Yang: Work Is Part Of Life…

Los Alamos

Work Is Part of Life: It’s about merging them, not balancing them on a zero-sum scale

Most of us wear the “professional suit” when we are at work; letting our hair down is for when we are at home and/or play. That means that at work, we put certain constraints on who we are, how we behave, what we say and how we choose our words.  

There is logic to such bounded approach to work, but when we feel as if we have to suppress part of our personality at work, then all manners of illness may be manifested. I am not sure I like the phrase “balancing between work and life/family;” it’s that either-or dichotomy that can give us heartburn.

If we feel happier and seem to be more productive outside our work, why don’t we also want that feeling at work? I think it’s healthier if we ask how to allow our lives to better inform our work and how to enhance our overall lives by our work.

Former Southwest Airlines executive vice president, Libby Sartain, told some stories of the early stage of her career where she was repeatedly “advised” to “tone down” her laughter. When she was working for Mary Kay, her (presumably well-meaning) boss said as much: while it was “fun” to work with her, her laughter diminished her “professional” conduct.  Refusing to be not herself, eventually she found a home at Southwest where her enthusiasm and “infectious laugh” were welcomed and embraced, and she was successful at what she did. 

Conversely, bosses who exhibit “tough” attitudes or borderline abusive behavior are often lauded by business magazines and newspapers. Former CEO of Sunbeam Al Dunlap was noted for his toughness, but in reality, he was essentially a bully. He was eventually fired, not for his abusive behavior but for accounting fraud; perhaps he shouldn’t have been hired in the first place?! 

Similarly, Richard Grasso, former chairman of New York Stock Exchange, would lash out at subordinates who didn’t meet his exacting standards. He would dress down the “offending” party in public so aggressively that his face would be flushed. And he was the person in the scandalous $140 million retirement package. And no, such behavior isn’t the prerogative of male bosses; many female managers have earned similar disrepute. 

Why is it that the kind of behavior we would encourage in our families gets a poor reception at work, while abusive behavior we’d never tolerate in our beloved ones gets accepted and even praised in our workplaces? Something is seriously wrong with our working and organizational cultures. Furthermore, while organizations like to keep fairly tight control over the boundary between work and the rest of our lives, they have no qualms of suggesting, strongly requesting, or downright demanding that we devote more time on our jobs while studiously ignoring other aspects of our lives. And we all put up with it. 

To be fair, once upon a time, employers were very much part of our lives, but that was before the industrial revolution when most employers had limited numbers of people working for them. It was a more family-like atmosphere then, admittedly not totally without some negative impact. As corporations sprouted, and organizations grew bigger, issues of control and managing boundaries crept in. Employees, too, wanted companies and managers to intrude less into their private lives. Finding a happy medium hasn’t been very easy, harder in some cultures than in others: Asian cultures tend to be more comfortable with porous work/life boundaries than most Anglo-Saxon cultures. 

Certainly, there are good cases to be made for observing a clear boundary between work and the rest of life. For one, it makes everyone’s life a little easier. If we carried all the worries and demands from our homes into our working hours, we’d be distracted, lose our productivity, feel exhausted, and drive up health care costs, to name just a few negative impacts. 

However, for organizations to not acknowledge that non-working life is just as precious as worklife is tantamount to burying their collective heads in the proverbial sand. If a child is sick, an aging parent needs immediate attention, a partner has relationship issues, or any important life aspects are out of kilter, we are bound to be distracted. So, here is a paradox: By rigidly separating family role from employee role, organizations have unintentionally exacerbated our internal conflicts. Those organizations that are more enlightened by providing, say, on-site child care or infirmaries for sick family members, actually help employees better manage their internal boundary caused by conflicting roles. 

Patagonia products are very pricey; the nickname “Pata-Gucci” isn’t unfounded. However, they do know how to treat their employees well, and well-treated employees do help raise productivity. At their HQ in California, there is a room full of sports equipment such as bicycles and surfboards, and people can take any one out on lunch breaks. On days with great waves, they can get off work early and make up the time on other days. Not surprisingly, Patagonia provides on-site childcare facilities. 

I don’t buy their products often but am perfectly willing to pay full price to support their organizational priorities. Similarly, I go to Costco only a few times a year, but I am happy to support them because their CEO doesn’t rake in millions of dollars in salary, and the company treats its employees well, with good benefits. 

Other reasons why we should observe some boundary between personal and organizational life include minimizing nepotism, practicing objective decision-making, minimizing use of company time and resources for personal matters. Of course, all these concerns are still present in most organizations. We still help recruit friends and sometimes relatives to our organizations. We occasionally exchange emails on non-business matters.

And let’s not forget cyber purchases on the Monday after Thanksgiving and other post-holiday sales. So, this implies that as long as human beings need to work together, some of these artificial boundaries are going to be broken. The goal isn’t to eliminate all potential boundary-breaches (you can’t anyway, remember the third law of thermodynamics); the goal is to manage them smartly.

Allow me a bit of psychological speculation. I think the Cyber Monday is a small defiant gesture on employees’ part against the mounting tensions and frustrations in their organizational lives. Wise management should overlook a few hours of “protest” as a relatively harmless method of venting frustration. Choking off such a minor outlet can potentially lead to much worse blow-offs down the road. On the other hand, an employee exchanging 537 personal emails in a 3-day period is definitely a breach of contract, which deserves some form of warning or disciplinary act.

So, the real issue of the balancing act should be more about how to let people be themselves while maintaining some respect for the boundary between organizational and personal lives. A good starting point may be to encourage the kind of behaviors that we teach our children, and conversely, to not tolerate behaviors at work that we would reject elsewhere. I can almost hear some bully-type arguing that “this is how they are.” 

So how many of us come into this world thinking that someday when we get to be bosses, we are going to yell at people, threaten them, and blackmail them? “Be ourselves” means to uphold our interests, passions, worldviews, ways of thinking, preferred working styles, etc. Manners are taught and therefore can be learned and relearned. I’ve encountered too many managers who definitely need to be sent back to finishing school every so often. Perhaps, instead of attending some “leadership institute” they should be given a basic course prescribed by Ms. Manner. It wouldn’t hurt (except perhaps their egos). 

Today’s topic was inspired by a chapter from the book, “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense: Profiting from evidence-based management,” by Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton. The column is a little lengthier than usual … so that I don’t feel too bad to take next week off. Till Oct. 19.

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.