The Key to Success is Looking Like You Work Hard, Study Suggests

If you’re looking to get ahead professionally, hard work might not be the best way to get there.

According to a new study, the appearance of hard work might actually be the true ticket to success. Erin Reid, Harvard University School of Business professor and author of the study, found that employees who were able to pass as hard workers and fake a heavy workload were just as successful as those who actually logged the most time.

How did they do it? It all comes down to perception.

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Fast-paced, high stakes companies, like the one examined by Reid, place a strong value on work ethic. These are the firms that demand 70 to 80-hour work weeks and frown at days off. Yet one of the workers she interviewed claimed to take on a light load and being able to spend a considerable amount of time with their spouse. Another reported spending a week skiing on company time and later being promoted.

Despite the culture of hard work, the study concluded that employees like these made up 31% of the company’s workers and that they were still able to achieve the same status and benefits of true workaholics while only putting in a fraction of the time. They did it by keeping up the image of the go-getter with easy tricks and savvy planning.

One tactic was to arrange meetings with clients locally or close to home to cut down on travel time. Workers would then inflate their billables on their timesheets in order to give the appearance of spending more of their day on the job than they actually were. The employee who went skiing simply found clients who preferred to communicate via cell phone.

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“There is likely a ceiling on the amount that you can work productively,” notes Reid. Many employees find that ceiling and then find ways to boost the image of constant productivity.

Meanwhile, employees who requested time off or attempted to formally establish lighter loads were reprimanded through poor performance reviews. The clear alternative path seemed to be taking the time they needed and covering it up. Workers would cancel meetings with claims of conflicting work obligations when there were none, for example.

“If you can’t be there, [you could say it’s] because you’ve got another client meeting at the same time. You know it’s tough to say, ‘I can’t be there because my son had a Cub Scout meeting,’ ” said one of Reid’s interviewees.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that productivity itself would be more important than the image of hard work. You’d also be wrong.

For many companies, a heavy workload serves more as a symbol of dedication. The work itself is often less important than the image of that symbol. For example, envision a maintenance worker who seems to be holding a different tool in their hand every time they pass by you while walking from point A to point B. They might be walking from the bathroom to their lunch break or from their office to grab a cup of coffee, but they always look busy, and that can impress their superiors.

Reid’s study concludes that employees who “passed” as workaholics were reviewed as highly as the real thing. Hard work does pay off, but if given the choice between the two, which would you choose?

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h/t: The New York Times Feature Image via Youtube
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