High tech CEOs are famous for working long hours and for demanding the same of their employees. Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, for example, recently endorsed a six-day, 9am to 9pm workweek (aka 996), rhetorically asking "how do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?" Similarly, Tesla CEO Elon Musk famously remarked about working at Tesla that "there are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week."
While it's obviously true that CEOs benefit financially (at least at first) when employees work longer hours for the same amount of pay, Ma and Musk are no doubt aware of the substantial research showing that happy employees are more creative, more resilient and ultimately get more done.
Unfortunately, Ma and Musk are using extrinsic motivation to create the illusion of intrinsic motivation. This is an important point, so allow me to explain further.
Based on peer-reviewed research, most psychologists have identified two basic types of motivation: 1) intrinsic and 2) extrinsic. As the Wiley Encyclopedia of Management explains:
"Intrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something for its own sake, for the sheer enjoyment of a task. Extrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something in order to attain some external goal or meet some externally imposed constraint.
Intrinsic motivation is more powerful, and has better outcomes, than extrinsic motivation. intrinsic motivation was uniformly associated with positive employee outcomes, extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, was negatively related or unrelated to positive outcomes," according to the Journal of Economic Psychology.
Ma and Musk, who are intrinsically motivated, naturally want to work long hours doing what they enjoy the most. Ideally, they'd like their employees to feel the same way, As Ma put it: "If we find things we like, 996 is not a problem.... If you don't like [your work], every minute is torture."
Unfortunately, in real life and real business, intrinsic motivation, and the ability to pursue what interests you, is a luxury that few can afford. CEOs and other high-level professionals have the freedom to pursue those aspects of work that they find enjoyable while farming out the tasks they find unpleasant.
Musk, for example, in addition to being Tesla's CEO, spends time on SpaceX, presumably because he enjoys launching rockets as much (or more) than building cars. He has the privilege to indulge himself, unlike his employees. Very few employers would tolerate an employee who kept breaking away from his job in order to run a completely company on the side.
Moreover, CEOs and high-level professionals have expensive support systems that allow them to have families and deal with other aspects of life. Musk and Ma, for example, do not need to choose between staying with a sick child and attending an important meeting, or choose between working 12 hours and finding time to prepare healthy meals. Ma and Musk may have work-life balance issues, but they're a matter of choice. For employees with fewer resources, achieving work-life balance is impossible when your job demands a "996" commitment.
When CEOs promote themselves as role models that work long hours, they force their employees to pretend to be intrinsically motivated and therefore happy to work long hours. In fact, however, regular employees lack the freedom to choose the type of work that might make them happy and delegate the work that doesn't. Similarly, regular employees lack a support system that would allow them to pursue their intrinsic motivations without having to cope the distractions of daily life.
Regular employees feel pressured to work as if they were intrinsically motivated (and thus happy with long hours) without the freedom required to actually become intrinsically motivated. That pressure (expressed by CEOs holding themselves up as role models) create an extrinsic motivation to work long hours. And extrinsic motivation creates dissatisfaction, burnout and productivity loss.
If CEOs like Ma and Musk truly want their employees to be more creative, flexible, and productive (i.e. intrinsically motivated), they should stop holding themselves up as role models and instead focus on 1) ceding employees maximum control over their work assignments and 2) creating support systems, like in-house day-care, that will allow employees the freedom required to become intrinsically motivated.
Jack and Elon should stop pressuring their employees to work long hours and instead help them find jobs that suit their interests and provide the support they need in order to work long hours without sacrificing their normal human desire to have family and friends. In other words, put your money where your mouth is.