Must Success Cost So Much?
Fernando Bartolomé & Paul A. Lee Evans
EXPLORE THE ARCHIVE
Undeniably, many people who reach executive levels in organizations do so at the expense of their personal lives. They spend long hours at difficult and tension-filled jobs and retreat to their homes not for comfort and sustenance but for a place to hide or to vent feelings left over from a bad day at the office. Yet other executives who endure the same long hours and tension-filled jobs come home full of energy and excited by the day. What distinguishes the two groups of people? After studying more than 2,000 executives and interviewing many husbands and wives, these authors have found that, psychological differences aside, the executives who successfully cross the line from job to private life are able to do three things better than the other executives. They adapt well to change in jobs, they find the right jobs for them, and they handle career disappointments well. The authors discuss these sources of potential negative emotional spillover; then they investigate how organizations might minimize obstacles to coordinating one’s private and professional lives.
A good number of executives accept the cliché that success always demands a price and that the price is usually deterioration of private life. This cliché does not always reflect reality, however—some executives seem to be exempt. What distinguishes the executives who pay a heavy personal price for their success from those who are able to maintain and develop fulfilling private lives?
In studying the private and professional lives of more than 2,000 managers for nearly five years, we’ve seen that some very successful executives have meaningful private lives. One thing that does not distinguish these executives is professional commitment. (To succeed, individuals have to give their jobs a high priority in their lives.) Nor is it easier for these executives to develop a private life. For everyone, it is difficult.
What does distinguish the two groups is this: the executives whose private lives deteriorate are subject to the negative effects of what we call emotional spillover; work consistently produces negative feelings that overflow into private life. In contrast, the other group of executives have learned to manage their work and careers so that negative emotional spillover is minimized, and thus they achieve a balance between their professional and private lives.
After countless exchanges with managers and their wives and after careful analysis of research data, we concluded that the major determinant of work’s impact on private life is whether negative emotional feelings aroused at work spill over into family and leisure time. When an executive experiences worry, tension, fear, doubt, or stress intensely, he is not able to shake these feelings when he goes home, and they render him psychologically unavailable for a rich private life. The manager who is unhappy in his work has a limited chance of being happy at home—no matter how little he travels, how much time he spends at home, or how frequently he takes a vacation.
When individuals feel competent and satisfied in their work—not simply contented, but challenged in the right measure by what they are doing—negative spillover does not exist. During these periods executives are open to involvement in private life; they experience positive spillover. When work goes well, it can have the same effect as healthy physical exercise—instead of leading to fatigue, it is invigorating.
If things go right at work, a feeling of well-being places people in the right mood to relate to others. They open up, they are available, they may search for contact. That, of course, does not guarantee that such contact will be successful. A person may not be skillful at it, or there may be deep conflicts from the past that make contact difficult. But when the executive feels good at work, contact at home is at least possible.
We can summarize our findings this way: for an ambitious person, a well-functioning professional life is a necessary though not sufficient condition for a well-functioning private one.
For the time being, our study has focused on male managers only. We have not yet studied female executives, but our exchanges with some women and our reading of the literature on women managers lead us to believe strongly that the ideas we present apply to them as well.
The dilemmas and conflicts women face in trying to manage the relationship between their professional and private lives may be even more difficult than those faced by men. While in many cultures it is acceptable for men to specialize in their professional roles and delegate the main responsibility for private life to their wives, our impression is that even in the more liberal and advanced cultures the married woman who chooses to pursue a career is still expected to be responsible for the quality of the couple’s private life.
Women are under more pressure to manage skillfully the boundaries between professional and private life. They are probably more aware of what causes the conflicts than many men. As increasing numbers of women join the work force, these issues are being more openly considered at work.
The Price Some Managers Pay
Even though we recognize that positive spillover exists, for the most part in this article we’re going to be concerned with the negative emotions that spill over from work into executives’ private lives. What are its sources? How can individuals manage it, and what can companies do to minimize the likelihood that people will suffer from it?
The experience of this 36-year-old manager typifies the spillover phenomenon: “When I started working for my boss four years ago, that affected my family life. He was very different from my previous boss. He was a bit of a tyrant. From working with someone who was terribly easygoing to someone who’s an absolute dynamo—that certainly had an influence on my family life. It made me slightly—how can I put it? Well, I’d come home to my wife talking about him, about decisions he had reversed on a certain proposal I’d made. I’d talk it over with my wife, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind, because it was such a different way of operating from my previous boss.”
All of us have experienced spillover at one time or another in our careers. The problem is that some executives lead life-styles that pave the way for never-ending spillover. Such an executive’s wife is likely to react with this sort of comment: “What annoys me is when he comes home tense and exhausted. He flops into a chair and turns on the TV. Or else he worries, and it drives me up the wall.”
Work spills over into private life in two ways: through fatigue and through emotional tension, like worry. Fatigue is the natural consequence of a hectic day at the office. But curiously enough, a hectic day—if it has gone well—can make us feel less worn out, often almost energetic. On the other hand, a boring day at the office, when the executive feels he has not accomplished anything, is exhausting. He comes home tired. Home is not a place for private life; it simply becomes a haven—a place to rest, relax, and recharge batteries to survive the next day.
Worrying, the other symptom of negative emotional spillover, is caused by frustration, self-doubt, and unfinished business. One wife puts it this way: “Yes, his mind is often on other things. Yes, he often worries and it does disturb the family life. When he is like that he can’t stand the noise of the children… He can’t stand the fact that the children are tired. In general we have dinner together so that he can be with them. And obviously they chatter, they spill things, they tease each other—and he blows his top. He is tense and uptight—it’s disturbing; I can’t stand it. I have to try to mediate between them and cool things down. The only thing is to finish everything as soon as possible and get everyone quickly off to bed.”
The feelings that spill over from work are acted out at home. Sometimes they are expressed through psychological absence, sometimes through acts of aggression. One loses one’s temper with the children. One explodes in fury if one’s wife makes a minor mistake. Such aggression is visible and painful, but withdrawal is equally damaging to family relationships. As one wife said:
“My husband is not one of those men who vents all his frustrations on the family. One cannot reproach him for being aggressive or for beating his wife. Instead he closes up like a shell. Total closure. The time he thinks he spends here isn’t spent here.”
Because psychological withdrawal can make a person blind to what is going on at home, it can have very serious consequences. A 40-year-old executive described the most painful period of his marriage this way:
“It was just after the birth of the third child, eight years ago. The birth coincided with a move to another part of the country and with a complete change in job. And there I have to admit that I was completely unaware of the consequences that all this had for my wife. She was overloaded with work and worries. It went on for some time, and I just wasn’t aware of what was happening. Finally she fell ill and had to be hospitalized. It was only then that it began to dawn on me. I was quite unconscious of everything I was doing.”
“You were overloaded in your work?”
“Yes. Well, not really overloaded. I was worried about my work. I didn’t feel very sure of myself and so was very worried… It was the time of a merger between two companies and a period of great uncertainty. That had led to my new job and the move. And I just couldn’t get my work out of my mind. I think back even today—the uncertainties of the time were real. It was normal, but anyway I couldn’t get the work out of my mind. Today I’m much more sure of myself. I find it a lot easier to switch off.”
When negative emotions spill over, managers often express dissatisfaction with their life-styles and complain of wanting more time for private life. But because their minds are numbed by tension, these people cannot use even their available time in a fulfilling way. Some report needing a double martini just to summon the energy to switch on the television. Many read the newspaper, not because they’re interested in world events, but to escape into personal privacy. Some mooch around in the basement or the garden as a way of just getting through the day.
Again and again, the wives of these executives express the same idea: “I don’t really mind the amount of work he has to do. That is, if he is happy in his work. What I resent is the unhappiness that he brings home.”
Or sometimes they agree with this 42-year-old wife: “The very best moment in our marriage is, without any doubt, right now. We have never before had such a complete life together. The children are interesting to my husband and he is very happy with his work. On the other hand, the most difficult moments have been when he wasn’t happy with what he was doing.”
To have a healthy private life, one must manage the negative emotions that arise at work. When we began our investigation into the work lives and private lives of managers five years ago, we held the biased belief that these two sides of life are in fundamental conflict with each other. During these five years we have gathered more and more evidence suggesting that, among managers at least, individual and organizational interests can be in harmony. Moreover, a healthy professional life is a precondition for a healthy private one.
Job and home can be in harmony and mutually reinforce each other if—and only if—one avoids various pitfalls in the management of self and career and one copes satisfactorily with the emotions that arise at work. Conversely, executives who fail to manage the emotional side of work achieve professional success at the expense of private life.
Let’s look now at what the executive can do to manage the emotional side of work better. We single out three major causes of negative emotional spillover: the problems of adapting to a new job, the lack of fit between a person and his job, and career disappointments.
Coping with a New Job
Without doubt, the most common trigger of spillover tension is the process of settling into a new job following promotion, reorganization, or a move to another company. Since all of us change jobs from time to time, we all experience spillover caused by the problems of adaptation. Having to familiarize ourselves with a new task, learn to work with new people, settle in a different town and environment, and establish new relationships with superiors, subordinates, and peers—all at the same time—overloads our emotional systems.
That work dominates the emotional life of a person adapting to a new job is natural and necessary. It allows him to master major changes. Once that is done, the spillover effects begin to fade away.
What is vital is that the individual assess and recognize how important a change he (and his family) face when he changes jobs. The more new skills the job requires and the more radical the change in environment, the longer the adaptation period is likely to be and the longer the negative spillover is likely to last. To deny this reality in an attempt to persuade a reluctant family that the job change will also be good for them is risky.
Top managers often fail to assess correctly the magnitude of the changes and adaptations they ask of executives and their families. Often individual executives, driven by their own ambition, also fail to assess accurately the difficulty of tasks they accept. Only a realistic evaluation of the degree of change executives and their families will face allows them to come through the process of adaptation relatively unscathed.
In talking to executive couples, we have found too often the case of the ambitious executive who accepted an exciting job in a developing country that sounded like a wonderful opportunity and a major career step. His wife was unhappy about it, but there was no heart-to-heart discussion about the decision. The wife felt that her husband’s mind was made up and was reluctant to hold him back. Her fears were half-assuaged by his assurances that the move would be challenging and exciting and that he would be there to help out. They moved.
What executives do not realize is that the change to a new and important job, to a new locale, and to a new culture will create massive amounts of tension. The negative spillover into private life will be immense. For a year or more, they will have minimal psychological availability for private life. If their wives expect and need that availability, its absence will aggravate the adaptation problems that they are undergoing themselves. Far too often, the story ends catastrophically for all concerned.
And yet it doesn’t need to happen this way. We have heard executives describe enthusiastically how similar moves brought their families together and how dealing with the difficulties of adaptation as a family was a most positive experience.
What accounts for the difference in experiences? These latter executives analyzed the change carefully with their families before the move, negotiated the decision with them, openly expressed the problems they would all confront, and did not promise what they could nor deliver.
Most wives will understand and accept that for some time their husbands will be preoccupied with the job and won’t be readily available. If they recognize this in advance and as long as they know that emotional spillover will fade away, they may even support him at this difficult time. But sometimes spillover does not fade away. The new job turns out to be beyond the person’s talents or capacities.
If after a reasonable period of time—say, one year—negative spillover is increasing rather than fading away, a misfit situation (where the only way of mastering the job is through sheer brute energy rather than skill) could be in the making. Because wives experience the spillover consequences directly, they are good judges as to whether it is increasing or decreasing. If it’s increasing, the time has come to negotiate a move out.
Taking the Right Job
The lack of fit between an individual and a job is the second most common source of negative spillover. Judgments on the “shape” of people and jobs are difficult to make; square pegs are often put in round holes. Top managers may overemphasize skills and experience while ignoring the very important factors of personality and individual goals. Consider the experiences of Jack and Melinda.
Three years ago, Jack was a computer company’s research manager, content in his job and very ambitious. Top management offered him a promotion to a job as manager of administrative services. While at first Jack didn’t like the position offered him, management persuaded him to accept it by arguing that it would be an important step in his career development. Since Jack’s ambition was to become research director, the argument seemed logical. The new job would give him administrative experience that would help qualify him for the post he wanted. Jack accepted the job.
Jack has already spent three years in this job, yet spillover tension is not on the wane. On the contrary, during the past three years it has increased steadily and is now an almost inextricable part of his life. But while he is hurting, his wife Melinda and his two children are hurting even more.
Melinda talks of how Jack has brought nothing but sadness and tension into the family’s life since he undertook his new job. Since then, she says, “He hasn’t even been interested in talking about our problems.” In fact, she has often considered divorce.
For his part, Jack finds it difficult to say anything positive about his job. “You meet interesting people and a wide variety of situations,” he says, “but one part of the work consists of acting as the office boy to deal with everyone’s banal problems.” The other part consists of negotiating with trade union officials on grievances, a duty that Jack finds tiring and frustrating. “You have no authority over anyone,” he says, “and what I didn’t realize at the beginning is that one doesn’t have any real contact with the people in research.”
The tension and doubt that Jack feels—and which his wife experiences even more strongly—are growing. At the end of a two-hour interview, he spoke of the feeling of being trapped: “I’m not really content in this job, but if I do well it will help me in my next job in research. It’s a thankless task, being at everybody’s beck and call. The trouble is that it’s getting to me. I can’t take the strain much longer. I went to my boss last month and told him that I want to move back to research. He told me that they would take care of that in due time, that I was doing a grand job now, and that they needed me here.
“The trouble is—did he really mean it that I was doing a grand job? I feel that things can only go downhill from here. And I’m drifting further and further away from research.”
Lack of fit
Jack is a misfit. However valid or invalid his reasons for accepting his present job, the work does not suit his personality. It makes him permanently tense without satisfying him. Yet because he took the job as a “stepping stone,” he must perform.
Lacking deep interest and natural skill for the work, the misfit can only compensate with an over-investment of energy. This investment may lead to success—but at the price of enormous internal tension, reinforced fear of failure, and the suspension of an investment in private life.
Tension and deep fear of failure are the natural consequences of going against one’s grain. People who take jobs for which they are ill-fitted are often afraid that their weaknesses will show, that they will be found out. These inner doubts can be so intense that no amount of external recognition or acknowledgment of success can eliminate them.
For misfits the ultimate irony is that, instead of decreasing with each new success, fear of failure increases. Outward success does not reassure them. Instead, their successes trap them in jobs they do not enjoy. With their bridges burned behind them, they feel snared in situations that create permanent and increasing tension.
Let us define what we mean by the fit between individual and job. A perfect fit occurs when you experience three positive feelings at the same time: you feel competent, you enjoy the work, and you feel that your work and your moral values coincide. To express this in another way, a job should fit not only with skills and abilities but also with motives and values.
A misfit situation occurs whenever one of these three conditions is absent. In the case of the total misfit, none of the conditions is fulfilled: he is not particularly competent at what he does, he enjoys few aspects of his work, and he feels ashamed doing things that go against his values or ideals. Jack, the manager we just described, is an example.
Absence of skill
The competence misfit enjoys his work and is proud of what he does. He works hard enough to keep his job, but he is not sure of his ability to really master the work. For example, a manager in a line position may find it difficult to make decisions, or someone taking a personnel administrator’s job hoping to broaden his skills may not work well with people. For the time being, those executives may manage well, but they live with the persistent fear that things will get out of hand. This sense of insecurity tends to diminish their enjoyment of the job and spills over into their private lives.
This “competence misfit” most typically happens to people in the early stages of their careers, when they haven’t yet found out what they are good at doing. It is the type of misfit that organizations are most sensitive to, which they try hardest to avoid. But two other kinds of misfit, which most organizations fail to recognize, are equally important. We call them the “enjoyment misfit” and the “moral misfit.”
Dislike for the job
An enjoyment misfit occurs when an individual is competent at his job and proud of doing it but does not like it. One executive had the necessary qualities to be a manager and was promoted to a managerial job even though he would have rather remained in a technical position. Despite his preference for individual challenge over the laborious process of working through other people, he succumbed to a sense of duty and to unanimous pressure and accepted the job. He is unhappy in his new job and consequently suffers from negative spillover.
The most frequent cause of “enjoyment misfit” is intrinsic dislike of various work characteristics, but other causes are common as well. Staying in a job for too long can transform enjoyment into boredom; persons can be competent but see what they do as predictable variations of a humdrum theme. Having too much work to do can also destroy enjoyment: some people, finding it very difficult to say no to challenges and tasks they enjoy doing, agree to do too much. The consequent stress gradually erodes the intrinsic pleasure of the tasks.
The last type of misfit, moral misfit, results when individuals enjoy their work and are competent but do not feel proud of what they do, when they feel they compromise their values. A sales manager we met, for example, was good at his job, but he did not believe in the merits of the product he was selling. He would not have bought it himself and could not wholeheartedly recommend it to others. He used to reassure himself by saying that “as long as there is a market for it, it must be O.K.” After a successful and important sale, rather than feeling proud of himself he would come out feeling “thank goodness that’s over.”
The negative spillover created by going along with unethical business practices (such as bribing foreign officials) has two additional painful twists to it. The person fears potential legal consequences, and he cannot vent his feelings by expressing them to others because the position dictates secrecy.
Each of these ways of not fitting a job is dangerous. If individuals accept tasks for which they lack the competence, they risk feeling continual self-doubt. If they accept jobs for which they are skilled but which they do not like doing, they will be bored. If they accept jobs in which they do not feel pride, they will not feel at peace with themselves.
The incompetent misfit may be the only type of misfit the organization is able to spot; whatever the cause of the misfit, however, the individuals and their families will suffer. For an individual in top management to avoid putting the wrong person in the wrong job, it is essential to understand what causes some of the mistakes.
Why people take the wrong job?
We find four main reasons why people are in the wrong jobs: the strong attraction of external rewards, organizational pressure, inability to say no, and lack of self-knowledge or self-assessment. Let’s examine each one of these issues in turn.
We all like and need money and have some healthy needs for status and recognition as well. But because in our Western society having these things implies that one is a “good” person, we sometimes put too much value on them. As a result, many people end up doing what will bring rewards rather than what fits them. They are seen as good members of society but don’t feel good about themselves.
Executives we spoke with often justified accepting jobs they didn’t really want on the ground that the material rewards the jobs provided were essential to realizing a fulfilling private life. They fail to realize (except in hindsight) that no matter how much they earn, no matter how much status is attached to the position, their private lives will suffer through emotional spillover if the job doesn’t fit them.
When management approaches an individual in the organization or outside it to offer him a job, in most cases it does so after carefully analyzing available candidates. The person chosen is usually the one management deems most competent for the job.
But management pays little if any attention to the two other dimensions of fit—will the person enjoy the job and will he be proud of it? If it assesses these dimensions at all, management will often dismiss any problem as an individual or personal concern. A person’s capacity to do the job well is all that counts. Some managers assume that if he does not feel he will like it or be proud of it, then he will say no; some also assume that if he doesn’t say no, the personal issues don’t exist.
But here is the problem. When management reaches its final decision and offers the person the promotion or the new job, he is no longer simply a candidate for that job. Management has made a statement that he is the best person available. To refuse is to deny management what it wants. Of course, he is free to say no on emotional grounds; but is he really? The pressures to accept are considerable.
Management often adopts a selling attitude that manifests itself in a variety of ways. The rewards and incentives are expressively described, the fact that this is a “unique opportunity” is stressed, and the argument that “this will be good for your career” is emphasized. If the individual points out that he may lack some of the necessary skills for the job, management is likely to say that this is “an exceptional opportunity to develop such skills,” expressing vague doubts about the future otherwise. At the end of the process, management often brings the ultimate pressure to bear. It makes it clear that a decision has to be reached quickly, that an answer is expected “let’s say, in 72 hours.”
By this time many executives will have succumbed to the appeal of external rewards or to the fear of saying no or of showing hesitation. Nevertheless, the best of them will indeed insist on enough time to analyze as thoroughly as possible the intrinsic characteristics of the job and the extent to which it fits them.
These people are deeply aware that their decisions will influence not only every working hour in the years ahead but also every hour of their private lives. And these are the people most likely to avoid becoming misfits and suffering from massive spillover. In most cases, their attitudes are reinforced by a real concern for their families and a deep understanding of the impact that changing jobs may have on them.
Above all, such executives realize that they hold the main responsibility for managing their careers and are unwilling to transfer that responsibility to anybody else.
The ability to say no
If learning to ask for sufficient time to think over accepting a job is difficult, learning to say no is even more difficult, particularly in times of economic crisis.
Learning to say no requires, first of all, the ability to estimate realistically the consequences of refusal. Many people assume fearsome consequences that they often are too afraid to test. But one also has to estimate realistically the negative effects of acceptance. Executives we spoke to mentioned they had sometimes made the decision easier by minimizing the difficulties they would face.
Ability to assess consequences realistically is one of the characteristics of highly successful people. They can do this because they have the final and most important quality of people who want to avoid spillover—namely, self-knowledge and the ability to assess themselves accurately.
Much of our behavior is rooted in unconscious motives, and it is difficult to know that part of ourselves. Also, as we age we are continually changing and acquiring new experiences. So, even under the best of circumstances, to assess whether one will fit with a new job is difficult.
Self-assessment implies that one can accurately recognize one’s competences—acknowledging limitations as well as strengths, identifying what brings pleasure or pain, and knowing what elicits pride or guilt in different work situations. It requires admitting to feelings rather than masking them.
The raw data for self-assessment are past experiences. Because of limited experiences, the task is especially difficult for the younger manager. During one’s 20s and early 30s, the only way to assess oneself is to take different jobs in different companies to find out what kind of work one does best, enjoys most, and finds most meaningful. Our research indicates that foreclosing this phase of exploration too quickly may have negative consequences later in one’s career.1
This exploration, however, does not need to be a blind process. Under ideal circumstances, a mentor successfully guides the younger person in the trial and error stages of his career. The mentor—an older, experienced, and trusted guide (often a boss with whom one enjoys an open and special relationship)—does more than simply provide new challenges and experiences. This mentor also helps the younger manager learn from those experiences what his skills, needs, and values are, and thus speeds up the process of self-assessment.
No matter how well this process of starting one’s own career and finding one’s professional identity goes, the individual will suffer from considerable tension and stress. Managers at this stage in life are predominantly oriented toward launching their careers, and emotional spillover often pervades private life.
After such a period of exploration and with better knowledge of themselves, some individuals in their mid-30s eventually find jobs or positions that fit them in the three dimensions outlined earlier. The young man assessing a job asks himself above all “Can I do it?” But the more mature man asks two other questions as well: “Will I enjoy doing it?” and “Is it worth doing?” He is likely to accept the job only if all three answers are positive.
People at this stage in their careers turn more toward their private lives. They are no longer content simply with the competence fit. They aim for total fit that ensures minimal spillover and full availability for private life. They can achieve this if they have developed sufficient self-knowledge to guide their careers. This knowledge will also allow them, after having benefited from a mentor in their early careers, to become mentors themselves.2
For some people, self-knowledge grows with experience, and consequently they are able to manage their careers and avoid spillover. Others, however, fail to learn from experience and as a result are likely to suffer from the third main cause of spillover—namely, career disappointment.
Learning from Disappointments
Prevention is better than cure. Individuals skilled at self-assessment run a smaller risk not only of finding themselves in the wrong job but also of suffering serious disappointments. But all of us face disappointment at one time or another in our careers. It can have immense psychological impact, especially if work is an important part of our lives.
The most frequent type of disappointment that we have found in our research is experienced by the older manager whose career flattens out below the level he expected to reach. More or less consciously, he recognizes that he has plateaued. Individual signals of the end—a turned-down promotion, a merit raise refused, a bad appraisal, or a shuffling aside in a reorganization—are bitter blows.
When deeply hurt, most of us will automatically react in a defensive way. While some individuals can eventually react healthily and learn from a painful experience, many become disillusioned and turn into bitter, plateaued performers. Often such executives disengage from activity. Abraham Zaleznik suggests that two things are necessary to cope well with disappointment: the ability “to become intimately acquainted with one’s own emotional reactions” and the capacity to “face the disappointment squarely.” And, he adds, “The temptation and the psychology of individual response to disappointment is to avoid the pain of self-examination. If an avoidance pattern sets in, the individual will pay dearly for it later.”3 In all cases, the danger is distortion of reality.
In our contacts with executives, we have found ample confirmation of Zaleznik’s observations. It is indeed difficult for people to face disappointment squarely. The experience often triggers in them strong feelings of loss that they turn into anger against themselves, which sometimes manifests itself as depression or withdrawal. But people cope with such situations in diverse ways. After a short period of mourning their losses, some bounce back (having learned something) and adapt successfully; others get permanently stuck in bitter and self-destructive positions.
Those who do not recover from severe disappointment often find themselves stuck in no-exit jobs that they do not enjoy and are not particularly proud of. They find it difficult to accept that their careers have plateaued in this way. They feel cheated. The emotional tension of an unenjoyable job, now aggravated by bitterness, often spills over into their home lives, where everyone else also pays for their sense of failure. Private life, as well as professional life, becomes hollow and empty. The injury to self-esteem they received in the professional world seems to color their whole experience of life.
Other plateaued managers recover their enthusiasm for their professional and private lives in a constructive way. They may compensate for their disappointment by enriching their present jobs—for example, adopting a role as mentor.
Often this positive compensation comes through developing leisure activities. These activities have, however, a professional quality to them rather than being mere relaxation. One man transformed his hobby of riding into a weekend riding school. Another got involved in community activities. A third broadened his home redecorating pastime into buying, redoing, and selling old houses. In these examples, work became more meaningful in that it helped to finance an active leisure interest; family life benefited since the man recovered his sense of self-esteem.
We can add a nuance to Freud’s idea that the main sources of self-esteem and pleasure in an individual’s life are work and love. Failure at work cannot be fully compensated by success in love. Failure at work has to be compensated by success in worklike activities. Only when work and love coexist in parallel and appropriate proportions do we achieve happiness and fulfillment.
What Organizations Can Do
We have suggested that the main responsibility for managing a career, reducing negative spillover, and achieving a good balance between professional and private life lies with the individual executive. It makes more sense for individuals to feel responsible for managing their own professional lives (taking care that career does not destroy private life) than to expect the organization to do this for them. Management in organizations, however, bears the responsibility for practices and policies that may make it unnecessarily difficult for the individual executive to manage the relationship between his professional and private lives. We see four things top managers can do to reduce the work pressures.
Broaden organizational values
Our first recommendation to managers is likely to be the most heretical. Managers can help their people by encouraging them not to be devoted solely to career success. Many managers attach too high a value to effort, drive, dedication, dynamism, and energy. Managers often take long hours at work and apparent single-minded dedication to professional success as indicators of drive and ambition. Attachment to private life and efforts to protect it by working “only” 45 hours a week are interpreted as signs of weakness in today’s middle aged; in younger managers, this pattern signifies an erosion of the work ethic, a symptom of what is wrong with the younger generation.
We find little evidence in our research, however, of an erosion of the work ethic among younger managers. Their professional commitment is strong, but it represents a commitment to what interests them rather than a blind commitment to their companies. They resist simply doing what has to be done and conforming to organizational practices, even if they are compensated by incentives. They are aware that a lot of office time is wasted by engaging in ritualistic, nonproductive “work” and that few people make a real success of activities that fail to excite and interest them. Above all they appreciate that the quality of an individual’s work life has an enormous impact, positive or negative, on his private life.
Paradoxically, organizations do not necessarily work better when they are full of highly ambitious, career-centered individuals striving to get to the top. As a matter of fact, these “jungle fighters” are often ostracized by their colleagues and superiors because they have too much ambition and too little ability to work with others. What organizations ideally need are a few ambitious and talented high achievers (who fit with their jobs) and a majority of balanced, less ambitious but conscientious people more interested in doing a good job that they enjoy and are adequately rewarded for than in climbing the organizational pyramid.
Organizational practices that overvalue effort and climbing and undervalue pride in one’s job and good performance are counterproductive. Economic recessions in years to come will make this even more apparent. As the growth rates of organizations stabilize, the possibilities for advancement and promotion will diminish. People will be productive only if they enjoy the intrinsic value of what they are doing and if they draw their satisfaction simultaneously from two sources—work and private life—instead of one.
Create multiple reward & career ladders
Since external rewards often pressure people into accepting jobs they don’t fit, our second recommendation concerns the reward policies and ladders of organizations.
The reward ladder of most organizations is a very simple, one-dimensional hierarchy; the higher, the more “managerial” one is, the more one is rewarded. People come to equate success with the managerial ladder, which would be appropriate if skilled managerial people were the only skilled people we need. But this is far from the case. Most organizations have relatively few general managerial positions and, while these are important posts, the life blood of the company is provided by people who fit with their jobs in other ways. To encourage these people, reward ladders need to be far more differentiated than they are at present.
Edgar H. Schein shows how managers fit with their work and careers in at least five different ways that he calls “career anchors.”4 While some people indeed have managerial anchors (that is, they aspire to positions in general management), others are oriented toward expertise in a technical or functional area. A desire to be creative is the central motive in the careers of a third group. (And do we not need more entrepreneurs in our large organizations today?) The fourth and fifth groups are anchored in needs for security and autonomy, respectively.
The obvious implication is that organizations must create multiple career and reward ladders to develop the different types of people required for their operations. Some high technology companies that rely heavily on technical innovation have indeed experimented with offering both managerial and technical reward ladders. In the future, we will probably see the development of reward ladders that reinforce creativity and entrepreneurship as well.
The problem with the simple structures of many organizations is that they channel ambition and talent in only one direction, creating unnecessary conflict for the many individuals who are ambitious or talented but do not walk the single prescribed path. We can warn individuals against being blinded by ambition to the emotional aspects of fit; yet we we must also warn organizations, not against fostering ambition, but against channeling it into a single career path.
Give realistic performance appraisals
Our third recommendation is that managers help individuals in their own self-assessment, thus reducing the chances that they will either move into positions that do not fit them or be promoted to their “Peter Principle” level of incompetence. To do this, managers need to pay greater attention to their subordinates’ performances and also to be honest in discussions of the subordinates’ strengths and weaknesses. Managers should also encourage self-assessment. Contrary to standard assessment practices that only emphasize skills and competence, self-assessment should focus as well on the extent to which the individual enjoys his job—both as a whole and in its component parts.
Many researchers have called for accurate and realistic feedback in performance appraisal.5 We also ask that managers be as concerned and realistic about enjoyment and value as about competence.
Of all managerial omissions, lack of candor about a subordinate’s chances for promotion can be most destructive. At one time or another, to one degree or another, most managers have agonized over trying to motivate an individual with the lure of promotion while knowing that the individual does not have much of a chance. Candor may result in employees’ short-term unhappiness and even in their leaving the company, but we suggest that the long-run effects of dissembling are far worse. Eventually truth will out, and the negative effects of disappointment are likely to harm not only the individual’s performance at work but also, through the spillover effect, his private life—at a time when perhaps it’s too late for him to change jobs.
Reduce organizational uncertainty
Uncertainty is an increasingly frequent fixture of today’s world. Sudden, unpredictable events—like an oil shortage or the taking of hostages in Iran—can have massive impact on the lives of managers in Dallas, Paris, or Bogotá. Economic recession lurks in the background, and no one feels entirely safe. The jobless executive next door makes many a manager aware that “it could also happen to me.” Reorganization and restructuring of companies have become almost annual events; and sudden policy changes have vast repercussions on people’s lives that create worries and preoccupations and lead to emotional spillover.
Managers can help reduce unnecessary stress and uncertainty by protecting their subordinates from worry about events over which they have no control. A good example of this is the young manager of a foreign exchange department in a large bank. It is difficult to imagine a more uncertain, hectic, anxiety-ridden job. When we asked him how he managed, he answered: “I protect my subordinates and I trust them. When my superiors drop by to tell us how stupid what we did yesterday was and ask who did it, I tell them that it’s none of their business. I offer them my job if they want it. That shuts them up quite fast.”
We asked him how he could trust his subordinates in a department that could lose millions in a day. He answered: “I trust them because I have to. And I have learned to show them that I trust them by leaving them alone to do their jobs and helping them only when they ask for help.”
Here we have a “shock-absorbing” manager. However, the price for his courage is enormous. He absorbs a lot of the anxiety around him, acting as a buffer against many pressures. He has an ulcer and no nails, but his subordinates love him.
Top managers cannot expect to have many people like this in their ranks. But they clearly need people who can absorb as many shocks for others as possible. And they owe it to such people to relieve them from positions where uncertainty is too high by systematically rotating these jobs after a certain time. People can protect others from uncertainty and anxiety (to some extent this is part of a manager’s job), but only for so long.
Whose Life Is It Anyway?
In managerial circles, there’s something almost sacred about the separation between private and professional life. The respect for an individual’s privacy is one of our fundamental values. However, no one can deny that work has a powerful effect on private life. The issue is where does responsible behavior stop and where does interference begin?
The individual executive adheres to the principle that his private life is none of the organization’s business. But today he does expect the organization asking him to accept a big new job in Latin America to consider as legitimate his concerns about, say, his three children and his wife with her own career. In the interest of his future performance, the corporation is well advised to listen and respond to his concerns.
We do not need to invoke altruism to recommend that organizations make sure their people are in jobs that fit them, that they can cope with the changes the organization may ask of them, and that they have the tools for realistic self-assessment. Doing this is essential to the morale and productivity of the organization.
Responsible behavior on the part of the organization is simply behavior that is in its own best interest. This means recognizing the emotional aspects of work and career. A person’s capacity to enjoy doing a job is as important a consideration as his potential competence.
Even if organizations choose not to deal with these issues, the changing values and life-styles of younger managers—especially those in dual-career marriages—may eventually force top management to face the impact work has on private life.
A version of this article appeared in the March 1980 issue of Harvard Business Review.
Fernando Bartolomé (email@example.com) is a professor of management at the Instituto de Empresa Business School in Madrid and an adjunct professor of organizational behavior at Insead in Fontainebleau, France.
Mr. Evans is associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. He has published a number of articles on managerial careers and is the author with Bartolomé of “Must Success Cost So Much,” a book on the research partially described in this article (New York: Basic Books, 1981).
Dit artikel verwijst naar: https://hbr.org/1980/03/must-success-cost-so-much