Employees As Human Beings: Why Work-Life Balance Shouldn’t Be A Program
Date: October 13th, 2011
The joke goes like this. “We’re implementing a new work-life balance program. The committee will meet every morning at six to plan it. Any objections?” Maybe that’s a little bit of an exaggeration but not by much. Managers ask, “How much responsibility do we really have? Aren’t my employees adults? Isn’t it their job to make sure they are ready to work when they enter the building? How much time should I spend “babysitting” grown people? I have a job to do and they are paid to help me do it.” If you are too lenient, people will take advantage of you they fear. Managers don’t want to be seen as “pushovers” who can be manipulated. Yet companies promote their work-life balance programs when recruiting and when vying for a “best place to work” award.
Many of these programs are initiated with the best of intentions and, in fairness, some have produced pretty good results. But, a deeper question is, “Do corporations have a responsibility to their employees beyond paying them a fair wage and providing a safe, utilitarian work environment?” Many companies have slogans that indicate they value their employees and consider them to be important resources. Many say that they understand and respect their needs as human beings. Some actually do. But often these slogans are merely that. “Slogans!” The actions of the managers of the company often contradict the rhetoric. “I’m not giving you the promotion. You have asked for too much time off to go see your kid’s baseball games.”
Organizations are human systems
That is, they are composed of people with their own idiosyncratic traits, needs, opinions, quirks, etc. Managers sometimes say, “We shouldn’t have to deal with all of that non-work stuff. We have enough to do. People shouldn’t let that stuff interfere with work. We should be able to leave the rest at home when we show up at the office (factory, warehouse, etc.).” The key term in those sentences is the word, “should.” In other words, managers believe that they could accomplish their objectives if only people were the way they “should” be. Well, who gets to decide how people “should” be? Does your boss get to make that decision about you? Managers often view themselves as very objective, driven by the facts of a situation. They see themselves as very logical. But at the same time, they admit that the way they are leading their team will work only if people were somehow different than how they actually are. The way they “should” be. Maybe, a better way to look at it is to say, what are the facts of the situation? What are my people really like? Is it really logical to make important business decisions based on how you think your people should be rather than how they actually are?
As with any problem solving, the first step is to properly define the problem
What are the facts of the situation? What is actually going on? Often, the reality of the workplace is that it is populated with people with families, kids, charitable commitments, hobbies, church membership, friends, and family. How shocking that they have interests in things other than work. Those things are important to them. Most of the time, they try to handle their home-life without letting it interfere with their work. But, all of them face crises and urgent situations that demand their attention. Sometimes that takes precedence over work.
It is not, of course, the manager’s responsibility to solve everyone’s problems for them. That would be a formula for disaster and would be an unconscionable encroachment on the team member’s private life. It is the leader’s responsibility, however, to help establish a work environment and culture that allows and encourages team members to lead healthy, productive lives both at work and at home. Failure to do that creates a workplace full of fear, bitterness, and game playing. The leader who is truly honest with him or herself will recognize how much more productive and satisfying it is to work with a team of people who are happy, healthy, and full of energy rather than a team of people who are willing to do only the minimum that they must to keep you off their back.
Achieving your organization’s goals is more realistic with people who are on your side than with people who are working against you. Duh! Why, sometimes, does this seem so hard to grasp? Part of the problem is that we are not very good at understanding the needs of other people. We assume that everyone is just like us. Or, if they are not, that they are stupid or mean. Well, not everyone is just like me. Thank goodness! (How boring would that be?) Figuring out what is important to our team members is hard work. Some of us are better at it than others.
The word for understanding another person and how they think and feel is empathy. Some managers just don’t have much empathy. In fact, they have worked hard to avoid it. Many technical fields have trained people to isolate themselves to the point that their ability to understand even the simplest emotions of those around them is unachievable. Trying to do so has become anathema. They have learned to ignore those around them unless they have some power over them. And even then it is a chore that must be endured. Besides being a horrible way to live one’s life, this is a recipe for failure in any team where the task requires even a minimum of collaboration or teamwork.
Not only does this lead to mediocrity in the workplace, it leads to a kind of society where bad things happen. Simon Baron-Cohen, in his book, “The Science Of Evil: On Empathy And The Origins Of Cruelty,” makes the case that true evil, or what most of us think of as evil, comes when we have reduced our level of empathy to near zero. He describes compelling research that shows that people who commit the most callous acts of cruelty almost always suffer from a total lack of empathy. The roots of a lack of empathy are complex. Sometimes, the person has a severe psychological disorder. They are psychopaths.
It is not as uncommon as you might think to find psychopaths in the executive suite at many of our organizations. For some surprising data on how many managers and executives are clinically diagnosable psychopaths, read “Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work,” by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare. Extreme low empathy may also be found in borderline personality disorders often seen in people who have had severe, abusive upbringing. Or, they may be what psychologists call narcissistic.
Whatever the reason, a lack of empathy leads to some significant problems in the workplace. Take, for example, the gifted engineer who has been encouraged to ignore the feelings and thoughts of the people around her. She may have taught herself to focus on the task to the exclusion of everything else. As long as she is confined to the lab, the consequences may be limited. But, what happens when this individual is promoted into a leadership role? An absence of empathy is no longer desirable. It is, in fact, quite a liability. Without this trait, there is no work-life balance for the team. There is only work. So, can this be changed? Can empathy be learned?
For the most severe types, as described above (psychopaths, borderline personality disorders, narcissists), maybe not. But, what of the engineer who simply cannot be bothered to deal with colleagues who might be distractions from the work? Or the high achieving executive who has learned that talking about feelings is an invitation for ridicule from her colleagues? It is possible, to some degree, to learn skills that will help.
Effective leadership training often emphasizes the need to understand those around us. At its best, the leadership training will help participants learn skills that will help them increase their empathy. Despite overwhelming evidence that empathy (or emotional intelligence as described by Daniel Goleman is essential for leading high performance organizations, it is unfortunate that many managers discount or even mock the idea of learning to show more empathy. They think of it as a weakness or as something trivial. In truth, empathy is an essential skill in developing relationships. It is essential for any kind of relationship: at work or in one’s personal life. For an organization to achieve its purpose, the relationships within it must function properly. A person can no more be an effective leader without empathy than an engineer can design products without math.
There are two components required to increase empathy in a participant in any leadership training workshop. The participant must first increase his or her self awareness. In other words, before she can understand another person, she must be able to understand her own motives, intentions, and feelings. Exercises that emphasize self-examination and awareness can serve as a starting point for such learning. Secondly, the participant needs to learn how to pay attention to the nonverbal cues of others and how to listen to what they say.
Good leadership training will require the participant to verbalize his or her understanding of another person’s message in simulated situations as well as real situations. This is awkward for many participants. They often believe that they are good listeners and fail to see the purpose of “restating the obvious.” But, practice with what practitioners call Active Listening will gradually help the person learn to more carefully monitor the signals he or she receives from other people and to be more mindful when interpreting those messages.
Leadership training of this sort is not the end all for increasing empathy or for restoring balance in the work-life continuum but it can be a good start. Achieving a true balance requires hard work. It cannot be done with a well-meaning program or with a single week of training. It is a process of small steps. Follow-up coaching and support is critical. So, for starters, let that department head leave early on Thursday so he can go see his daughter in her ballet recital. Encourage your up and coming operations manager to visit a couple of colleges with her son before he decides where to go to school. And, it might not be a bad idea for you to do more of that kind of thing yourself. It’s only logical.
© 2011 William Stinnett, Ph.D., L.E.T. Master Trainer for Gordon Training International
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