Sydney, Australia - May 12, 2017: View of people visiting the Microsoft flagship store in Sydney. It is a retail store run y Microsoft, selling computers, software and electronic products.


Ruchika Raj is very clear about what gets her up on the morning excited about her role as a B2B Product Marketing Manager for Microsoft:

Profile photograph of Ruchika Raj (grey background)

“Being able to help our customers. Everything is becoming digital and it is impacting every industry. Our customers want to be able to use tech to be better at what they do. So being in a place where you can help these companies revolutionise themselves is exciting. We get to impact millions of people through the products we work on and the businesses which use them to help their customers.”

It’s a vision that you feel would meet with approval from CEO Satya Nadella whose stated aim for the company is ‘to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more’. Nadella is on a mission to lead the Microsoft monolith away from the single-minded, practical goal of a PC in every home towards a broader cultural shift, which aims to empower Microsoft people to be fearless in innovating, and driven by developing products that solve real world problems and improve lives.

Ruchika joined Microsoft straight from her MBA. In her London-based role within the business strategy, Windows and Devices group for Microsoft, she works with sales people, peers, partners and the Marcomms team, to execute strategy and deliver customer service. Microsoft was her first choice of post-MBA employer:

“I’m from a tech background, I worked for Redgate in Cambridge pre-MBA, and wanted to stay in tech but in a role where I could learn about enterprise and B2B selling with a company that was mature in these and was also moving rapidly into new spheres. Microsoft is fast changing under the new CEO – there is a lot of momentum and exciting change happening with the new strategy focusing on AI and the Cloud. It’s a fascinating time to be working here.”

Ruchika started off working on an incubation project before moving to product marketing. Her role allows her wide exposure across the company:

“The exposure you get to being able to work in different teams – the security team, the services team and field teams – is great. You learn a lot very rapidly. There are many virtual teams so you get a great breadth of understanding of how the business works. A lot of people build long-term careers here and the opportunities are very good. You can move roles easily and that means you are always learning. The company is flexible with employees – they will support you in taking time off for volunteering and they invest heavily in your development.”

That development starts for a newly recruited MBA – onboarded through the MACH programme – when they are sent to the Seattle HQ for corporate training, joining all 250 MACH MBAs for insight into company strategy and the future vision, and a chance to network:

“One of the biggest benefits is the network you build – after that initial corporate training we will know someone in over 80 global locations and that is a fantastic benefit.”

MACH MBAs build a development plan for their path two or three years into the company. They are encouraged to engage with senior figures in the company and can have as many mentors as they like. Ruchika’s plan is set to take her in a new direction when she is ready:

“I envisage taking on a more client facing role down the line as our customers are what really interest and inspire me. The opportunities are huge. I can move to different geographies and have multiple mentors. As leaders of the future within the company, we are given a very responsible role from the beginning and you work directly with senior people. It is great experience and training.”

So what kind of MBAs does the company want to attract? Melissa Del Castillo, who recruits for the MACH MBA explains that the guiding principle is very simple:

“We want people who are constantly thinking of others. We want smart people but we want them to have an appreciation of helping others. We also look for a ‘growth mind-set’. That is something articulated by the CEO as being of prime importance in our culture and it means people having the ability to think differently, be curious and never stop learning. We want to see that they have it, understand it and that they have already been applying it in their lives. We ask candidates to demonstrate this through their approach to challenges they have faced and give examples of how they have helped others to learn and grow.”

Being able to work effectively with others while keeping the focus on the customer is another key trait sought in an MBA:

“Microsoft is very large so one of the things we look for is an ability to collaborate. The ability to work well with others and influence in many key spheres of the company is crucial. A focus on customers – thinking from their perspective and constantly working to understand what they want and give value to them – these are also very important features we look for in an MBA

“We have started to work with Cambridge with more frequency in the last few years. We find the Cambridge MBAs very diverse in terms of career background and nationality and they come across as humble, curious and eager to learn. That fits right into our culture.”

Diversity is another big commitment for the company, which looks for
MBA candidates who are from as wide a background as possible.

“They don’t have to have a tech background but we look for a sense of business acumen. Good backgrounds to have are customer service, sales, marketing, consulting. When they come for interview we look for the growth mind-set and for a passion and interest in technology and what it can do. In the second round they are sent off to the area they are interested in, such as sales, marketing or services – sometimes even the country they are interested in. At that point of the interview process it’s about – can they do the specific role?”

Once the MBA has started on the MACH path, they attend Microsoft’s Training Academy for online and onsite training on customer values, collaboration, customer focus, navigating a matrix organisation, working on business simulations. They are also offered training in soft skills such as storytelling and making sales pitches. Training is flexible and driven by them. Melissa comments:

“We are basically building an MBA class within the company which becomes our future leaders pipeline. We expect them to question things, challenge teams and challenge the status quo. We encourage people to switch areas and move around. You should expect to be constantly challenged in an industry that is moving so fast. Opportunities are available all over and you can grow into lots of areas and locations.”

We all know that people respond to incentives. Economics 101 teaches that workers put forth greater effort when these efforts are rewarded financially, and top talent tends to gravitate toward jobs and firms where rewards are geared to performance.

For the most part, however, the research that’s led us to these conclusions has focused on performance incentives for individual workers, such as piece rates, merit pay, individual commissions, and bonuses.

Today’s reality is different. Since the mid-2000s, broad-based shared capitalist programs — in other words, programs where firms offer profit sharing and employee ownership to nonmanagers as well as managers — have spread to cover more employees than traditional forms of individual performance-based pay in Europe and the United States. The research has taken time to catch up. But we’re finally starting to get a better picture of the impact these incentive programs have on rewarding workers for the good performance of firms or teams.

First, a bit of history. Until the latter part of the 20th century, firms were organized in a top-down hierarchical fashion using production techniques that broke down job tasks into their smallest components — what came to be known as a Taylorist or Fordist method of production. Under these conditions, it made sense for firms to pay piece rates to incentivize workers. Why link financial incentives to groups, teams, or organizational performance when production wasn’t set up in that way? What if it risked enticing workers to “free-ride” on the efforts of more industrious coworkers?

But that began to change in the 1980s, most notably with the success of Japanese manufacturing multinationals such as Nissan, which brought in new systems characterized by team production. These workers had some autonomy to organize the pace, order, and timing of tasks, and they called for group incentives. If it was the collective performance of workers that improved productivity, it started making more sense to reward teams of workers, since it was the outcome of their collective performance that managers were monitoring.

Something else was going on at the same time: Many firms, especially blue-chip firms, wanted their workers to share in the company’s prosperity through profit sharing or coownership. They saw it as part of “stakeholder capitalism,” in which corporations started responding to the interests of workers and other stakeholders beyond investors. Government support for such ideas quickly followed. In France, profit sharing is compulsory for the largest firms. In other countries, including the UK and the U.S., tax breaks have helped support profit sharing and share ownership. For instance, individuals who become part of all-employee share ownership plans (ESOPs) are given tax breaks to own their company’s stock. The introduction of ESOPs changed the equation by giving employees a financial stake in their firm that came with voting rights and opportunities to participate in company governance.

All of this progress doesn’t answer some questions, however: Does shared capitalism actually work? And, more specific, does it boost productivity? To help answer this question, the National Bureau of Economic Research undertook a huge program of research with companies using such practices to try to understand why firms adopted them, what they expected from them, and what they got. The conclusion from this body of work, together with similar work conducted in the UK and elsewhere, is that such plans can and do work, often when combined with supportive management practices. This research found that three of the most prevailing concerns about the efficacy of team incentives were more myth than reality.

The first is the aforementioned “free-rider” problem. This turns out not to be such a big deal, primarily because participants tend to informally monitor their coworkers, enforcing reasonable levels of effort among the group. The second is the “line of sight” problem that arises when worker pay is linked to organizational performance: Why would workers focus on their tasks when the minutiae of what they do may seem to have little impact on the overall output of the firm? Although this sounds like a reasonable objection in principle, it doesn’t seem to be important in practice. Study after study shows that workers belonging to ESOPs and group-based pay schemes tend to identify more strongly with the firm than those on standard fixed-pay contracts, and they tend to work harder as a result.

The third is workers’ concerns about fluctuations in their earnings due to events that may have nothing to do with their effort, like the case of a substantial shock in the demand for a good or service. Although this seems like a reasonable concern, studies do not find much of an association between risk aversion and the propensity of workers to enter into shared capitalism.

In addition to debunking these myths, research points to some important motivations behind why group incentives work. For example, some forms of shared capitalism are viewed more as gift exchanges between the worker and the firm. In other words, the company offers something for free, such as shares, in anticipation of worker reciprocation in the form of additional effort. These feelings of reciprocity are often linked to perceptions of fairness and justice underpinning the exchange between labor and rewards, and they can generate organizational commitment and loyalty in a way that a simple bonus or raise cannot.

Our own recent research indicates that shared capitalism can also improve job satisfaction. This is the case even when controlling for the additional income a worker can derive from group incentive plans, suggesting that workers derive value from sharing ownership in their firm over and above the value they get from making additional money. The effect is partly related to the warm glow employees feel in response to the “gift” of free or discounted shares, and partly to the effect ESOPs have in dampening the “bad” aspects of a job. Importantly, individual performance-related pay plans do not have this positive well-being effect — they can incentivize through income, but they don’t affect worker well-being in the same way as shared capitalism programs.

While we’re learning a lot more about how group incentive programs work, there is still a lot we don’t know. For example, we don’t know whether it’s simply that “good” firms and “good” workers participate in shared capitalism, leaving open the possibility that it may not increase productivity everywhere. As our society seeks to build better ways to incentivize employees, economists and policy makers alike should spend more time and energy experimenting with shared capitalist incentive systems to further our understanding of what works and why.

For those lucky enough to find a career doing what they love, work is a daily joy that challenges the mind and stokes the flames of passion. But for too many, work can feel like a transactional necessity, a soul-crushing exchange of time, effort, and freedom for a paycheck.

68 percent of employees told us they didn’t feel engaged at work, a figure that’s held steady for well over a decade. But typically, when people join an organization, they’re excited and eager to dive in. So what grinds the honeymoon down and turns it into an ordeal?

A lot of people are saying, as soon as they get in, they feel the pressure to conform. To conform, many employees deliberately or unconsciously express emotions, offer opinions, or agree with ideas that appear popular, even if they’re not accurate reflections of their true selves. Or they may go along with prevailing notions and standards without questioning the status quo to seem like agreeable team players.

In the short term, fitting can seem appropriate, easing what can be an unnerving transition into a new environment. But tamping down individuality triggers feelings of inauthenticity. Over time, that can create anxiety that leaves people unenthusiastic and uncommitted to their jobs.

Ultimately, that can prove detrimental to employees and employers alike. Disengaged workers experience higher levels of boredom and stress, which can lead to burnout and greater staff turnover. Job performance also tends to suffer. Productivity, innovation, and creative thinking decline as complacency sets in and commitment to the company wanes, a distinct business disadvantage.

There are good reasons for why people do it, and yet we don’t realize that it’s costly. While most businesses say they want engaged workers or will hire new blood to bring fresh perspectives, few give more than lip service to the importance of creativity and fresh ideas. Leaders worry that if staff freely express themselves or are allowed to handle decisions or situations on their own, quality and other institutional standards may decline or productivity could lapse because workers will prioritize their own needs ahead of the organization’s.

Instead, it’s just the opposite. When you give people the opportunity to be who they are more often, rather than checking themselves at the door when they come into work in the morning, they actually bring out the best in themselves. Fighting conformity doesn’t require sweeping changes or moving people into new positions. Small wins are important. Tweak existing protocols and then test them to see if they deliver positive results. Often, the best way of driving big changes at the top is to have good evidence that small changes and a different approach toward work can have meaningful impact.

Other helpful interventions include:

  • Hiring for attitude and personal qualities, along with specific skills;
  • Asking employees to identify their strengths and then jointly determining how best to draw upon them;
  • Encouraging lively debate and challenges to assumptions without combativeness;
  • Modeling unconventional behavior that defies staff expectations;
  • Creating an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition;
  • Finding opportunities to let employees problem-solve and show their personalities.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but every industry and company can find ways to benefit from being flexible and nonconformist. The most successful organizations try to strike a thoughtful balance between freedom and structure, and executives or managers have clearly defined what’s fair game to tweak and what’s not.

Urging employees to be more authentic doesn’t mean lowering expectations, eliminating rules, or letting workers show up to the office in pajamas, she cautioned. You want people to be good in executing, but you also want people who … don’t take procedures and traditions for granted, but ask, ‘What if they were to be different?’ Because that’s what leads to innovation, and that is also what leads you to stay engaged.

Hungry organizations abound. Managers routinely overload their subordinates, contact them outside of business hours, and make last-minute requests for additional work. To satisfy those demands, employees arrive early, stay late, pull all-nighters, work weekends, and remain tied to their electronic devices 24/7. And those who are unable—or unwilling—to respond typically get penalized.

By operating in this way, organizations pressure employees to become what sociologists have called ideal workers: people totally dedicated to their jobs and always on call. The phenomenon is widespread in professional and managerial settings; it’s been documented in depth at tech start-ups, at investment banks, and in medical organizations. In such places, any suggestion of meaningful outside interests and commitments can signal a lack of fitness for the job.

To be ideal workers, people must choose, again and again, to prioritize their jobs ahead of other parts of their lives: their role as parents (actual or anticipated), their personal needs, and even their health. This reality is difficult to talk about, let alone challenge, because despite the well-documented personal and physical costs of these choices, an overwhelming number of people believe that achieving success requires them and those around them to conform to this ideal. That commonplace belief sometimes even causes people to resist well-planned organizational changes that could reduce the pressure to be available day and night. When Best Buy, for example, attempted to focus on results and avoid long work hours, some managers balked, holding tightly to the belief that selfless devotion to the job was necessary.

The pressure to be an ideal worker is well established, but how people cope with it—and with what consequences—is too often left unexplored. Is it beneficial to weave ideal-worker expectations into a company culture? Is it necessary, at an individual level, to meet those expectations? Interviews that we have conducted with hundreds of professionals in a variety of fields—including consulting, finance, architecture, entrepreneurship, journalism, and teaching—suggest that being an ideal worker is often neither necessary nor beneficial. A majority of employees—men and women, parents and nonparents—find it difficult to stifle other aspects of themselves and focus single-mindedly on work. They grapple painfully with how to manage other parts of their lives. The solutions they arrive at may allow them to navigate the stresses, but they often suffer serious and dysfunctional consequences.

Many people manage the pressure to be fully devoted to work by simply giving in and conforming. In their quest to succeed on the job, accepters prioritize their work identities and sacrifice or significantly suppress other meaningful aspects of who they are. When work is enjoyable and rewarding, an accepting strategy may be beneficial, allowing people to succeed and advance in their careers. But a professional identity that crowds out everything else makes people more vulnerable to career threats, because they have psychologically put all their eggs in one basket. When job loss or other setbacks occur, accepters find it particularly difficult to cope, as other parts of their lives have withered away. For accepters, treating work as the be-all and end-all may be fulfilling when the job is going well, but it leads to fragility in the long term.

Furthermore, people who buy in to the ideal-worker culture find it difficult to understand those who do not. As a result, accepters can become the main drivers of organizational pressure for round-the-clock availability. They tend to have trouble managing people who have lives outside the office.  Accepters aren’t necessarily good mentors even to people who are trying to conform to the organization’s expectations. It can be difficult for junior colleagues to get these individuals’ time and attention, in part because accepters are so absorbed in the job. They can no longer understand how unbelievably stressful it is to come in not knowing how to play the game. As a result, they often take a sink-or-swim approach to junior-colleague development.

The strategy employed by another group of workers is to devote time to nonwork activities—but under the organization’s radar. Passing is hiding personal characteristics that might stigmatize them and subject them to discrimination. Consultants who are successful in passing as ideal workers receive performance ratings that are just as high as those given to peers who genuinely embrace the 24/7 culture, and colleagues perceive them as being always on.

Although passing enables people to survive in demanding cultures without giving their all to work, passers pay a psychological price for hiding parts of themselves from their colleagues, superiors, and subordinates. Human beings have a need to express themselves and to be known by others. When important aspects of their identities cannot be shared at work, people may feel insecure and inauthentic—not to mention disengaged. These feelings have real costs for organizations, too: Our research indicates that over time, passers have a relatively high turnover rate. This suggests that although they may get by in the short term, hiding key dimensions of themselves from their colleagues can be difficult to sustain in the long run.

Passing as an ideal worker can also make it hard to manage others. Passers don’t necessarily want to encourage conformance to the ideal-worker image, but on the other hand, advising subordinates to pass—and effectively engage in subterfuge—is also problematic. So is suggesting open resistance to the demands for round-the-clock availability, because (as we shall see) the careers of people who resist are likely to suffer. To complicate matters further, passers may believe that most people in the organization want to work all the time. 

A subtly destructive aspect of passing is that by failing to openly challenge the ideal-worker culture, passers allow that culture to persist. Their track records prove that people don’t need to be workaholics to succeed—but the organization continues to design and measure work as if that were the case.

Not everyone wants to pass—or can—and some who initially pass grow frustrated with this strategy over time. Revealers cope by openly sharing other parts of their lives and by asking for changes to the structure of their work, such as reduced schedules and other formal accommodations. 

Revealing allows people the validation of being more fully known by colleagues, which is denied to the passers. However, it can have damaging career consequences. At the consulting firm, performance reviews and promotion data showed that revealers paid a substantial penalty. Over time, being sanctioned for failure to conform can lead to resentment. Instead of motivating people to devote themselves first and foremost to their work, it may cause them to leave the organization in search of a better fit.

The experience of revealing their nonwork commitments and being penalized for doing so can make it difficult for people to manage others. Like passers, revealers may struggle with encouraging their subordinates to accept ideal-worker pressures, but they may shy away from advising resistance because they know the costs firsthand.

People in leadership positions can avoid the fragility that results from blind acceptance of ideal-worker norms by deliberately cultivating their own nonwork identities: a civic self, an athletic self, a family-oriented self. One architect told us that when he defined himself solely in terms of his work, professional struggles and setbacks made him miserable. Ironically, as he broadened his focus, he found more professional fulfillment. As managers become more resilient, they may also learn that employees whose lives are better balanced create value for the organization.

Managers can start to change organizational norms by pointing out the positive things that employees’ outside activities bring to the workplace. One consultant whose firm had recently merged with another enterprise observed that none of his new colleagues ever stayed in the office past 5:30 PM. When he asked about this pattern, he was told: “We don’t want our folks to spend every waking minute at work; we want them to be well-rounded individuals, to be curious, to see things out in the world, and to have all kinds of different experiences that they can then bring to bear on their work.” People who pursue outside activities—volunteering in local politics, for example, or at a child’s school—are exposed to experiences, specialized knowledge, and networks that would be unavailable to them if they had spent that time holed up at the office.

Employees who choose a passing strategy do so in part because it’s common to evaluate how much people work (or seem to), rather than the quality of their output. This tendency is often reinforced by subtle and not-so-subtle beliefs and practices. For example, a senior consultant expressed his conviction that successful consultants must have the high-five factor: They’ve spent so much time on-site with the client that when they enter the client’s building, employees give them high fives.

Valuing work time over work product—which motivates people to deceive others about how many hours they’re clocking—is an easy trap to fall into, especially for professionals, whose knowledge-based work is difficult to evaluate.

Managers reduce the incentives for passing (and the costs of revealing) by encouraging people to focus on achieving their goals and measuring actual results rather than hours invested. For example, instead of celebrating a high-five factor based on time spent with the client, managers could praise employees for the quality of the advice provided or the number of repeat engagements secured. Managers can also move away from time-based rewards by working to set reasonable expectations with clients.

Most organizations leave it to their employees to set boundaries between their work and their nonwork lives—often with the best intentions. When Netflix offered unlimited time off, for example, managers thought they were treating their people like grown-ups. But providing complete freedom can heighten employees’ fears that their choices will signal a lack of commitment. Without clear direction, many employees simply default to the ideal-worker expectation, suppressing the need to live more-balanced lives.

Managers have the power to change this by flipping the script and actively protecting employees’ nonwork time and identities. They can, for example, institute required vacations, regular leaves, and reasonable work hours—for all employees, not just some. Making a firm commitment to avoid excessive workloads and extreme and unpredictable hours, rather than simply giving people the option to request downtime, will help them engage with other parts of their selves.

The pressure to be an ideal worker is at an all-time high, but so are the costs to both individuals and their employers. Moreover, the experiences of those who are able to pass as ideal workers suggest that superhuman dedication may not always be necessary for organizational success. By valuing all aspects of people’s identities, rewarding work output instead of work time, and taking steps to protect employees’ personal lives, leaders can begin to unravel the ideal-worker myth that has become woven into the fabric of their organizations. And that will enhance employees’ resilience, their creativity, and their satisfaction on the job.




Most of us are busy at work, busy in our social lives and – sometimes – too busy to even get a good night’s sleep. The amount of sleep the average person logs each night has been steadily decreasing over the past century, with the average American now getting just six-and-a-half hours sleep a night during a typical five-day work week. Chances are that you fall into this average, and find yourself feeling stressed at least some of the time as a direct result of the pressures of time and the amount you have to do.

48% of Americans say stress has a negative impact on both their personal and professional lives. Additionally, 42% admit to not doing enough to manage their stress, while a worrying 20% of Americans say they never engage in activity to help relieve the stress they experience. However, studies show that taking just 15 minutes each day to mindfully meditate can help subdue rising stress and anxiety, and the good news is that it’s easy enough to practice it at work.

Maybe you think that you absolutely don’t have time to meditate at work, or maybe you’re sceptic of the benefits of mindfully meditating for such a short space of time in the midst of your busy office environment. But, no matter how busy you are, making time for meditation will have a positive impact on both your productivity levels and your happiness. You can begin by practicing the art of mindful drinking with your water, before learning how to complete a ten-minute body scan at your desk, which is designed to enable you to effectively get in touch with your body, let go of demands, and release pent-up emotions.

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