It’s not a Culture Problem

Around this time of year I remember this article that I read in the Financial Times back in 2018.

It’s all about how to “switch off” from work when you’re on holiday, and I was both surprised and dismayed to find how many people “switch off” from work by either working a little bit every day, or by cutting their holiday short in order to clear their email before they were due back in the office.

The thing is, if you’re working every day while you’re on holiday, even for a little bit, then you’re not really on holiday; and if you come home from holiday early so that you can start work a day before you’re due to come back, then you’re not on holiday either.

Now, most people will blame the culture of their company for this kind of behaviour; they will say something about expectations and use phrases like “fast moving”, and words like “critical” or “central” to describe their role or their team.

They are lying. To themselves and to you. These are excuses.

We Are All Responsible for the Culture

The office that I work in (worked in), has a gym; the gym is open all day every day and yet at 10am and 2pm every day it is empty. Empty.

Except for me.

Why is it empty? Because when you get up at 10am and throw your gym bag over your shoulder the people around your mutter and tut and murmur. So you have a choice.

You could stop going at those times and instead go only before or after work, like everyone else, and you could have a poor workout because the gym is packed, and you could tut at the next person who tries to go to the gym at 10am because that’s not how we do things around here.

Or you could go to the gym anyway, because it’s open all day for a reason and because there is a mountain of evidence that says you’ll be more productive for the rest of the day after the awesome workout that you’re going to have an in empty gym; and you might even set an example for positive cultural change.

Most people don’t do the second one though, because it’s way harder to try to set culture than it is to just go with it. Instead they do the first one, they go with the flow and become of the people tutting and murmuring about how it would be nice to have the time to go to the gym, or leave on time, or not reply to email while they’re on holiday.

They abdicate their responsibility for setting a positive culture, they lazily adhere to the status quo. Setting culture is the responsibility of the individual, of each of us, so culture isn’t the problem.

So What Is the Problem?

If setting culture is the responsibility of the individual, and the culture is not where you want it to be, then what do you think the problem is?

That’s right, it’s you.

Two things, specifically:

  1. Ego – Our ego tells us that the whole place will fall apart if we take so much as a couple of days off. It tells us that our colleagues and employees couldn’t possibly cope for a couple of days without us. It tells us that we are indispensable, critical, central. That if we don’t dial into that meeting or get involved in that email chain then everything will come to pieces. How sad.
  2. Self Discipline – Or rather, lack of. It is self discipline that allows us to leave Outlook closed on our phone, or to not look at or respond to an email should we open it. It is self discipline that allows us to not reply to that message, or join that call, or think about work. At all.

So What Can We Do About Ego?

I once had a call set up with an Engineering Director at a production site for a company I worked for. This Director had been on the site for 20 years, he knew every building, every machine, every nut and every bolt. He understood not just how these things worked, but why, he knew everything about the whole place. He was central to the operation, he was critical.

He was killed in a canoeing accident over the weekend before I was due to speak to him.

Did everything stop? Did everything fall apart? Did the business come to a crashing halt?


In fact, I had a call with one of his team about 10 days later, and the project went ahead as scheduled.

This was all tragic, but the lesson that I took from the whole thing was that you are not as important as you think you are. If you were suddenly unable to answer emails or phone calls, if you fell off of the planet, then your company would go on without you, the world would keep turning. Sorry.

But how can you apply this lesson to your life, without dying?

It’s natural to want to believe that you are the centre of the world, that you are, in fact just that important, that the sky will absolutely fall in if you don’t personally reply to that email right now.

The first step is admitting the problem, telling yourself that you are, in fact, not that important, and that if you took two weeks off without replying to a single mail, or taking part in a single call, then everything would be just fine.

This is humility, this is the antithesis of ego, and this is what you must start to practice. You can start today, you can start right now; say it in your head, say it out loud, “I am not as important as I think I am.”, let it be a mantra.

It is only with the quiet, self assured confidence of humility that we can let go of ego, and allow our colleagues the space to excel without us.

OK, So What About Self Discipline?

Like Ego, there is no quick fix for Self Discipline. It is a muscle that you must build over time, no one is born with it, everyone has to put in the work to build it.

Discipline can be summarised as choosing between what you want now, and what you want most.

So when you’re looking at your phone and you can see the number of unread emails ticking up, you are faced with the choice:

  1. Open the email app and read / respond to the mails, satisfying your ego that you are riding to the rescue and that you are, indeed, indispensable; and giving yourself the short term dopamine hit of getting something done, while setting an expectation that you are going to keep working while you’re on vacation, and setting yourself up to keep working while you’re supposed to be away.
  2. Leave it well alone, and sacrifice the short term hit of satisfying your ego for the long term comfort that those around you will know that when you’re on vacation, you’re on vacation; while setting yourself up to enjoy the peace of mind that comes with actual time away from work.

Which will you choose?

There are things that we can do to help us along with this though, I get that saying “Just stop looking at it.”, isn’t much help.

The essential thing is to put obstacles in the way, and put checking your email or your IMs just above what I like to call the “Pain in the Ass Threshold”.

  • Turn off Notifications – if your phone goes ping and a little message comes up on screen every time you receive and email or a teams chat when you’re on holiday, then you don’t stand a chance. I wouldn’t even stand a chance, turn the notifications off. You can do this in the individual apps, or you can do it in your phones settings.
  • Sign out of your work accounts – if you have both your work and your personal accounts in the same app on your devices (i.e. Outlook), then sign out of the work accounts temporarily, you can sign in again when you’re back. Signing out means no work notifications, but it does mean remembering to sign back in.
  • Remove the Apps Altogether – If the two above just see you signing in and checking the app every 5 minutes to see what’s happening, then you haven’t gained anything. If it comes to it, remove the app entirely, you can add it back later from the App Store, and yes, if you only have one phone and it’s supplied by your work you can still do this, you’re on vacation.

Discipline needs to be built over time, you might start with one of the more extreme options and move closer to a less extreme option as you get more comfortable with the idea of being disconnected from the office and with letting your colleagues getting on with their jobs without you.

It’s About You.

Switching off is about you, if you want to switch off then you can; and if your colleagues don’t want to then they wont, but you don’t have to do what they do, you don’t have to stay hooked in throughout your vacation just because they are, things will be just fine without you, take a break, you’ll be better for it.

After all, you’re not that important anyway.

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