Unexpected Connections: Considering Employees’ Personal Lives Can Revitalize Your Business

At a corporate retreat on organizational learning, the vice president of finance for a major manufacturer leads a discussion to raise the “real” issues that inhibit learning and growth. He promises to listen and asks his people to talk honestly, to “tell it like it is” instead of telling management what it wants to hear. To his surprise, nearly all the issues raised in each group —regardless of level or function — relate to work and family.

The director of a strategic business unit at a large high-tech company says, “After my heart attack at age thirty-seven, my doctor told me, ‘Get a new job or you won’t make forty.’ I knew the important things in my life were health and family, but I loved my work and I couldn’t face the prospect of giving it up. Isn’t there any way to have a life and still do what I love to do?”

The president of a financial services company muses that past routes to success seem to be dead-ends. He notes, “We’ve been tremendously successful, largely because of the hard work, energy, and commitment of our people. But I have the sense that we have pushed about as far as we can. The creative ideas and the energy to work on them seem to be coming from the top, and I know we can’t sustain growth this way. We need to re-energize people and get those creative juices flowing from the bottom up if we are going to get to the next level of growth. And I am just not sure how to do that.”

What can we make of this? It seems as if corporate America is caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, employees’ personal lives are clearly an important issue. Integrating work and personal life is not just something that affects a small group of lower and mid-level workers for a short time but is an issue that affects many people — even at the highest levels in the organization — for a major portion of their lives. On the other hand, future growth depends on “getting more” from these same people. It is no wonder that leaders are bewildered and seem to say one thing and do another.

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References

1. For a full description of the work at this site, see:

L. Perlow, “The Time Famine: An Unintended Consequence of the Way Time Is Used at Work” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Sloan School of Management, Ph.D. dissertation, 1995).

2. For a full description of this site, see:

R. Johnson, “Where’s the Power in Empowerment? Definition, Difference, and Dilemmas of Empowerment in the Context of Work-Family Management” (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School, Ph.D. dissertation, 1994).

3. For a full description of this case, see:

the appendix by S. Eaton and M. Harvey, in “Re-linking Work and Family: A Catalyst for Organizational Change” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Sloan School of Management, working paper #3892-96, 1996).

Acknowledgments

This paper is based on a research project supported by the Ford Foundation. For a full report, see: R. Rapoport, L. Bailyn, D. Kolb, J.K. Fletcher, et al., Relinking Life and Work: Toward a Better Future (New York: The Ford Foundation, 1996). Others involved in the research project were Susan Eaton, Maureen Harvey, Robin Johnson, and Leslie Perlow. Rhona Rapoport was the consultant to the project. The Ford Foundation, in conjunction with the Xerox Corporation and Working Mother magazine, is hosting a CEO Summit in New York on 15 September 1997 to discuss this report.Our names are listed in alphabetical order. This article was a fully collaborative effort, as was, with other team members, the project itself.