By Ryan W. Quinn
There is a phrase used in Bob Quinn’s book Deep Change that is intentionally provocative—perhaps a little too provocative: “being willing to die for the organization that would kill you for caring.” I once had a discussion with someone about this phrase, and her reaction was immediate and visceral: “I can’t see why anyone would die for their organization. I wouldn’t.”
I can understand why she felt that way. In a world where there seems to be a new biggest scandal every year from corporations, governments, religions, and other organizations, many of our organizations inspire more mistrust than they inspire commitment, and certainly not sufficient commitment to fall on the sword for them. And, frankly, if I am going to feel that level of commitment for anything, it would be more likely that I would feel it for my family or other loved ones, not my organization.
The lack of commitment we feel toward our organizations, however, may say more about our particular view of our organizations than it does about who does and does not deserve our commitment. In fact, sometimes, our lack of commitment to our organizations may, in fact, hurt our families or loved ones (and, conversely, our lack of commitment to our families and loved ones may hurt our organizations).Unintended Impacts across Work and Family Boundaries
Recently, Gabriel Grant, a colleague of mine at Yale University, who has posted on our blog before, wrote a letter to his daughter in his own blog, entitled “Yesterday I Quit Blaming Past Generations for the World Not Working, Today I Quit Blaming My 9-Month-Old Daughter”:
You know we’ve asserted you can be and do anything you want in life. What you don’t know is that when you were born there was a moment where I did not hold myself to create that for you.
I showed up late, missed deadlines, and skipped things entirely, and I got away with it by telling people I was a new father and showing them your adorable photographs.
After nine months, this easy out became habit and I started thinking to myself that you could be and do anything you want, but I couldn’t because of you. You became my recurring excuse for not honoring myself, my word, or my commitments. For some time, I told myself I could be a father first, while fulfilling less of my other dreams. But what happened was I brought my discontent home to you and your mother.
I promise you I will fulfill on my dreams such that you know that anything is possible for your life and the world you’ve come into.
I find many things to admire in this letter, but one point is of particular interest for the topic I am addressing today: “For some time, I told myself I could be a father first, while fulfilling less of my other dreams. But, what happened was I brought my discontent home to you and your mother.” Where does this kind of discontent come from? I think Gabriel is saying that it comes from having high standards (his dreams) and not living up to them. We have written before about how we humans often fail to live up to our values, sometimes without even realizing it, because of our astounding abilities to rationalize (e.g., “I’m a new father”). These rationalizations, however, weigh us down, and they become burdens for our loved ones as well. Our lack of commitment to our organizations, for our families’ sakes, can sometimes ends up hurting our families.
What Is an Organization That I Should Care About It?
If an organization is nothing more than an instrument or a machine, used to enrich the owners or top managers of the organization, then we would be justified to show it no more commitment than necessary to obtain our paychecks (or other benefits).
If, however, an organization is made up of the intersecting lives of human beings, each with his or her own wants, needs, hopes, desires, fears, and humanity, then it may be more than an instrument or a machine for financial production. Organizations can be opportunities for livelihood and personal identity, means of contributing to customers and society, opportunities for people to achieve mutual excellence through collaboration and hard work, and communities of people who have given their word to perform particular roles.
In other words, an organization is a vehicle for contribution, fulfillment, self-expression, and integrity as much as it is an economic entity. It is a place in which our values and aspirations are constantly in play. We lose track of this easily in our economically-oriented world.
When Commitment to Family Benefits Work
The same principle works in reverse. Sometimes we do our workplaces a disservice when we do not prioritize our family, loved ones, or personal lives over our workplace. Some companies, for example, create dysfunctional organizational norms, decreased employee health (with associated costs for the organization as well as the individual), lower productivity, and even ethical problems because of a culture that demands that employees place their work above everything else in their lives.
I know of companies, however, that have strong norms for getting people home to their families and personal lives after an honest day of work, and who reap rewards of health, loyalty, and positive cultures as a result. There are also other factors at play, of course, but when people have the courage to stand up for their personal lives in their organizations, the organization is often better off as well, and not just the individuals.
One research domain where this topic has been studied, at least to some degree, is called “work-family enrichment.” For years, research on work-family conflict focused on how work life and home life created problems for each other and examined how people could buffer these life domains from each other.
More recently, scholars have found that the opposite can be true, that work can improve home life and home can improve work life. This does not happen automatically, though. It requires that people design their work and home lives in ways that help them develop complementary resources, such as skills, perspectives, optimism and efficacy, relationships, flexibility, and material resources in one domain that are also helpful in the other domain. This may involve asking ourselves what we need from each domain of our lives in order for that domain of our life to enrich the other domains, or on a deeper level, it may involve merging our aspirations so that work and life efforts are part of the same goal. We can wait for life to happen fortuitously to us. Or, we can go out and make those things happen.
I have seen people improve their families through work commitment and improve their work through family commitment. I have one friend who was a young agent in a work-all-day Madison Avenue advertising firm who, with a great deal of trepidation, accepted some outside-of-work responsibilities that he thought would make him less competitive than his peers. He did the best he could though, and found out at his end-of-the-year performance review that his managers appreciated the way he worked. Another friend told me a story about how he risked his career to do what was right in his organization and his family became better off—both from greater earning opportunities and from his example of integrity and courage.
What if my friends’ gambles had not paid off? Would they still be worth it? Risks, of course, do not always have happy endings. It would be foolish to say they do. But risk goes both ways. Does the risk of taking action worthy of “dying for” lead to fulfillment? What are the risks of not taking action? Choosing not to take risks for the organization or for one’s family may offer a more certain outcome, but may also increase the chances of living a deadened or discontented life. I appreciate Gabriel’s reminding me of this.