Why giving 100% is a faulty ideal

Why giving 100% is a faulty ideal

Saying workers are not fully engaged at work may be today’s politically correct way for managers to complain that their workers are not giving 100% at work.

Well maybe that’s an unreasonable expectation. You wouldn’t expect an athlete to maintain her top speed for very long, and no engineer would think it’s a good idea to run engines at 100% 24/7. Why would we expect workers to, and

what does ‘giving 100% at work’ mean anyway?

The vagueness of this complaint also stands out. Whenever I’ve heard it, the manager is either talking about commitment, and/or productivity, and it’s telling that no manager can quantify what percentage they do get which implies they wouldn’t know if they were getting 100%.

Instead, they cite indicators like bad attitude, excessive sick days, time spent on social media, low output etc. I suspect managers also complain because they sense that, hidden behind all the slow or sub-standard work, is a giant middle finger directed at them.

middle finger photo
Photo by quinn.anya

Watching TV instead of working

I used to complain about not getting 100% as well. I remember when we hired a guy to do some work around the house and I happened to witness him stop in one of his travels back and forth through the living room, to watch something on TV. To my astonishment, he then sat down on the edge of a nearby chair and continued watching.

What stands out for me now, is not that he stopped to watch TV, but to my visceral objection: I felt intense irritation at—what seemed to me—this man’s blatant abandonment of his duties. Lucky for me I didn’t say anything; instead choosing to see how long he would sit and watch. Turns out he did not sit for long. He merely saw something interesting and sat for maybe two minutes to watch it through, and then got up and went back to work.

As far as I know he didn’t stop to watch any more TV for the rest of the day, but my reaction showed how deeply this management expectation of non-stop machine-like labour affected me as well.

Why should it matter that he stopped working to watch something interesting on TV? Why was I almost compelled to get this guy back to work? Don’t I often stop what I’m doing to read email, watch a video, or to follow some interesting notification that flashes across my screen? All that matters is he got the job done and he did it well. And wasn’t that the point?

Cracking the whip

What would have happened if I had intervened, stepped in between and blocked his view, turned the TV off and reprimanded him for slacking off? I didn’t, but such scenarios play out perhaps millions of times everyday throughout the world when bosses object to excessive coffee/smoking/bathroom breaks, Facebooking, Twittering, etc., with reprimands and new restrictive office policies. The modern-day version of a slave master “cracking the whip” the second labour’s attention wavers from the job.

The consequence

In my example, if I had “cracked the whip” the guy would likely still have gotten the job done, but I would have broken something:trust, and it would have made him associate work, at least working with me, as joyless.


He would have understood I didn’t trust him to manage how he got the job done.

Reprimanding him for a moment’s distraction, or taking time to regenerate would have communicated that I didn’t trust either his commitment to the job, or his ability to manage his own time. He would have felt insulted and worked with far less passion.

This would likely mark the beginning of the resistance and manifest the very behaviour I was objecting against.

Work as the opposite of play

Cracking the whip would have taught him to get no enjoyment from his work; he could take no time to indulge a distraction or be trusted to know when to stop. He would have understood he was expected to work like a machine.

If I had “cracked the whip” and that experience was rare, then this guy might have made these negative associations only with me, but if his experience was common and most employers “cracked the whip” routinely, then it would become a cultural association where employers believe workers can’t be trusted and workers expect to be treated as untrustworthy, and act to suit.

This would partly explain entire societies driven by negative associations of work; trapped in a vicious cycle of managers communicating mistrust with “necessary” policing and policies to ensure maximum output, and workers reacting in ways that prove those policies and policing necessary.

People behave the way they are treated.

Where this 100% expectation comes from

The industrial revolution, by making the movers of capital appreciate machines as the ideal form of labour—no holidays, sick days, parental leave, lawsuits etc. while approaching true 24/7 year round production—may be most responsible for the pressure on workers to give 100%.

Human being aren’t machines, and work is not about productivity

But human beings aren’t machines and can’t work like them. We need work to be about more than output and profit for employers and living wages for employees.

Work is not about getting every second of time, every gram of attention, every fibre of body from the people who do it.

Work is about helping the people it affects, and providing meaning and purpose to the people who do it. If we play our cards right, technology won’t take our jobs, but allow us to choose work we want to do.

Automation and technology can free us from working to earn a living, or surviving, and allow us to define what we will do for work. I’m betting we’ll stop worrying about giving or getting 100% and start focussing on creating and experiencing cool stuff that enriches our lives.

If we play our cards right.

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.