kid·nap – verb – take (someone) away illegally by force, typically to obtain a ransom.
Management kidnap – to apply direct pressure or create a work environment that produces social pressure for people to feel compelled to stay at the worksite beyond normal working hours on a regular basis, typically to obtain the perception of increased productivity or dedication.
“We are all staying late this week to get X, Y and Z done.”
“Let Jimmy know what you want for dinner this week as we are in for some late nights.”
“It’s really important that we [insert some over aggressive goal or some poorly managed expectation here], so plan on staying late this week.”
There has been plenty written on the subject of how working longer hours does not help people or companies, but here is a good HBR article on that topic in case you are not convinced.
However, in the digital workplace, working long hours does not mean you need to be in the same office space as your co-workers, yet some managers like to demand people give up their location freedom and autonomy when putting in these longer hours. I call this management kidnapping, a terrible practice handed down from the pre-internet age where people needed to be in close proximity to each other, and their local data center resources, in order to work effectively. Unfortunately, this practice has not ended with the advent of modern communication and collaboration tools.
So I am not confused as the owner of a popular soft serve ice cream truck, “Mister Softee”, let me set some additional context. Being in the project outcome business, which is mostly deadline driven, I admire and rely on people with the professional will to work the hours needed in order to meet our commitments. Making good on your commitments is critical to your integrity, so it can’t be undervalued in both your personal and professional life. But where I draw the distinction between professional will and management kidnapping is when a person in power dictates where the work is to be performed, taking away a team member’s location autonomy. In my view, location autonomy is an essential differentiator to firms who live the value of ‘work life balance’ versus just paying lip service to it.
Some managers fear being labeled a ‘Softee’
So why do managers (and not leaders), pressure people, or create environments that socially pressure others to stay at the office late? Multiple choice:
- These managers carve out time for non-work on the weekends, and thereby forces everyone to be on their work/life schedule. (selfishness)
- These managers value their personal goals over their team member’s balance. (ambition meets selfishness)
- These managers distrust in their team member’s ability to perform outside of their direct view. (distrust)
- These managers have been previously rewarded as ‘drivers’ and are just repeating behaviors which earn them additional recognition. (ambition meets a culture problem)
- All of the above.
Unfortunately, I have seen all of the above be true. To share one horror story of a management kidnapper, I was once exposed to a project where the manager limited the number of rental cars needed to get to the client site so he could control when the team leaves the site. Upon leaving the site, this manager would pressure the team to meet in the hotel lounge for a late dinner – a working dinner of course – and then had the group meet again for breakfast before sharing the cars back to the client site. Team members who deviated or who encouraged alternative schedules were socially punished. Needless to say, this project had very high attrition rates.
This brings me to companies that lavish perks on their people to entice them arrive a little earlier and stay a little later – free meals, onsite gyms, napping areas, game rooms, etc. At some level, I believe this is management kidnapping because the company is creating a culture that encourages people to stay onsite longer, which has a network effect of creating additional social pressure to stay onsite longer. You don’t want to be the only member of your team that doesn’t make the 6pm standup at the smoothie machine? However, I believe people should enjoy those benefits too, and people who want to work at the office longer hours should not be penalized. It’s a grey area, but these perks are OK if the company is clear about being supportive to people who choose not to partake in them, and make clear to its management team that people are free, and encouraged, to come and go as professionally required.
Reward your team with Blue Apron so they can eat with their families!
What can you do if you are working with these types of managers or in a culture that promotes this? My best answer would be to establish boundaries early and often. Make clear that you are leaving by X pm, spending a few hours with your family or at the gym, and then will pick back up work till X+Y pm if that is your preference. In the case where you feel directly bullied or pressured, I would escalate until you find someone that will take action. Bad managers are usually habitual abusers of such tactics, so it may not be the first or last time they try to bully you or others, so best to get it on record with their superiors or a HR person. If your company culture does not support work life balance via location autonomy, then it’s time to find a new job and let Darwin take care of your ex-colleagues.
Do you need a data point that demonstrates high performance can be had by leaving the office at a decent hour? Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is fairly religious about leaving at 5:30pm to spend time with her family and then may put in more work later in the evening. If Sheryl Sandberg who has a perpetually full plate of high priority concerns can manage not physically being at the office to keep her finger on the switch, I think most managers, who frankly aren’t managing 1/10th of Sandberg’s load, can do it too.
My call to action for leaders is to go that extra mile to ensure your people are getting out of the office enough to walk their dogs, spend quality time with their significant others or to make that evening spin class. The benefits will go beyond having a balanced and refreshed team, as respect and trust will grow stronger which will pay regular dividends. And for people that work for management kidnappers, you need to directly confront and/or escalate otherwise their management style will be further enabled and sometimes even rewarded.