Bailyn, Lotte Joyce K. Fletcher, Deborah Kolb
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. As recent articles and commentaries in the popular press suggest, organizations like to say they are "family friendly", but, in fact, their internal workings indicate they don't "care" about family. Is it fair to say companies don't care? Or is it that organizations' current definition of the problem offers few alternatives?
Indeed, traditional thinking tends to pit employee goals and business goals against each other. Obvious responses to either goal seem to make the other worse: If you try to help families by putting in some benefits and special programs, there is a fear that too many people will use the benefits, costs will increase, and productivity will suffer. If you try to help the business by increasing demands for employee commitment and involvement, there is a fear that people will tune out and do only what is asked rather than bring new energy to their work. They might even leave and take needed skills and expertise with them.
The plethora of articles does little more than describe the situation and call for "fundamental change". Employee advocates long for socially responsible organizations; management longs for committed employees who have the passion and energy to stimulate new growth. Is it a tradeoff? Must we choose between the goals of the business and people's needs? We argue that the answer is a resounding no. Our research shows that the solution to this dilemma lies in connecting the two issues—people's personal lives and strategic business issues—rather than treating them as a tradeoff. It may seem strange and counterintuitive. But we have found that there is an untapped source of strategic innovation and growth that comes from making an explicit connection between personal needs and business goals. The payoff, it turns out, comes from refusing an either/or choice and instead connecting the two issues at the concrete level of local, everyday work practices at all organizational levels.