Each one of us holds a set of beliefs and attitudes — a mindset — that determines how we interpret and respond to situations. That mindset shapes how we interact with others, and therefore it also affects the people we work with — in ways both subtle and profound. A person with a distrustful mindset, for example, views situations at work as competitive and acts to advance his own interest at others' expense by politicking: shifting allegiances, taking credit, assigning blame, withholding or distorting information. These behaviors drive up stress and burnout in others, and undermine organizational effectiveness. On the other hand, a mindset of openness, trust, and generosity promotes behaviors that have beneficial effects on others. In his new book Give and Take, Wharton professor Adam Grant marshals an impressive body of scientific evidence to show how a mindset of generosity radiates to yield broad gains. Here's one powerful research example: a 20-year longitudinal study of healthy employees found that people with social support from coworkers were two and a half times less likely to die prematurely than those without. So it's not an exaggeration to say that by being supportive of people at work, you're not just brightening their day — you're literally helping to save lives.
What you might not appreciate is that the socially-transmitted impact of your mindset extends well beyond those people with whom you interact directly in the workplace. It also touches those to whom they are connected — most notably their partners and family members, but also their larger networks and communities. A growing body of research confirms that the stress employees experience at work crosses over to and impairs the functioning and well-being of family members, even impacting children's performance in school. This chain may unfold as follows: a manager who believes that the best way to manage employees is to "keep them on their toes" habitually makes unreasonable demands, confronts employees publicly, provides little positive feedback, and withholds information. These behaviors cause stress in the employees who are subject to them. When they come home from work at night, the employees are more likely to display anger and impatience. Their spouses' stress levels rise and marital quality declines. Their children learn to leave the parent alone in the evening rather than risk getting yelled at, and their psychological adjustment suffers. And so on, into schools and communities.
Happily, positive relationships in the workplace also have strong ripple effects. The person with a positive, open, and trusting mindset acts in ways that build emotional resources among work colleagues, which in turn enrich the well-being and good functioning of their families.
Let's look at how a fairly common mindset plays out in the workplace and beyond. For years, many managers have believed that a mark of a competent, committed employee is that he or she is able to leave family and personal life at the office door and, while "on the clock," focus 100% on work. This assumption is powerful; it shapes expectations about what it takes to succeed in a career, how companies assess their employees' value and performance, and the way managers behave.
The problem is, it's also flawed. Way back in 1977, Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter coined the phrase "the myth of separate spheres" to describe the problematic way in which managers thought about the interface of employees' work and personal lives. It was a myth then, and it's a myth now. Human beings can't completely segment their lives; expecting them to do so both increases strain and diminishes the gains that can be realized by deliberately seeking wins across multiple areas of life. While companies are increasingly awakening to awareness of the mutual gains of work-life integration, the separate spheres mindset still persists.
What do separate spheres and integration/mutual gain mindsets look like in action? Two starkly contrasting examples from the early years of my own career come to mind. I spent five years in my twenties working for an organization, the first two in one department and the subsequent three in another. Although the departments were located right next to each other and performed related work, they differed considerably in terms of management style and culture. I recall a particular meeting in the first. During a few minutes of small talk while people entered the conference room and settled around the table, I chatted with a colleague whose wife was shortly expecting their first baby. Being a new mother myself, I commiserated with him about late-stage pregnancy and the anxieties leading up to birth. "Will you take paternity leave when the baby is born?" I asked this question knowing that the organization had a policy in place that offered new fathers a week off with pay upon the birth of a child. He smiled and hesitated for a moment before his boss scoffed from the other side of the table, "Paternity leave? I'll give you your paternity leave: a box of cigars." And just like that, the door was shut, not only for the expectant father, but also for anyone else who may have wanted to use the policy. Like many work-life policies, the paternity leave was subject to supervisor approval. But this manager's separate-spheres mindset precluded consideration of what might have been gained by a valued employee, his family, and ultimately by the organization in exchange for a single week off work.
Two years later, when my second child was born, I went back to work full-time after six weeks of maternity leave. I was exhausted and found it stressful to be away from my very young baby for so much time. It was apparent to me that much of the work I performed could be done from home with equal or greater efficiency and no adverse impact on anyone at my office. I decided to approach my boss and request to work from home two days per week for the next six months. Somewhat to my surprise, he agreed. The fact that my manager was open and responded with trust and a willingness to experiment in order to meet both my needs and those of the department was transformative, not just for me, but for my family too. I cherished the opportunity to spend two extra days of each week with my baby. I was much happier and healthier. With my stress reduced, I approached my work with renewed enthusiasm. My husband, then a full-time student, had more time for studying and less work-life conflict. Importantly, I saw my manager as more multifaceted than I had previously appreciated, my respect for him deepened, and I felt a greater sense of commitment to the organization.
So what can you do to radiate positive, productive energy through employees at your workplace and out through their work-life networks? Here are a few ways:
- Be a role model for work-life integration. Be open about your own challenges and strategies for fitting together your work, family, and personal life. Let your employees see you as a whole person.
- Appreciate others as whole people. The fact that everyone you work with has a life beyond work means that the team and the organization is embedded in a larger network of valuable relationships and shared goals. Appreciating the commitments that others have beyond work creates openness to looking for ways to create mutual work-life gains.
- Be willing to experiment. Keep the focus on what your team or organization is trying to achieve and how each person can best contribute to those results. Ask people what would help boost their ability to achieve desired work results while also increasing their well-being beyond work. When employees are involved in designing and implementing solutions, their commitment to making them work is strong.
- Offer socio-emotional support. Understanding of work-life challenges, sensitivity to how work can impact personal life, demonstrating respect, and offering encouragement go a long way in fostering positive relationships that help employees perform while keeping work-life conflict to a minimum.
- Be an advocate for work-life integration in your organization. Promote the cause of work-life integration. Talk about why you believe it's important to recognize and respond to employees' work-life challenges. Share success stories and examples with other managers to help decision-makers in the organization understand how to provide work-life support.
It can be difficult to recognize and change one's own mindset (in fact, this goal is at the heart of the leadership development industry). One way to approach an examination of your mindset is by asking this question: what kind of social influence would you like to have? Whether you realize it or not, each person you supervise or work with connects you to their work-life network — initially to their immediate family, but ultimately to communities and to society. What you must decide is what kind of ripples you want to transmit through these networks, because one way or another, you will create them.
by Monique Valcour | 8:00 AM May 7, 2013
Monique Valcour is a professor of management at EDHEC Business School in France. Her research, teaching, and consulting focuses on helping companies and individuals craft high-performance, meaningful jobs, careers, workplaces, and lives. Follow her on Twitter @moniquevalcour.