The Challenge of Work-Life Hubris

Is it undermining your organizational success?Work-life balance.  A key driver of employee engagement.  An attractive aspect of organizational culture.  A recruiting selling point.  A sign of organizational priorities well aligned.  But is it all that?

Nearly two years ago, I posted an article espousing work-passion balance as an alternative perspective to work-life.  In it, I posited that if one is passionate about the work you’re doing, it pervades all aspects of life, adding to the value of one’s experiences and not being a detractor at all.

Let’s take a look at this issue a little more closely….

The Challenge with Work-Life Hubris

In a past life, I worked for a major corporation that prided itself for its flexible work environment.  Work-life balance consistently was touted (by the company and employees alike) as a major plus of working there.  And indeed it was.  For a family-friendly organization, it was one of the best.

So, where was the downside?

The flip side was that with that work-life focus, a culture of entitlement was bred from a lack of accountability and low expectations of individual productivity.  The workforce, bright and talented as it was (and it truly was one of the most talented I have ever encountered), was not leveraged for its talents.  Instead, it became corporate version of social security….employees could show up, schedule meeting after meeting to demonstrate productivity, with little outcomes or measurement required or expected.

In the end, when the company’s competitiveness was challenged by a changing external environment, it struggled to balance culture with economic reality.  And because culture changes rely on leaders’ ability and willingness to make tough decisions and have even tougher (human) conversations, embedded culture wins and the downward economic spiral intensifies.

The Solutions to Work-Life Overemphasis

  • Ensure you have leaders willing and able to have those tough discussions, if you’re the type organization that has fallen into the work-life handcuffs.  The key here is to have courageous, yet strongly emotionally intelligent, leaders.  Because fear is the #1 change emotion, if leaders are incapable of leveraging the strongest emotional intelligence competencies, the culture will “eat it’s own,” and change will fail.
  • Ensure accountability lies on outcomes, rather than process.  Focus on the outcomes, and hold people accountable not only for simply meeting production expectations, but also on the quality of outcomes.  This means empowering individuals at all levels of the organization to make appropriate decisions.  Push this downward to the fullest extent possible.  Doing this requires trust, but the paybacks are beyond measure.
  • Focus attention on work-passion balance, rather than work-life balance.  Clearly, we don’t want to burn out our employees, and particularly not our high performers.  But when we deeply understand the passionate skills of our workforce, we can leverage their inherent engagement to greater production.  Stop thinking of employees by their current job titles and descriptions.  Job descriptions do more to restrict managerial expectations than they provide benefit, typically.  Put the right people in the right positions, and you will see outcomes soar.
  • Measure, measure, measure.  Move beyond traditional (and typically low-value) HR metrics of employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention.  Focus instead on ensuring you are seeing a productivity boost from your efforts.  If not, examine the quality and styles of your organizational leadership and programs.  Change those that are ineffectual, and expand those who show statistically valid benefits.

Don’t fall into the trap of holding up work-life balance as a organizational strength, if it comes at the expense of corporate competitiveness and ultimate success.  It’s called a “balance” because it equally holds in esteem the various needs of the organization with the needs and desires of the workforce.  If work-life issues are undermining productivity, balance does not exist.  Understand that, and move to restore such balance.

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