Why overworked staff still love their bosses

Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs

Commiserations: You have missed the cut for the 2017 list of chief executives rated most highly by their own staff.

Perhaps your employees judged you "lazy", "rude" or "unprofessional" — all comments posted on the jobs site Glassdoor, which compiles its rankings from staff reviews.

Or maybe you ignored the advice of last year's most popular chief executives. "Be real. Be vulnerable. Care," suggested one. "Over-communicate," counseled another. "Create joint ownership," said a third.

Resist, though, the temptation to top the rankings by lavishing on your ungrateful staff policies to improve their work-life balance. Glassdoor's analysis of its own data suggests highly rated chief executives are more common at companies that have a lower work-life balance.

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Take Lloyd Blankfein, puckish chief executive of Goldman Sachs. His investment bank earns only 2.7 stars out of five for work-life balance ("Be prepared to say goodbye to family life, exercise routines and hobbies," comments one former technology employee). For reference, that is a lower grade than Sports Direct, the UK retailer denounced last year for imposing "Victorian workhouse" conditions on warehouse staff.

Lloyd Blankfein
Bloomberg | Getty Images
Lloyd Blankfein

Mr. Blankfein, though, achieves a 93 percent approval rating and regularly makes it into the 100 highest-rated US chief executives.

Welcome to a looking-glass world, where overworked drones, lashed to their desks all day, return home late to kick the cat, shout the children to bed, then hunch over their laptops to tap out glowing approval ratings for their ultimate bosses.

It would be dangerous to build a whole theory of workplace satisfaction on data collected more in the interests of marketing than science. Internal staff surveys are prone to self-selection and self-delusion and, while Glassdoor's reviews are open to ex-employees and are theoretically more independent, they share some of the same flaws.

Even so, the apparent contradiction between popular chief executives and rubbish working conditions reflects an uncomfortable truth. The evidence that work-life balance perks make people work harder is mixed.

Encouraging better work-life balance does not lead to higher productivity, academics at London School of Economics found. Neither does forcing workers into miserable servitude. That said, a later study by Alex Edmans, now at London Business School, found positive links between job satisfaction and stock returns.

As chief executive, then, you have plenty of reasons to look after your staff's welfare: Work-life balance is a powerful recruiting tool, particularly for younger candidates; family-friendly policies encourage more women to join and stay; it is the right and equitable thing to do; and improving conditions cannot make things worse.

But tending to your staff's work-life balance is not the sole, or even the best, path to winning their approval.

One hypothesis put forward by Glassdoor researchers is that people working for highly ranked chief executives are "willing to sacrifice [balance] in exchange for great CEO leadership", particularly in "fast-growing, high-achieving workplaces".

Mike Ashley, CEO and founder of Sports Direct
Carl Court | Getty Images
Mike Ashley, CEO and founder of Sports Direct

This sounds plausible, though I think it overstates the extent to which frontline workers care about how their chief executives lead. Line managers are the main conductor for good leadership. That is why the disparaging comments at the beginning of this column relate to Sports Direct workers' team leaders, not Mike Ashley, the retail chain's chief executive. He is unpopular, too, but when his employees criticize how they are managed, they generally have it in for their immediate supervisors.

By contrast, Goldman's reviewers frequently applaud their managers, even while complaining about the long hours they have to work.

Good management is the hidden cause of improved productivity, say the LSE researchers. Put simply, I think workers like leaders who are successful, often irrespective of how hard they make them work.

Etsy, the online craft marketplace, has just provided a stark counter-example. On June 21, it cut a further 15 percent of its workforce, a month after replacing its chief executive, Chad Dickerson.

His approval rating peaked at 97 percent just before he left in May, as sales flagged. He was a vocal advocate of work-life balance. "Your job is really important, but you're also a complete person who has other responsibilities in your life," he said last year. He was real, he was vulnerable, he cared.

I am the first to applaud such an attitude, and to lament how Etsy has struggled. But my guess is that staff laid off this year would rather have a poorer work-life balance and a job, than no job at all.

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This article originally appeared in Financial Times.