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October 2010


The assumption that there is something called “work/life balance” is as delusional as it is pernicious.

By this reckoning, only when you leave “work”, does “life” begin. No “life” allowed at work! Lifeless drones going mechanistically through the motions, is indeed something many companies seem to have mastered. However, it is nothing to emulate.

There is only life — and it has personal and professional aspects. It’s one continuum. Huge problems in engagement, productivity and passion take place when we separate who we are from what we do.


Libby Sartain wrote a book called HR from the Heart; a compelling if audacious title. But then, she should know. She was once refused a job; post MBA in the 70’s, for “smiling too much”. At another job she left after a boss told her she was an exemplary contributor but had to rein herself in as she was too raucous. The definition of this was laughing out loud in the hallways! Such an outbreak of happiness would definitely lead people to question her seriousness. Only the abjectly miserable can be serious I suppose is the suggestion. Not surprisingly she ended up in, and stayed on to flourish at Southwest Airlines. She retained her soul and her infectious laugh, and was able to deploy her intelligence for uses other than self-censorship.

Too many organizations prevail upon their people to look, act, feel and come across in ways diametrically opposed to what they are like in other moments in their life. Thus the Iron Curtain between “work” and “life” starts to come down.

We provide financial incentives at work, believing these are the primary levers of motivation. We sometimes do this in lieu of other incentives like purposeful work, effective mentoring, a sense of meaningfulness, belonging to a community of peers who challenge and support you. Imagine at home providing financial incentives for people to have dinner together, or offering a “bonus” if homework is done, or a “bribe” to go visit a sick friend.

Do we play lawn football or go to the theater because we are paid to do so? We need a living wage, and our rewards are a great way of keeping score. But if paying more produced great productivity, certain oil-rich countries would be hotbeds of organizational enterprise rather than swamps of transactional survivalism as everyone feels as replaceable as piston rods.

Suppose you did a forced ranking among your friends and published it for their edification. Or did this among your children, and rather than trying to help everyone “win” in relevant ways, you played one against the other, in some zero sum version of the Apprentice. Rather than commanding huge speaking fees, and boasting at top golf resorts about how you got rid of the deadwood, you’d be checked into a facility to explore your proclivity for psychological child abuse or would have friends fleeing you en masse. And how do you congruently preach team-work at work and expect someone not to secretly rejoice at someone else’s misfortune (however unearned) when there are only a few spots at the top of the heap?


Grown people who can legally carry fire-arms in some countries, marry, build homes, raise children, vote, are suddenly rendered untrustworthy juveniles allegedly by crossing the threshold of their work space. Companies increasingly police what is being called “cyber-slacking” by monitoring what is being done via virtually every click of a keyboard. Heaven forefend that the person who stayed up late to get their boss a presentation they needed in Tokyo that morning, take 15 minutes and book their week-end away in a lull between assignments during the work day.

What, after all are we monitoring, results or activity? Surely as long as work gets done, there shouldn’t be merit badges given for taking longer, or being manically available at all hours of the day, or for being unable to take downtime like a responsible adult as long as deadlines are met and you follow through on accountabilities.

As someone observed, we are asked to bring so little of ourselves to work, that the little part of us that we do bring, gets easily burned out. Heap seemingly irrelevant tasks on someone, and they’ll get bored and depleted. However, crosswords, Sudoku, video games, chess, golf, and more, show how deeply people will get immersed, challenge themselves, and hang in past frustration when they have clarity of goals, rules of engagement, some role models of excellence, and are allowed to practice and grow — while having some fun in the process. Why not help our work have elements of this?

What sociologists call “display rules” relate to how you are expected to come across in a work-place. Most organizations have behavioral default settings. One major multinational we know very well frowns on those who agitate, who confront, who rattle cages, who take on the bureaucracy. As alas sometimes these very people deliver results, they move on in the company…but far less than the toadying appeasers who curry favor with the right bosses. Thus amiability, congeniality, flowery verbal pomp with which to drown out the import of a tough message, all abound.

Other companies have the opposite. Bare-knuckle confrontation is the aim…”we tell it like it is”. Here, building bridges is for sissies, and you take someone out for a duel, not rapprochement. Winner takes all, corporate Darwinism. When collaborators and those who can build coalitions emerge, while also being able to thrive in the cut and thrust of the environment, they are lauded. Being able to be charming, right after you metaphorically knock a tooth out makes you “multi-faceted”.

Companies in short often train, recognize, filter and support those who express the “right” feelings and weed out, discourage or marginalize those who don’t.


Like many things that have gone awry, there is more than a grain of sanity in aspects of this. Bill collectors need to be pushy, to inject urgency in their calls, “Do you ever want to buy a car, or be able to buy a house again…?” Police officers have to be commanding and demanding in certain situations. Service professionals in restaurants have to be friendly and charming.

These are prescribed emotions and states. Is this not the very choice of a culture rather than “manipulation” as we’ve made it seem above?

Two things have to be remembered here. First we need to look for people who naturally thrive in such situations. People who get their kicks from following through and eliciting commitments for example, or who get high on serving people and seeing them enjoy an experience.

But secondly, there are many paths to the same result. Someone may build a better mousetrap so to speak, as long as we monitor what they achieve, rather than inflicting a meticulous “paint by the numbers” approach downloaded from some corporate norm. This person may “counsel” rather than terrorize in the case of the bill collector, or be racier with banter rather than sweetly charming with manner in a service environment.

The twin issues are talent and authenticity. We have to be able to find our own way to flex our own talents, within some approved boundary, towards an identified bull’s eye. The boundaries are a must, we’re not preaching anarchy. But micromanagement is terrible as it assumes no innovative approach, no “pattern interrupt” can possibly work, and totally dials out the idiosyncratic imagination and initiative of a person we usually claim we want to have “act like a leader”.

Imagine how terrifying it may be if they stop “acting” and start being a leader!


In life at large, friendships and intimate relationships are some of the greatest blessings we treasure. At work this has far more value than we’ve ever realized.

Gallup in their survey of high productivity, high passion environments found that a critical component of people wanting to be present and to give their best is whether their workplace is a source of valued relationships. No one wishes to let their mates or buddies down. With a sense of community comes a sense of responsibility. The military excels in creating a sense of comradeship and mutual accountability where literally you count on each other for your lives. Giving people a sense of belonging, and actual people (rather than corporate “masks”) to get to know and commit to and with, is powerful. It reduces alienation and enhances the same energizing impact that relationships have outside of work.

The history of work was much more like this anyway. People worked on farms or in small shops, within a community. Your character, your work ethic, all was broadcast at work and otherwise — by your qualities as a friend and neighbor.

People often worked harder in small businesses or on their own land, but they saw the fruits of their labor more directly. Family members often contributed to the work and so again “work” and “life” mingled, in both its demands and its rewards.

Throughout history as corporatization came more to the fore, new equations had to be sought. Ford, calculating the staggering costs of the 300% turnover in people they experienced in their early days, went to the other extreme participating in something called welfare capitalism. While some of the practices reached a level of intrusiveness (collecting personal data, making sure people had a certain profile, becoming a cultural influence in small towns, and essentially looking after all aspects of an employee’s life including health and retirement) that caused concern, the legacy remains to some degree.

Finding a balance between being interested in a person’s whole life, and seeking to take it over, has been the focus of studies of Japanese management practices (where company people were housed together, took vacations together, and more) as well as Western versions (Theory Z) which looked for other ways to engage employees as more than just economic agents.

In fact, the Japanese success in bringing elements of their management practices, employee engagement, democratizing of decision-making and co-ownership of quality to a very different culture, the United States (producing results from the same community of talent unimagined by local carmakers) is illuminating.

Many times, creating and nurturing a robust palpable culture that everyone is influenced by and invested in, proud of and can fairly participate in, as Southwest Airlines, The Four Seasons Hotels, GE and Apple all have done, can also help create a context for connections and community that vivify a workplace. This clearly can and does happen without a company becoming an intravenous drip in people’s entire existence.


Great companies inspire, nurture and coach great performances from teams and individuals.

One of the most powerful, low-tech ways to do this is by getting to know people and choosing how to design their job for maximum value to the company as well as maximum synergy with their own strongest abilities.

Another way is to customize recognition and encouragement by understanding what matters to them. Small teams can be aware of anniversaries, important family moments, tragedies and challenges, hobbies and interests, of their members and respond accordingly.

A top performing global company we know operating out of Asia, had an important leader whose husband was appointed CEO of another company away from Bangkok where she was based, moving to the Philippines. While if the move had been to Germany this wouldn’t have worked, the global leader decided she could do her current job from the Philippines, and he’d rather have her with her family and children and therefore able to fully focus, rather than being divided in loyalties and distracted in focus. Being given this opportunity, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in psychology to divine how excited she was to prove this “bet” right. She did and over-delivered in every key way, while also empowering and growing the leaders she was supervising back in Bangkok.

The greatest vision session I have ever facilitated was for a client in South Asia, who in crafting a transformational 5 year vision that they meant to deeply and truly pledge themselves to, invited spouses and partners to attend. They wanted them to understand and contribute to where they were proposing to go, and they felt the success of the vision would have ripple effects on the personal success of their spouses or partners, as well as implications on their own lives and choices. Every company I’ve shared this with responds with admiration. Yet, I can count on the fingers of one hand, those who have said, “This makes sense if it’s a real core purpose and vision and we want full engagement. Let’s do it!” Compartmentalization is so much easier — and yet so much more shallow and insubstantial.

Great companies show what Peters and Waterman so brilliantly termed “simultaneous loose/tight properties”.

On the one hand, they may have a “no assholes” policy, i.e. zero tolerance for those immune to input and dedicated to being passion killers and trust vampires. But within the boundaries of mutual respect and integrity, healthy friction from the jostling of authentic differences, allowed to be expressed constructively and creatively, is a lot better than chloroforming individuality and depleting people by having them be chronically inauthentic and absurdly “politically correct”.

A leader at Pixar, the creator of so many imaginatively ground-breaking films said, “I’ve been fired for being disruptive in the past — this is the first time I’ve been hired for it!” Pixar values people who have the determination to show their bosses new ways of doing things. This assumes that Pixar values bosses who are confident enough to at least be so “stirred” if not “shaken” by those they lead.

Not a single study of leadership has concluded: “Leadership matters. So excel in it by being a different person at work than you naturally are. Behave in conformist ways and avoid being real. Keep up that charade at all costs. That’s the key to success.” All of these studies in various ways instead speak about having the guts to discover who you are as a leader by focusing on character, “crucible moments” (defining moments of truth), key relationships and the humility to learn and evolve. Virtually all of them speak of the leader as a coach if not a servant in the sense of serving their people’s needs in order to be able to deliver.

Such leaders don’t develop in vats of inauthenticity.


It’s great to allow people to dress casually, to bring their dogs to work, or pop out to run personal errands. But unless the fundamental relationships at work transform, this is just surface fluff.

Hierarchy is meant, via healthy bureaucracy (almost but not quite oxymoronic), to define boundaries and indicate responsibilities, ways of working and accountabilities.

Hierarchy was never meant to be a relationship. This is why many consultants and thinkers are talking about the “informal organization” or how “work really gets done”. There are social networks that come into being to vitalize the workplace, and to skirt the silly inhibitions that sprout up in all bureaucratic structures.

But if we can consciously aim to create relationships and study what social networks are working and which are delivering so we can catalyze them further, you won’t then have the heart-rending paradox of covert renegades being reviewed poorly by some debased HR review system even when they carry the company forward by making things happen — albeit sometimes against the hierarchical grain.

Picture a company as a web of relationships, interactions and conversations. With that Archimedean lever, you can indeed move your world.

SAS Institute, a privately owned software company, really has 9-5 working hours. This in an industry where the joke is, “Sure we have flexible working hours. You can work any 18 hours you want.” They do this by forcing themselves to focus, to prioritize, to empower, to challenge people to deliver at their best when at work and to effectively collaborate (no endless shuttle-cocking or pass off chains).

The observation that, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion” is true. Instead, draw a line in the sand and challenge yourself to thrive in those hours, and make that timeline as sacrosanct as you do other corporate deadlines. Your results as well as people’s energies will soar.


Enable people to bring more of themselves to work. Ask them to express their talents within boundaries, and share who they are as people. Design work places that allow people to get to know each other and be accountable to each other. Lead by knowing who you’re leading. Respect all time — work and personal.

Let’s lead by results not by appearances and activities. Let’s protect confidence and energy by customizing recognition and encouragement so that it matters to the people we’re seeking to recognize and encourage.

And let’s foster robust living relationships, networks of them, as the real organizational chart. Let’s use hierarchy rather than being abused by it. Let’s let people be “alive” at work and give the rest of their life the credence and respect it deserves. That’s what will bring them back to work with productive engagement and sustained fulfillment as this working part of their life reinforces and re-energizes the rest of it.

Let’s lead so people can both make a living as well as enrich a life!