Elizabeth Gray wasn’t getting anywhere with her husband on a particular parenting issue. Always admiring parents who have the kind of control she’s accustomed to having at the office, she finally turned to the kind of tactic that comes in handy at work: a contract.
“I’m a project manager,” she says, “so I managed it like a project.”
The document was intended to lay out a compromise over the couple’s one source of friction. She valued her boys doing chores while her stay-at-home husband was more permissive. So, the document attempted to close the gap, including “Whereas” resolutions stating that consistency is important in parenting and that the boys would get the same answer from both of them, she recalls. She would have quoted the two-and- a-half page contract verbatim but, after they negotiated it last July, she ripped it up in a fit of frustration when she felt her husband breached the agreement by December.
“It was an abject failure,” she says.
It’s one of those mistakes easily made as the line between work and family vanishes: thinking that the very expertise and practices that work well to get results and build influence at work will work just as well at home. You don’t need to have much pull in the office to recognize that you have even less at home.
“I not only don’t have any authority,” says Leonard Clapp, a retired lab technician with a penchant for sciences, “but my wife, who is something of an insomniac, immediately falls asleep as soon as I begin speaking on the subjects which are dear to my heart.”
“It’s not just the authority that declines,” adds Bob Hoffman, a chief operating officer. “The whole economic system shifts, from capitalism at work to communism at home.” If metrics existed for the family as they do for business, “you’re measuring gross family happiness and yours doesn’t count more than anyone else’s—and probably less,” he says.
Family life informs work more than the other way around. It goes beyond boasts that a company is one big, happy family. The home hones skills, such as fostering development, and virtues, such as patience. It’s easy to delegate once you’ve learned to let a toddler spend 23 minutes buttering toast without an overwhelming urge to intervene.
One study shows employees rate their bosses with dependents more highly than they rate their bosses with none. That may be in part because heads of families have to earn authority while office workers, by virtue of the org chart, can simply insist on it.
Families don’t have to buy what someone who can’t fire them sells. “You can be a great boss at work but you can’t get your two-year-old into the bathtub,” says Ellen Galinsky, co-founder of the Families and Work Institute.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild notes that “borrowed authority from the workplace” runs into fear inside the family that the office culture will colonize the home. There used to be little distinction between the two—on farms, for example. But industrialization in the form of factories separated the realms; and because they no longer have a shared business purpose, they clash.
The lack of influence over the family can be mystifying. “It has been puzzling,” says salesman Mark Brown, “because I seem to have some ability to get things done at work.” He suspects there’s an assumption that love makes people more cooperative, so we try less.
Bringing proven office solutions home seems like a good idea. Analyst Chris Moule attended a conference last year in which an executive explained how she used “operational analysis” and colour-coded spreadsheets to show progress with family goals. Moule tried to brandish his “project decomposition” skills by breaking down planning for a camping trip into small tasks. The reaction was unwelcome.
“You don’t have performance reviews at home, except my wife gives me looks,” says Moule. “Usually her look says an awful lot.”
Some think family members charm to disarm, making us as helpless as network engineer Clifford Gormley was when he recently tried to watch some news. “My child was watching Willy Wonka for the fourth time in three days and there was nothing I could do about it,” he says, noting the upside: “It keeps us humble; it keeps us human.”
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