The Idealist And The Pragmatist

MANY YEARS AGO, as a somewhat demanding young history teacher, I was often accused by parents of working their children too hard. The complaint was always the same – the child had spent too many hours preparing for a history test, to the detriment of other subjects, and had failed the test anyway. My response was also always the same. Sitting at a desk for five hours does not equate to studying history for five hours. The learning required thirty minutes of honest effort – if it took less, it was a good thing; if it required more time, that was just how life goes, and on-going effort would improve the child’s learning efficiency.

The important point was that the quality of the work was the key, not the time it took to complete it. Remarkably, this principle is largely ignored in the world of business.

Encouraging managers, as I do, to come to grips with resourcing issues, in order to take their teams beyond the stress and frustration of overwork and underwork, mistakes and missed deadlines, demoralization and disengagement, has prompted some to accuse me of idealism. And, of course, they mean idealism of the worst possible kind – that of the academic observer, detached from the down and dirty reality of the coalface.

Apart from the fact that I have long experience of shedding blood, sweat, and tears at the coalface, in many different endeavors, I find the charge ill-conceived and, frankly, laughable. Calling someone an idealist because he or she believes that resourcing issues can and must be resolved is a fallacious argument, on two counts.

First, it is a less than subtle ad hominem attack on the messenger that attempts to deflect the need for an honest response to the message. Secondly, it is a poorly disguised petitio principii, the fallacy of begging the question – whether the timely resolution of resourcing issues is a practical requirement of a business leader is precisely the question that needs to be debated, and to disdainfully label the affirmative answer as idealistic is to take as your conclusion something that still needs to be logically demonstrated.

The issue of excessive hours has become endemic in the workplace, and is emblematic of the leadership woes woven through business today. Anyone remember Parkinson’s Law?

Consider a multinational advertising agency where working into the night is de rigueur, even though a substantial proportion of the people concerned are plainly under-worked. Or a young entrepreneur whose brilliant innovation in restaurant marketing was developed in conjunction with a few hard-working assistants, who she is now working to death as the rapid growth of the business befogs the creativity that gave birth to it. Or the irony of frontline healthcare workers having their own health destroyed by excessive hours and the attendant problems of sleep-deprivation, dietary deficiencies, and relationship dysfunction.

Examples abound, but the circumstances behind the excessive hours worked in each case are frequently very different – remember, excessive hours do not necessarily equate to hard work or efficient productivity. Busyness, the scourge of this age of total work, is notoriously deceptive because it is mostly misguided, unstructured, and uncoordinated.

An ingrained inability in any business to get through its workload within standard working hours (we are not concerned here with the perfectly understandable occasional need for overtime) is indicative of a management failure to optimize productivity. The need for employees to put in extra hours might be the result of any number of factors, and it is the responsibility of the manager to fix the defect.

Excessive hours might be caused by poor organization and workflow, incompetence, or lack of motivation, by poor teamwork or a lack of appropriate training. Further possibilities would be equipment issues, inaccurate benchmarking, duplication of effort, or strategic confusion relating to recruitment. The possibilities are endless – over-qualified people lacking a sense of challenge, boredom with routine, lack of adequate supervision, insufficient delegation and empowerment, or just plain laziness. Of course, it might even be the result of a downsized team saddled with unrestructured productivity expectations.

The fact that the advent of information technology and the Brave New World of people analytics has done little to resolve the resourcing issues that afflict so many workplaces is explained by three factors that will not be readily overcome.

First, Big Data practices invariably subvert morale and promote disengagement. Secondly, equipping managers with the knowledge of psychology necessary to understand the data and ask insightful questions will be a gargantuan undertaking, with no guarantee that they will be appropriately inclined to apply what they learn anyway. That last point feeds into the third factor, office politics – personality conflicts, power games, and just plain old human perversity will never be subdued by technology and new organizational systems. The human condition defies quantification, and managing it requires empathy and wisdom.

There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that very respectable studies have shown that reducing time spent in the workplace can produce significant gains in productivity. In most western countries longer hours are often equated with increased productivity and a proper work ethic, but the high-performing German model, with its 35-hour average working week and 24-day average paid vacation days, makes nonsense of the claim.

It seems that all too often the accusation of idealism is simply a cheap mask for a cynical refusal to address reality – hardly an example of sober-minded pragmatism. Tragically, it has become very tempting for executives under pressure to make the numbers look good; they know they are operating in a market where job security is a distant memory, and people are easily exploited. But running people into the ground while pretending you are intent on building efficiency is an unconscionable lie, destructive not only of employees and their families, and therefore the community, but also of your business and the very credibility of free market capitalism as a viable socio-economic concept.

Moreover, this elemental deceit sullying everything the company does will inevitably affect the reliability of the metrics the business world hopes will root out inefficiency once and for all.

The inescapable reality is, if you don’t have time to reflect on the reasons for the excessive hours your people are working, there’s something wrong. If you don’t have the time to feel a sincere concern for the damage being done in the lives of your people, there’s something wrong. If you don’t have time to have constructive team meetings to identify issues and brainstorm solutions, there’s something wrong. If you don’t have time to go one on one with people, giving and receiving feedback, there’s something wrong.

And if there’s something wrong, and you just let it go on doing damage, it’s pretty clear that you are not leading effectively. So just who is the idealist and who is the pragmatist?

It’s hard not to agree with the Forbes Magazine contributor who said: “I can think of no time in modern history where employees feel less valued and trusted.” It’s high time managers started putting people before process, and long-term performance ahead of short-term profits.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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  1. Once a smart manager told me a phrase that should end up in the manuals of management: “You see, if the people here are holding regularly late, there are two cases: either I share bad the workloads for which there is some who has too much to do and someone else who has too little to do, or I took too many idiots who are not able to carry out their work in the normal hours. Either way, the fault would be mine.”
    Perhaps, rather than idealism and pragmatism, it is appropriate to limit yourself to “common sense” !!

    • You make very good points Aldo, but it is still important to address people in terms of the concepts that are current.

    • I appreciate you have taken the time to read my comment and I totally agree on the need to share the experience and knowledge especially on topics for which there is a superficial approach or even are overlooked by the majority of operators in a sector then, the business one, which is undergoing rapid changes, not only technological, but also organizational and behavioral.
      Thank You!