Purpose vs. productivity

In an age where talent, passion and authenticity are hailed as virtues and antidotes to the uncertainty of the workplace, so-called “overwork” may well be their dark side.

As we are urged to have a romantic, rather than instrumental, relationship with work, we should not be surprised that it threatens our families, our productivity and our health. Romance has long been known for making us lose our minds. It is no different when work is involved.

Seen this way, overwork is not defined by the amount of our day work occupies but by the amount of our selves tied up to it. We “over” work not when we work too hard but when working becomes less of a means and more of an end – when meditation, exercise, sleep, holidays and even parenting are cast as tools to make us better workers.

This view explains why we ignore, apparently irrationally, that overwork erodes productivity. In a workplace that has co-opted the accouterments of romance and religion, where CEOs have visions and passionate managers are work martyrs, productivity is not the only aim. Passion, after all, has no concern for efficiency and martyrdom has never been about getting things done. Both have always been about expressing virtue and devotion. And people have long endured pains and trials to claim a valued self, with the belonging and expression it affords.

Neither, this view suggests, are we helped by the argument that more humane workplaces will make us more productive. That subtly reinforces the already totemic notion that being productive is the purpose of being human, and the taboo that surrounds the idea that one might work to afford a life elsewhere. Nor can data help much. What if it showed that a certain category of people, who were raised with and define themselves by overwork, were more productive that way? Should we endorse it then for everyone? Who gets to say when is it enough?

“Workers themselves,” is the common response. They can vote for the fitness of corporate cultures with their feet and move to friendlier ones. Many young professionals appear to have embraced this mantra, and often see large, prestigious companies with extreme work cultures as temporary homes. Stints in such workplaces, MBAs often tell me, are like going to boot camp while paying off your student loans. It is extremely intense, it prepares you for all circumstances and it is not meant to last. One can always do something more meaningful later.

But though these jobs pay well, money is hardly the only, or even the major, reason most new MBAs work there. Research shows that managers choose to work for those companies early in their careers not because they pay well, but for the future opportunities stints there might afford.

And these early career stints are not simply Faustian bargains. If a company is so appealing and influential that it is good for you to work there even if you don’t mean to stay, it is also likely to shape your attitude to work. Going to boot camp, as I remind my students, does prepare you – for war. Those organizations often serve as what Jennifer Petriglieri and I have termed “identity workspaces.” They shape people’s identities and work ethics, influencing working cultures and casting their shadow long past people’s membership in them.

This is why the argument that talent shortage makes extreme work cultures unviable does not hold up. The opposite is true. Our conception of talent as a path to salvation and rapture in mobile labor markets makes more people embrace those cultures, anxious to prove that they are among the few to have the talent said to be so short. And those conceptions and cultures shape how we work, who we become and the price we pay for it.

(Gianpiero Petriglieri is associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate