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If You Want a Life, Act Like You Mean It

Dec. 3, 2008 — I was interviewed by Kyra Cavanaugh for an article that recently appeared on her LifemeetsWork Web site. Since the issue of self-accountability seems to have resonated with some of you who have taken the time to respond to this essay, I’m recapping it here. Please feel free to jump into the fray.

What I think the next evolution in the work life field has to be is that employees get into the act on their own behalf. This may sound weird, but employees have almost been left out of consideration. 

Take flexible work arrangements. There's a right way to establish them, which is to involve the employee in a two-way negotiation process with their supervisor or team.  After all, the outcome is their own work schedule, over which everyone needs some control. But too often, a proposal is put forward, goes into a black box, and comes out the other end with the employee being told what's going to happen to them with no direct involvement.

Employees can achieve more satisfactory outcomes for both themselves and their employer if they become more proactive than they have been to date. 

What I've never understood, frankly, is why employees are so passive in general, sometimes to their own detriment. Why do they take being told what to do in arbitrary, sometimes harmful ways? Why do they keep working more and more, with increasingly less support? Why will they do this even at risk of their own health, fanning the obesity epidemic and serving as poor role models to their own children? Why do they rank quality time with their family lower than their work?

These patterns have persisted through several decades of work-life research that shows employees go to great lengths to protect the interests of their employer, often sacrificing the needs of their families and sometimes even jeopardizing their marriages and personal well-being. It is no mystery why this country’s health-care costs continue to escalate. That’s a prime example of an outcome that harms all organizational stakeholders (including investors), and it must ultimately be addressed by changing the way we choose to organize work.

Ironically, employees don’t seem to understand their own collective power for change. Nor do they realize that the changes they need to be successful are equally positive for the organization they serve. I've had a long career across many industries and have never encountered an organization yet where leadership doesn’t respond if half a dozen or more employees come forward with a united voice about a workplace issue in a constructive way, and say, "Here's what we're hearing and seeing, and here's how we think this could be fixed."

Nobody can give you a life. You have to believe fervently that you deserve one, define what your personal priorities are with as much clarity of purpose as your performance objectives at work, and then be willing to fight for them. It's a lot like democracy and freedom — achieving your own work-life effectiveness requires vigilance and relentless hard work. No one coasts uphill.

Reader Comments

Mon. December 8, 2008 3:17 PM
Heidi Schaller

I agree with you that employees may appear as “passive” on this issue. In many cases, employees are fearful of causing friction, or tension with their Manager or peers. That can actually cause more stress, which then creates a feeling of, “Why bother?” On the other hand, as someone who has never been accused of being “passive,” I agree with you that employees should at least ask for what they need. After all, if we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will?

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of WorldatWork and its affiliate, Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP).


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