Must Success Cost So Much?

Must Success Cost So Much?

Accept the cliché that success always demands a price and it is usually deterioration of private life. This cliché does not always reflect reality, if handled with a thoughtful, balanced approach.

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. The executives whose private lives deteriorate are subject to the negative effects of what we call emotional spillover. In contrast, there are executives who learn 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.

When individuals feel competent and satisfied in their work—not simply contented, but challenged in the right measure by what they are doing—negative spill over does not exist. Such executives are open to involvement in private life; they experience positive spill over. When work goes well, it can have the same effect as healthy physical exercise—instead of leading to fatigue, it is invigorating.

The authors conducted a study on 2000 male managers. However, their exchanges with some women and some readings of the literature on women managers led them to believe strongly that the ideas they presented are gender agnostic. The authors summarize their findings as follows: for an ambitious person, a well-functioning professional life is a necessary though not sufficient condition for a well-functioning private one.

The Price Some Managers Pay

Even though we recognize that positive spill over 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?

To have a healthy private life, one must manage the negative emotions that arise at work. When the authors began their investigation into the work lives and private lives of managers five years ago, they had the belief that these two sides of life are in fundamental conflict with each other. However, more and more evidence suggests, 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. Let’s look now at what the executive can do to manage the emotional side of work better. They identified three causes of negative emotional spillover: 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. 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.

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.

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

What is meant 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 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.

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. 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. 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.

Career Disappointments

Individuals skilled at self-assessment run a lesser risk not only of finding themselves in the wrong job but also of suffering serious disappointments. It can have immense psychological impact, especially if work is an important part of our lives. The most frequent type of disappointment found in the research is experienced by the older managers whose career flattens 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.” In all cases, the danger is distortion of reality.

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. 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. 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 or developing leisure activities. These activities have, however, a professional quality to them rather than being mere relaxation.

What Organizations Can Do

The authors 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. Management in organizations, however, bears the responsibility for practices and policies that may make it easy for the executive to manage the relationship between his professional and private lives. Four things top managers can do to reduce the work pressures.

  • Managers can help their people by encouraging them not to be devoted solely to career success. Managers often take long hours at work and apparent single-minded dedication to professional success as indicators of drive and ambition. Organizational practices that overvalue effort and climbing and undervalue pride in one’s job and good performance are counterproductive. 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.
  • Since external rewards often pressure people into accepting jobs they don’t fit, the 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. 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.” 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.
  • 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.
  • Managers can help reduce unnecessary stress and uncertainty by protecting their subordinates from worry about events over which they have no control. Organizations 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?

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.