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Why work-life balance is such a dicey subject

Work LIfe BalanceIn our client work, the issue of work-life balance comes up frequently. The subject often carries with it a significant amount of emotion and is usually raised by people who feel they aren’t achieving anything close to it. But if there are two people in the room, there are probably two different definitions, and therein lies the challenge.

Now let me say up front I’m not talking here about people who work 3 jobs to get by, or have unfair and inhumane work requirements pressed on them by employers or by the challenging injustice of the economic system in many places in our society and world. These are extreme or pathological circumstances – and that’s clear to most people. But that’s for another blog.

What I’m addressing here is an environment in which knowledge workers or professionals, on salary, are working in a fluid or flexible environment in which their working hours are not routinely set by their employer. In other words, I’m talking about the circumstances of millions, in which they have to decide, using their own best judgement, how much they can and should work to meet the requirements of their job, or to meet their own standards of performance, or to adhere to their organization’s cultural norms about what constitutes an appropriate work commitment.

And I guess I’d like to add here that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with working long hours in an environment in which one has the opportunity – or obligation – to manage or set their own work hours. To say there’s a psychopathy among people who work long hours isn’t fair. While in some cases it might be true that working long hours is an indication of something wrong, or missing, in a person’s life, it doesn’t necessarily follow. I’ve known plenty of well-adjusted people, including myself, who’ve chosen at times in their career to work very hard, long hours. It may just be that the person loves their work, or is particularly engaged in the current project, or loves being where the action is.

The problem with work-life balance in these environments is that it’s a subjective concept at best and almost meaningless to many workers. Each person in an organization has a different set of personal and professional circumstances, judgements, and perceptions, and because of this I often see the discussion of work-life balance devolving into one person’s judgment of another, about what it “should” be.

For many people, work IS the balance point on which rests their self-identity, their interests, their passion, or their life energy. For them, putting in long hours is nothing more than doing what they enjoy the most. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to judge a person for loving what they do, or for not having something else they want to do more. In many organizations there is conflict between those who do and those who don’t put in the long hours. This often results in judgments that pit one person against another: you should be putting in longer hours like I do, or conversely you need to get a life so you don’t spend so much of it at work – and besides you’re making me look bad by comparison.

What does make sense is to deepen the dialog in your organization about work-life balance, and to honestly address these questions:

  1. What are the perceived cultural norms in your organization about what constitutes an appropriate time commitment to your job?
  2. How can we prevent an uneven playing field? In other words, what do we do, if anything, about the fact that some people just can work more than others because of their personal circumstances. How do we prevent assessing a penalty for those great employees who can’t or won’t put in the same long hours as some of their peers?
  3. If we declare work-life balance to be a corporate value, (and I believe most would), what does that really mean in actual terms? Should we have guidelines that result in shooing people out the door, or preventing them from sending emails after hours, or from working from home? Should we be telling people who want to work long hours that that can’t, or shouldn’t?

And while it’s healthy to ask these questions in an open forum, don’t expect easy answers to come from asking them. There are many, many layers to this conversation, arising from broader social issues, cultural norms outside your organization’s 4 walls, and the fundamental differences in people’s attitudes towards work-life balance. Please don’t work your people to death, or let them work themselves to death. But don’t presume everyone who puts in the long hours does so under duress or due to some perceived imbalance in their personal lives.

Does Your Business Have a Split Personality?

Business PersonalityMost companies are pretty good at serving their customers. Yes, there it is, I’ve said it. We all have war stories about bad service here and there, but generally I see most companies as being pretty good at meeting their customer’s needs. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t see them around – the companies we deal with on a regular basis are the ones who are good enough to have lasted.

This customer service mentality is the side of the business personality that looks outward, toward the customer. It’s the side that takes pride in meeting customer expectations, in being highly accountable to promises made, answering customer calls on the first ring, showing appreciation, admitting when things didn’t go well and making them right, and in general being engaged with the idea of creating a good customer experience. This is the side of the business personality that measures everything about the customer experience, conducts focus groups, and obsesses about what’s being said about it on social media.

However, many companies – maybe yours – have a decidedly split personality. When facing outward, toward the customer, deadlines are met, projects are managed carefully, emails and phone calls are promptly returned. But this same business, when facing inward, towards one another, consistently misses deadlines, fails to respond, and lets things slide in a way that no paying customer would ever accept.

There is a ready defense for this behavior.  It’s the paying customer after all who pays the bills. Without them the business would quickly fail. On the other hand, if we blow off a meeting with a co-worker, treat them disrespectfully, or simply ignore their requests for help, we’ll probably be OK – at least for a while. The paying customer always comes first, doesn’t she?

Do a thought experiment: Look at the way your business operates inwardly, and see if it matches how it operates outwardly. Do you tolerate behaviors and habits with one another that your customers would fire you for if you pointed these same behaviors toward them? Would a customer be OK with you failing to show up for a meeting, failing to meet a specific time commitment, ignoring a phone call or email, or glaring at them with disgust when you were having a bad day? Why would this behavior be OK on the inside when it’s not OK on the outside?

Serving one another as customers inside the business is more than just an empty gesture. How we serve one another inside carries over to the outside. And, it just makes your business a lot better place to work. Next time you see behavior inside your company that would alienate a paying customer, call it out. Talk about it. Ask if this behavior would be acceptable with a paying customer. If it wouldn’t fly facing outside it shouldn’t fly facing inside.

What do you mean – ‘accountable’?

Questions from the Real World:  February, 2011


Slamming the Open-Door Policy

Questions from the Real World:  January, 2011


Speaking Up

I’ve spoken recently with several women who’ve posed a form of these questions:

“Why do I have such a hard time speaking up?”

“Why do I so often (more…)

Tears in the workplace

Questions from the Real World:  December, 2010


When my boss shows up late

Questions from the Real World:  November, 2010


Toughest part of leadership

I surfed the ‘net today looking for answers to this question:

“What is the toughest aspect of leadership?”

Not surprisingly, I found a lot of answers.  Examples: (more…)

Choosing Not to Act from Ego

“My ego doesn’t get in the way.”

Know anyone who says that?  Chances are their ego is the size of a small planet.  They might genuinely believe they have no ego (which makes it worse), (more…)

Telling Your Truth – Effectively

We don’t tell the truth anywhere near enough in our culture.  (That was the gist of my last post.)  And yet sometimes, telling the truth does more harm than good. (more…)

Afraid to Tell the Truth

We are afraid to tell each other the truth.

It’s a freaking cultural norm.   And it’s ruining our relationships and our organizations.


The Leader As Psychologist

“I just want to run a business. Do I have to be a psychologist, too?”

Yes you do.

How can you expect to run a business effectively without (more…)

Emotions in the Workplace

Your employees should leave their emotions at home, right?


Sure, emotions can be messy, intrusive, and challenging to deal with.  (more…)

Sink or Swim Often Means Sink

Remember The Peter Principle?

If you’re at least as old as I am, you’ll probably recall the splash it made when it hit #1, 40 years ago.  The book became a cultural phenomenon.  Its message, (more…)

If You Believe In It, Sell It

Most leaders don’t get the importance of effective salesmanship — inside their organization.

Recently, we’ve been working with a group of managers (more…)

Time to retire the carrot and stick

School teachers and administrators are cheating to gin up the scores of their students on standardized tests.  So reported the New York Times last week.

The reaction to this story (more…)

Sustaining the Motivation to Excel

I got pushback yesterday on a presentation I did on motivation.  I was challenging sacred cows, and a number of the business people present didn’t like it.

My central message:  (more…)

Breaking Down Walls

It amazes me how often leaders fail to act on an important issue if it requires them to engage those outside their immediate area of responsibility.

You’ve probably heard (more…)

The Power of Listening

If you’ve ever attended a management training, you’ve been told you have to listen well if you want to manage well. Still, it’s one of the hardest things for leaders to do. After all, our leadership culture (more…)

Perils of the End of Recession

The recession ain’t all bad.  For one thing, your employees are a captive audience.  Not many other options out there for them.

But with the recession ending, (more…)