work from today’s employee. If this is the case, then why does a mandatory sabbatical seem like a shockingly lavish perk? The most common response among the people I surveyed was the concern that an employee will hang on long enough to earn their sabbatical and then leave immediately after. And while this surely must happen — just look at startup founders leaving their new patent companies the second their shares vest — I think those departures are more about the employee than the company.

The Carrot and the Carrot

Every time I go on LinkedIn I see an image get reposted. It’s a short conversation, usually between a CEO and a COO, the typography is usually terrible and it goes something like this:

CFO: What if we invest on our employees and they leave?

CEO: What if we don’t and they stay?

A couple things:

  1. If you are posting this image to LinkedIn, I’m assuming you’re not connected to your boss, right? Ok cool.
  2. Why do you show up to work every day?

Ok so the first question was a bit of a tossed-off joke. I mean, no one has ever been fired for the things that they post on social media. They get fired for exhibiting the poor judgment to post those thing a on the first place. The second question is where the rubber meets the road – in short: are you intrinsically or extrinsically motivated?

Tough Life

As a knowledge worker (barf) I’m well aware that my daily toil pales in comparison to literally every job that allows the entire ecosystem around my profession to exist. And I’ve done enough privilege-checking to know that the relative comfort of my day-to-day is the thing that allows questions of motivation to even enter the discussion. These are truly the most first-world of problems but the world we live in deserves a critical eye and the most direct way to effect change on a system is from within.

The person who shows up for a paycheck and is not concerned with big picture things at their company is the person who is most likely to bolt after a sabbatical (or a vacation, vesting, bonus et cetera) but as an employer, you always know where you stand. The person who shows up because their job fulfills them in other less tangible ways is most likely to never demand a healthy work/life balance and is at greatest risk of burning out but they don’t hesitate to give their best work at every opportunity.

So then: I propose following a middle path. Be aware of your current state of mind and make sure that you aren’t burning out, but also know that your employment is a business transaction. Look for companies that invest in their employees, but be prepared to invest yourself in your employer as well. And for the love of Reid Hoffman, don’t post that garbage to LinkedIn.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron