A recent article by Katherine Reynolds Lewis in Fortune caught my eye. In it, Ms. Lewis cites a number of workplace and management experts -- including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg -- who suggest that employees need to take more responsibility for balancing their work and personal lives. One expert, Cali Williams Yost, is quoted as follows: "We're reaching a natural point where companies can't do much more than what they're [already] doing: offering the flexibility and rolling it out well. Now we need to use it." Another expert, Brad Harrington, states: "Whether you have a supportive workplace culture or you don't, at the end of the day the responsibility for making it work comes down to each of us. You can only blame your employer for so long."
I'm not so sure about that. Their comments reminded me of a passage from the book The Progress Principle by our colleagues Dr. Teresa Amabile and Dr. Steven Kramer. In the book, Amabile and Kramer discuss nourishers, their term for workplace factors that foster human connection and help elevate engagement. In the chapter on nourishers, the authors quote a diary entry from Helen, one of the participants in their much-lauded study of engagement:
"I just love working from home. I feel like I'm not distracted by the regular work issues at all. I can focus on what I need to focus on without being distracted...I am so very pleased that my project manager allows this for us. I feel like she trusts me to work away from the battle station, and that she needs me to do the work or she wouldn't work out deals with me like this. What a great boss! She is the best." [excerpted from The Progress Principle, pp. 149-150]
Notice Helen's specific language: "I am so very pleased that my project manager allows this for us" [emphasis added]. Notice, too, how fulfilled and inspired Helen is by her boss's actions. The point is this: increasing employee ownership for maintaining work/life balance certainly sounds good. But the fact is any such effort will likely prove futile in the face of ongoing managerial resistance or obstruction.
What really elevates engagement is when managers like Helen's demonstrate a trusting, respectful, flexible attitude toward employees' work and home obligations. Sure, accountability for managing one's work and life commitments is important. But managers must also recognize their own role in establishing the conditions for people to be successful and fulfilled. When that happens, employees truly thrive.