These days, everyone makes work-life balance decisions—from working mothers and fathers to single people. Work-life balance means making choices and trade-offs and living with their consequences. It’s that simple, and that complex.
Just remember, you are not in this alone. Your company also feels the impact of your choices and actions. With that in mind, let’s take a work-life balance reality check from your boss’s point of view.
1. Your boss’s top priority is competitiveness. Of course he wants you to be happy, but only inasmuch as it helps the company win. In fact, if he is doing his job right, he is making your job so exciting that your personal life is becoming a less compelling draw.
It’s not that bosses want you to give up your family or your hobbies or other interests. They’re just driven by the desire to harness all your energy for the company. More than anything, bosses want to win— that’s what they’re paid to do.
In most cases, bosses see a good offence as their best defense against life’s yearnings— and the strategy is to make work so exciting and so much fun that people don’t actually want to go home for dinner, let alone play amateur chess.
2. Most bosses are perfectly willing to accommodate work-life balance challenges if this flexibility has been earned with performance. The key word here is: if.
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Work-life balance really works as an old-fashioned chit system. People with great performance accumulate chits that can be traded in for flexibility. The more chits you have, the greater your opportunity to work when and where and how you want.
You cannot talk about this chit system, however, without mentioning face time. Despite all the technologies that make virtual work possible, most managers are simply more comfortable promoting people they’ve seen in meetings and hallways or worked with during a really tough crisis.
3. Bosses know that the work-life policies described in the company brochure are there mainly for recruiting purposes, and that real work-life arrangements are negotiated one-on-one in the context of a supportive culture.
Real work-life balance arrangements are negotiated by bosses and individuals on an as-needed basis, using the performance-for-flexibility chit system we just talked about. That chit system requires a supportive organizational culture that encourages bosses to strike creative work-life deals with high performers, and one in which high performers feel comfortable talking with their bosses about their work-life challenges.
In such a culture, bosses don’t have to clear work-life arrangements with human resources departments, nor do they feel forced to adhere to formal work-life policies that might actually limit their ability to win. If you want real work-life balance, find a company that accommodates it as part of its everyday business.
4. People who publicly struggle with work-life balance problems or continually turn to the company for help get pigeonholed as ambivalent, entitled or incompetent—or all of the above. Rarely do people in the top 20% of any organization complain about work-life balance. At home, as at work, they’re so competent that they’ve figured out and implemented sustainable solutions.
Below-average performers, by contrast, have three strikes against them. First, they tend to be less expert at organizing their time and sorting through priorities, not just at work, but at home. Second, because of their middling performance, these people have been told they have limited chances of advancement. That lowers their self-confidence and raises their ambivalence.
And finally, they’re not as financially secure as people in the top 20, giving them fewer resources to buy work-life balance with nannies or personal trainers or whatever. Put all three dynamics together, and it’s no wonder underperformers struggle publicly with work-life dilemmas and ask for help so often. So before you open your mouth a fifth time to ask for limited travel and Thursday mornings off, know that you’re about to make a statement. No matter what words you use, it’ll sound like: “I’m not really into this.”
5. Even the most accommodating bosses believe that work-life balance is your problem to solve. In fact, most of them know that there are really just a handful of effective strategies that will help, and they wish you would use them.
Look, only you can figure out your values and priorities. Only you know what trade-offs you are willing to make, and only you can envision their consequences. Only you can organize your schedule and your life, at work and at home, for the balance you have chosen. That’s why, at the end of the day, most bosses correctly believe that work-life balance is your problem to solve, not theirs.
When you get right down to it, these are the few things you need to know if you want to have it all: Achieving work-life balance is a process. Getting it right is iterative. You’ll get better at it with experience and observation, and eventually, after some time passes, you’ll notice it’s not so difficult anymore. It’s just what you do.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
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Adapted from Winning (HarperBusiness Publishers, 2005) by Jack Welch with Suzy Welch.