A really interesting thing happened after I made my last post – my vulnerable share about getting out of alignment with my core values and doing a Himalayan Camino to hit the reset button.
First of all, people seemed to like me putting a bit more of myself in my posts. Which was very affirming because this is something I have wanted to do for a while. In this coming age where 99% of everything we read is going to be written by Artificial Intelligence, it makes sense that we will resonate increasingly more with human stories. So expect more of this from me!
But more importantly, a number of people reached out to tell me how much they resonated with what I wrote. Many were feeling personally out of alignment and caught up in unsustainable work habits. And quite a few described a lack of balance and integrity pervading their whole organisation.
Unhealthy work cultures – in some surprising industries!
It wasn’t just startups where the founders were expected to work 80 hour weeks or hit unrealistic growth targets. I received messages from people in numerous industries, in organisations of all shapes and sizes, all with the same issue.
It seems that many workplaces are set up in ways that implicitly (or even explicitly) encourage people to push themselves and operate in unhealthy, unsustainable ways. I heard stories of people eating lunch at their desks, staying back or working on weekends to get everything finished. I heard stories of people feeling like they had to compete (rather than collaborate) with their colleagues, obsessing about their personal brand lest they be let go in the next round of cutbacks and restructures.
But the scariest (and saddest) part was that many of the stories I heard of organisations where this was happening were organisations with mission statements and company values that espoused exactly the opposite of what they were actually embodying.
I heard about one of the world’s most innovative leadership providers, which espoused progressive leadership values, but where the CEO was so busy that anyone wanting a meeting with them had to book 1 month in advance – and probably on a weekend – as this was the only white space in the CEO’s packed schedule.
I heard about a wellbeing institute where employees were expected to work 7 days a week to roll out totally unrealistic amounts of brand new programs.
I heard from people working in tertiary education and healthcare – sectors where we might hope to find leaders modelling healthy behaviours – whose leaders were in fact so busy playing political games that there was a total lack of psychological safety. This lack of safety led to employees placing immense pressure on themselves to be visibly high performing to impress their leaders, meaning stress, burnout and the wasted resources of people putting sign proportions of their time and energy into image management.
And of course there was my own failed leadership retreat startup a few years back. Despite our leadership team being composed of leadership experts, experienced executives and some of the world’s most experienced mindfulness facilitators – we got embroiled in unhealthy dynamics that ultimately fractured the team and contributed to our downfall.
I could go on – but you get the picture.
If this is happening in healthcare settings, wellbeing institutes, and “progressive” leadership providers – organisations we would assume embody healthy values – I dread to imagine what is happening in other industries!
Why is this happening?
Working in this space for over 20 years has shown me that these organisational imbalances generally reflect internal imbalances in one or more members of the leadership team. Many leaders, driven by a deep-seated need for achievement and recognition, exhibit behaviours like relentless perfectionism, and often an inability to maintain healthy boundaries and stay in their lane. This personal quest for external validation inevitably shapes the workplace, creating a culture where overwork and unrealistic expectations become the norm.
Consider the case of a CEO, driven by an insatiable need for perfection and recognition. They may inadvertently set the bar impossibly high, not just for themselves but for everyone around them. This creates an environment where employees feel pressured to work incessantly, often at the cost of their well-being.
Similarly, leaders who struggle to maintain healthy boundaries might take on more than they can handle, leading to a chaotic work environment where priorities are constantly shifting, nothing ever seems to be enough, and other leaders and employees start stepping out of their lanes to try to compensate.
We also see examples like Elizabeth Holmes, the founder and former CEO of Theranos. Remember her? She claimed to have developed a revolutionary blood-testing technology, but it was later revealed the technology was fake and the whole thing was a sham. Many reports suggest that Holmes’s insecurity and desire to emulate Steve Jobs led her to exaggerate her company’s capabilities and deceive investors and regulators.
And of course there is the recently exposed unethical behaviour by some of the Big Four consulting firms. Clearly the implicit – and probably explicit – expectation in these firms to make profits meant cutting corners and engaging in behaviours that violated stated company values, broke laws, and ended up costing the companies financially.
What’s the solution?
Addressing this issue demands that leaders confront their insecurities and understand the roots of their overcompensatory behaviours. It’s a critical step towards fostering a healthier, more balanced workplace where success is not just about achieving goals, but also about creating a thriving, sustainable environment for all. Doing this isn’t easy, but there are some key tools and processes that help leaders do this inner work. When they do, their companies start to thrive.
Of course, these same overcompensation strategies cause individual employees to push themselves in unhealthy ways. But if the leadership and culture in their company is doing this, what chance do these employees have to genuinely shift their behaviour in the direction of sustainable peak performance and genuine wellbeing?
In my next post, I’ll share the secrets to resolving this that I have discovered over the past 20+ years of coaching and consulting.
PS here’s how you can receive my support to personally thrive and/or bring a fresh culture into your organisation:
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