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Published: February 28, 2007

 
 

Winning the Devil’s Bargain

Playing to Live. For the 15 interviewees who followed this strategy, work became primarily a means to an end. They remained committed to their jobs, but their real satisfaction came from life outside work, especially from their families. Remembering times when they burned out or lost touch with their true priorities, they learned to set limits.

“Because somebody’s paycheck is going to be late, because somebody didn’t like the results they got on a survey, that’s a friggin’ emergency? I don’t think so,” declared Roberta, a human resources director at a Fortune 100 computer software company. “Don’t get me wrong; I care a lot about my work. I’ll go the extra mile, even work weekends once in a while. But mostly, I’m going to go home on time. I have a life outside of here. And that means saying no. I don’t do it antagonistically, but I do have limits.”

This strategy allowed people to live a richer life overall, but at a cost. As an upper middle manager in telecommunications pointed out, “You sometimes have to pretend to be a shark, to avoid having your loyalty tested.” Otherwise, you may be “branded,” as Roberta found out. “Now I’m ostracized, and they say I don’t have a strategic view of things. Give me a break.”

Playing for the Good Guys. The third strategy, adopted by 18 interviewees at some point in their careers, was to actively seek out employers whose mission or culture they could believe in. This group was passionate about customers, employees, organizational transformation, or businesses that “do well by doing good.” Alex, a young product manager for a consumer software company, loved his job finding new ways to make life easier for customers. “What I get excited about is creating something my mom can use, that could maybe save someone like her an hour a day, so they can focus on something else. If I can make just a little bit of difference in people’s lives, that’s what I’m working for. I get a real sense of meaning out of serving our customers.”

Yet Alex’s passion for customers had recently got him into trouble. “[My team was] designing a product to meet the needs of our business, not the needs of our customers. We were looking for a way to get more money out of our customers, but not necessarily to give them something that they would want to pay more for. We were talking to customers, but we weren’t listening to them! I knew it was going to blow up in our faces. I felt I had to speak up, which they saw as making trouble and going against their ‘quick fix’ of turning around the business. Finally, I transferred out.” This strategy can lead people to painful dilemmas in which they are forced to make trade-offs between their passion and the rewards — either money or recognition — that they expect.

A senior executive in the cosmetics industry discovered this when he was offered a promotion out of a job as environmental quality director. “This is a conflict for me. I would rather not leave the position I love, and where I’m making a difference. But I need to build up enough money to retire. If I put my love for the environment first, my wife would shoot me.”

Leaving the Game. At some point, 12 of the people I talked to had left their organizations to preserve their integrity. Interestingly, this often happened when organizations with the highest aspirations contradicted themselves. After Jim, the sales director of a carpet company, moved his family across the country to sell an inspiring new product line, the company changed its portfolio approach. “I took this role because I believed in our commitment to environmentally sustainable products. But now they’ve changed my job responsibilities and I have to sell the normal [product line] as well, which is the worst offender in terms of landfill. Now I don’t see how I can tell the sustainability story to our customers in good conscience.” Not too long after the interview, he went to work for a competitor.

 
 
 
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