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Shambaugh Leadership Group

Women in Leadership and Learning

Slowing Down to the Speed of Life. R. Carlso and J. Bailey. (Harper San Francisco, 1998)

Turn It Off: How to Unplug from the Anytime-Anywhere Office Without Disconnecting Your Career. G. Gordon. (Three River Press, 2001)

Time Shifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life. S. Rechtschaffen. (Doubleday, 1996)

Harvard Business Review on Work and Life Balance. (Harvard Business School Press, 2000)


A recent Price Waterhouse Coopers survey reports that more than half of all workers have felt “overworked” during the last three months, and almost two-thirds claimed they were unable to step back and assess the effectiveness of what they were doing on the job. Almost a fifth said they were making more mistakes in what they do, and about half were currently looking for positions elsewhere.

Should an organization care, or is this simply the ongoing complaint of workers wanting a “better quality of life”? It may be that—but it’s also, more importantly, a productivity and performance issue. That’s the challenge, and opportunity facing leadership, and it has some significant implications for leadership and for organizational learning.

Life-balance is a critical element in an organization’s vitality and performance. Pervasive “anywhere, anytime” technology (cell phones, laptops, pagers) and characteristics of a competitive new economy (need for speed, speed to market, transformational technologies and startups’ drive to go public) have converged. The result: people doing more with less in a 24/7/365 mode. We are witnessing a shift from being comfortably busy to being part of a nonstop workshop. Employees feel they are working in a perpetual churn, never getting caught up, and never have the time to slow down to check in with the other parts of their lives. The days of leaving work at the office are gone. The days of turning off the switch to rest the brain and nurture the soul are over.

Is the pain worth the gain? Do the limitless hours and energy dedicated to the company have a positive impact on organizational effectiveness and profitably? Does working longer equate with working smarter and increasing the levels of efficiency? Common sense, careful observation, and widespread research suggest not.

My organization has done some research on the relationship between life-balance and organizational performance. We have observed that as organizations speed up, creativity slows down, and poor decisions and dysfunctional meetings increase. Absenteeism also increases as stressed out employees either don’t show up for work or suffer stress-related medical problems. Stressed employees who do show up often function below optimal levels. Job satisfaction lessens directly, compromising employee performance and loyalty to the company. Diminishing loyalty results in unionization efforts and/or large-scale defections. The relationship between life-balance, performance, productivity, and the organization’s bottom line are clear.

Organizations that effectively create conditions for optimal performance act in three spheres:

      The organizational system.

      Leadership modeling (Whole Life Leadership).

      Individual balance.

Successful organizations implement policies and resources that create cultures with a different perspective on work life and personal life. Leaders model life-balance. Individuals turn off without tuning out.

Whole Life Balance and the Organizational System

To implement policies and resources that promote life-balance, organizations have had to let go of the belief that employees’ work and personal lives are competing priorities—a zero-sum game that sacrifices one for the other. Innovative organizations realize that work life and personal life aren’t competing priorities but integrated and complementary. Rather than viewing concessions to employees’ personal interests as a cost to the organization’s bottom-line, they recognize them as driving high value performance and loyalty. They recognize the whole person, respect that employees come to their company with important life roles, respect those roles, and allow time for employees to articulate and take action on those as well.

These organizations offer employees a wide range of resources and choices, including:

      Whole life development instead of traditional career development - incorporating a process that identifies and takes action on work and personal goals

      Alternative work arrangements in terms of schedule, location, and the organization of work

      A variety of family leave arrangements.

      Meditation rooms

      Flexible time off

      Information and counseling on issues and events specific to life outside work.

      On-site fitness and child-care facilities.

      Rotation of individuals into different roles to avoid burnout.

They seek to avoid human capital burnout by finding creative ways to leverage job satisfaction and enhance the organization's performance goals while allowing the individual to pursue personal goals. Organizations operating with this psychologically healthy environment make better decisions, inspire creativity and mindful decisions, and have a more engaged workforce.  By slowing down to a realistic pace and remaining focused on key strategic drivers, these organizations thrive in this post-hypergrowth economy.

Whole Life Leadership

There is a crying need for a new leadership—what we call whole life leadership—that understands the value of living and leading a balanced life. Leadership excellence starts with living your whole life with integrity before you can effectively lead and set healthy examples for others. Organizational success and profitability are not driven through compartmentalizing your life, but rather blending and integrating all the important dimensions of your whole life. When whole life leadership is not practiced, the parts of the organization hit the hardest are the middle and bottom of the organization. They tend to be caught in everyday minutiae and lose sight of the bigger picture and sense of prioritization.

Leadership behavior turns a company’s expressed policies and values around life-balance into the actual norms that drive behavior. It's important that leaders realize the impact they have on others. Think of the messages conveyed about life-balance when a leader sends email at 1:00 am. (“I have no life and I expect you to have none also”). As a leader, setting clear expectations and boundaries for individuals and teams is important. Creating and sustaining a culture where it’s okay to check out at 5:00 p.m and be with the family, have dinner with friends, or just to take a bike ride and breathe is an important part of the equation for cultivating a workforce that works smarter, leverages the best of itself, and exhibits a sense of loyalty and commitment to the organization. The new leader needs to be mindful of setting realistic expectations and a healthy pace.

Leaders who recognize the bottom line impact of life-balance not only encourage employees to do the following, but they also model these behaviors themselves:

      Clarify what’s important. Keep the organization focused on the strategic direction and the most important business priorities. Minimize reactive firefighting responses.

      Take vacation time rather than hoard it. 

      Shut the door, turn off the phone, and ignore email in order to contemplate innovative approaches to work or envision new strategic opportunities.

      Align expectations with the realities of human capacity.

      Avoid over-communication.

      Don't let technology take control of life; encourage others to turn off the technology gadgets. Being totally wired will eventually burn out the individual and the organization.

      Don’t expect employees to be available 24/7.

      Avoid activity for the sake of activity. Activity does not always equal progress. Avoid the proverbial hamster spinning on its wheel in its cage—this creates a lot of activity but gets the hamster nowhere in the end.

Whole life leaders operate with the assumption that work and personal life can be integrated. They exhibit a passion for work and a strong work ethic while also keeping people focused on what’s important in times of unpredictability and great change. They leverage diverse human capital and ensure a sense of wholeness and compassion for one’s whole life. They recognize that, as when driving a car, once the systems or engine begins to break down, it doesn't matter where you are headed; you’ll never get there unless all the individual parts of the system work to full capacity. This type of leadership gives employees a stronger commitment to the organization and the overall organizational performance improves.

Living the Balanced Life: The Individual’s Impact

Although much of the reason for an off-balance scorecard is due to the organization’s operating model and direction, ultimately, the one in control is the individual. The pattern of today’s worker is one of being caught up in the perpetual motion of the organization—unwilling to give oneself the space or permission to slow down, to realize when we are in the churn and/or basically out of balance in our whole lives.

In my coaching practice, I see many leaders facing extraordinary demands from the organization while also making high demands on themselves. Many are dealing with whole life-balance symptoms such as fatigue, self-doubt, and ineffective communications. For some, the imbalance brings with it the risk of career derailment. More times than not, they indicate that they wish they could set more boundaries around all the important dimensions of their life. As a recent executive shared with me, “If I had a chance to set the clocks back again, I would not have made so many compromises on the personal side of my life.” In other words, you just can’t buy some things back.

It’s important that executives make critical assessments before jumping into new roles. Leaders must ensure that they can cope with the new demands and changes the company may ask of them and be sure that ambitions do not get them into a job where they can’t excel. Today, several breakthrough tools, assessments, and learning methods can be applied to enable leaders to identify life imbalance, assess its consequences and develop practical and actionable steps for achieving whole life-balance and leadership excellence. The goal for today’s leader is to think of life-balance not as a balancing scale, but as something more fluid. At the same time, they need to realize that taking time out for family, friends, and personal things is not only an issue of self-preservation, but also something that carries over to the morale and productivity of the whole organization which they lead. 

Success in this new economy requires increased levels of creativity, breakthrough decision making, healthy relationships, and leaders who cultivate the right culture that nourishes the concept of whole life performance—one that connects healthy neurons across the organization and then gets out of the way to enable extraordinary things to happen. This not only suggests that we need healthy functioning organizations, but also human capital operating with a whole life mindset—knowing when and where to disconnect. Those organizations and leaders that embrace and commit to balancing individual and organizational interests will achieve extraordinary results.

Rebecca Shambaugh is Founding Principal of Women in Leadership and Learning and President/CEO of Shambaugh Leadership Group. Prior to founding her company, Shambaugh served in key operations and staff leadership roles for General Motors, Fairchild Industries, and Amax, Inc. She never tires of preaching the importance of work life balance for people and organizations. Contact her directly at rsslg@erols.com.

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