What to do when your colleagues do not care about their personal lives

img_2175I spoke to the Wharton Women in Business group yesterday. These ambitious women at one of the country's top business schools are always fun to meet with, and this year I decided to do my talk a little differently. Instead of giving my usual speech on time management tactics, I had four women track their time for a week. I talked with each by phone beforehand, and then we went through their schedules with the group, discussing what worked and what didn't.

Anyway, in the Q&A part, one woman asked for advice upon entering their no-doubt cut throat jobs upon graduation. They might all understand that getting enough sleep, and having time for family and friends, would make them more energized and creative at work. But what about colleagues who don't care about their personal lives? Any competitive work environment will have one of these characters: someone who will stay late, work all weekend, whatever. How do you compete with such a person? How do you avoid looking bad?

It's a good question, though I would first encourage people to rethink the narrative. In our minds, the "ideal worker" might be always available, but you don't know for sure that other people perceive this the same way. It's possible your manager is happy to dump work on your available co-worker, but doesn't really see her as having leadership potential. Being a solid individual contributor, and showing that you will be able to nurture other people's talents, are very different things.

Second, while I'm not sure it's wise to view your colleagues as the "competition," if we are going to go that route, make sure you know what you're working with. Being able to throw hours at a problem is one strategy, but it's always going to be a limited strategy, because there are only so many hours, and people are not machines. Specialized skills, knowledge, and connections are more formidable weapons in the arsenal.

Since that's the case, you probably want to compete on that turf. So build up your capital within your firm (and outside your firm). Then you can exchange this capital for a good lifestyle in a relatively straightforward transaction. If you are your company's leading expert on X, and a client is desperate to talk about X, then probably the meeting will happen at a time that's convenient for you. Because you need to be there.

As you progress into management, being able to get work done without throwing excessive hours at a problem can spark incredible loyalty from your teams. Yes, people get assigned to managers, but when people actively want to work for you, that's generally a more powerful position than when people actively do not want to work for you. While it's possible that a colleague who doesn't care about his/her social life is working long hours so his/her teams don't have to, I suspect that's often not the case.

Since you can only control what you do, and not what other people do, get clear feedback from the people you work with on whether your performance is exceeding expectations. If it is, great. Your overworked colleague can be of slightly less concern. Also, don't forget to advocate for yourself. I heard Carla Harris speak not long ago, and she mentioned learning that all her male colleagues on Wall Street were walking into their managers' offices and lobbying for as large of bonuses as possible. She felt uncomfortable doing this, but if that's the way the world works, that's the way the world works. Don't wait for your good work to be noticed.

And finally, if you need to play the game, play the game. Just understand the rules of showing visibility. Send emails at 11 p.m. on occasion. Choose to stay very late one night a week or so and make sure people see you doing it. If people see you doing it sometimes, then you seem like the kind of person who stays late. Once people have a story, they look for evidence to support it, so the next week when you stay late one night, people think "Oh look, there's Beth! Staying late again!" Then the rest of the time, leave whenever you can escape. This is partly how some men fake 80 hour workweeks.

Have you dealt with a situation where a colleague or colleagues didn't care about having personal time? How did you deal with it?

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3 Responses to What to do when your colleagues do not care about their personal lives


  1. I think it is all because we live in an age where work is seen as the only thing that we should be doing. That we only need to rest for a short while and then work again and forget about ourselves. But this is wrong.

  2. ARC says:

    YES to all of this 🙂 One friend left her office lights on and a jacket on her chair so no one could ever be sure whether she had left or not. (I personally had been fooled by this a few times when looking for her!)

    I work in a very large company with a lot of flexibility to move around, so one of the things I look for is a team (and preferably manager) who has younger kids, rather than a team full of 23-25 year olds right out of school. Before I got a hobby, all I did was work pre-kids and it was fine because my husband was doing the same and I was well-rewarded for those long hours.

    However, I’ve noticed as I advance, it’s now becoming more about influencing others, working collaboratively and choosing work that has actual impact, not just a laundry list of specs written and bugs fixed. It’s harder because now i have to choose what I work on wisely, rather than just throwing hours at things and trying to check everything off my list. But the flip side is that I *can* leave work at 3:30 a couple of times a week to pick up kids at school, and I rarely work on weekends any more.

    • @ARC- ah, the jacket on the chair trick. An oldie, but goodie! And yes, finding managers who understand that productivity is more often achieved through reasonable hours than not is a key career skill. Even though I don’t work in an organization, I’m also finding the more I’m in this that I’m trying to be smart about what I take on. I really like not being busy!

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