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Dr. Matt Grawitch: April 2009 Archives

We all probably remember the worldwide concern that erupted over avian flu. That was going to be the next pandemic. Scientists were sure of that fact! Governments poured billions into working on a vaccine, developing a crisis plan, and other well-documented spending forays. Essentially, the whole world, or at least 25% of it was going to come to an end.

Has avian flu become the next pandemic? Not yet! Unfortunately, something that was completely missed, swine flu, has made all of the recent headlines. Over 100 people have died so far in Mexico, and cases are showing up in the US.

On a website devoted to psychologically healthy workplace practices, you might be wondering, “What does this have to do with organizations?” Well, the answer is quite simple. Be careful when you latch on to some new concern or some new management fad, because it might not be the “pandemic” approach!

We are constantly bombarded with new or re-packaged perspectives, from emotional intelligence to total quality management to servant leadership, and on and on. Some companies invest millions of dollars integrating such programs, often by lining the pocket of a consulting company that provides these specialized services. Yet, how many of these approaches have received true scientific study, demonstrating that they will yield the desired results over a long period of time? Some of them have, but many of them have not!

How many companies invested in the strategies and approaches laid out in Good to Great? And how many of these companies are aware that two articles in the Academy of Management Perspectives in 2008 suggested that, at best, greatness was fleeting? Many of the companies showcased were no longer performing greatly, which calls into question the sustainability of any prescriptive approach.

The key point here is not that avian flu is completely irrelevant, that Jim Collins had it wrong, or that new approaches are automatically bad. It’s just that organizations need to be skeptical when it comes to new approaches, conducting sufficient research before implementing possible “fads.” If you are a multi-national corporation with a lot of slack financial resources, the fads might hurt, but they won’t kill. But, if you are a medium-sized company, a small business, or a non-profit organization, putting all your eggs into the current management fad might be the last mistake you ever get to make with your organization.

A recent article in Business Week contends that the emotional intelligence of the workforce is going down and that emotional intelligence is a skill worth learning. Though Daniel Goleman has convinced the pop culture and many business leaders that emotional intelligence is the Holy Grail of success, actual scholarly research on the topic (reviewed in a recent article in American Psychologist) would suggest that emotional intelligence is an ability. This means that people have a certain natural level of emotional intelligence. If they are low in this ability, no amount of training will push them to be high in this ability. It’s a lot like being naturally athletic.

True, we can help people develop what emotional intelligence ability they have. Although the idea that everyone can be trained to be emotionally intelligent sells books and generates consulting contracts, it does not translate into organizational performance. Furthermore, if you follow the work of Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence is really every positive trait you can think of, like persistence and self-control.

These characteristics are not emotional intelligence! They are nothing but personal self-management. Self-management, not emotional intelligence, dictates our ability to successfully navigate life. It’s not just about our emotions; it’s about being self-aware in all aspects of our lives. Managing emotions is a key part of that, but so is managing impressions, regulating our own personal work behavior, and interacting effectively with others.

I would suggest that people stop throwing away money on books, assessments, and other money-making schemes designed by people who know very little about the actual functionality of emotions. Emotions provide important information about the state of ourselves, the state of the environment, and the state of our transactions with the environment. They provide important data about a particular situation. And how we regulate those emotions indeed has an effect on ourselves and those around us. So, in some respects, I agree that emotional intelligence can be useful in business settings. We need to learn to adaptively manage our emotions. But, that’s where our agreement ends.

Emotions are only one key element that influences our success. You can be a happy person and an enjoyable person to be around while still being a lousy employee. You can also be someone who knows just the right thing to say in a given situation to get people excited, but then have no idea how to channel that excitement into something useful. So, it seems absurd to believe that over 85% of performance at the top of the organization is based on emotional intelligence. I guess knowing the business, having a clear strategy, and being competent only account for 15% of effective business leadership.

You can learn to better manage your own emotions. However, you are likely never going to take someone who lacks empathy for those around him and turn him into Mahatma Gandhi. Your best bet would be to focus on learning what strengths and weaknesses you actually possess in the workplace. These are learned by having difficult conversations with co-workers, supervisors, and subordinates, not by taking some test of emotional intelligence or reading a book on the subject. Then, you identify a strategy for leveraging what you do well and minimizing the negative effects of things you do poorly. In the end, if you want to spend your time trying to become Mr. or Mrs. Emotional Intelligence, go ahead. However, if you don’t already have it, you’ll never excel at it, and all you’ll become is someone whose weakness is NOT emotional intelligence, not someone whose strength IS emotional intelligence.

I recently attended and presented at the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Conference in Washington DC. During the conference, I was amazed at the negativity that surrounds the topic of work-life balance. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, as blog after blog is published on a weekly basis arguing that work-life balance is an impossible dream. I couldn’t disagree more!

In reality, work-life balance is really about setting realistic expectations, as well as understanding the costs and benefits that come with meeting those expectations. This is because how we feel about our work life and our non-work life (and the way they fit together) is really a product of the choices we make. CEOs choose the benefits of pay and prestige, and that comes with the cost of extra hours (and extra stress). Academics choose autonomy and flexibility, but the pay may be lower than corporate positions, and they often bring work home with them.

It is important to keep in mind that choices we make about our work come with costs AND benefits. So, work-life balance is really about managing life demands in a way that provides the best cost-benefit payoff according to our own personal preferences. It’s not about striking a balance between work and life or “having it all.”

Unfortunately, too many blogs and advocacy groups seem to propagate the notion that we are entitled to do everything we want in a given day or week. We should be able to be productive at work, spend quality time with family, have a lively social life, engage in personal pursuits, and have time to exercise. But, here’s a newsflash: there are only 24 hours in a day and only 7 days in a week. Here’s another newsflash: 100 years ago people worked a whole lot more than we work today!

Work-life balance is really a mindset. When you hate your job, you want to spend as little time working as possible. When you love your job, there never seems to be enough time to accomplish all you dream of achieving. Instead of worrying about finding ways to legislate a maximum amount of work hours (it hasn’t worked well in France), or seeking lucrative escapist benefits (like vacation time), perhaps the solution is to work to help people find a job that they enjoy, where they feel like they are having a positive influence on others and the larger community. Perhaps some of these people will then be able to say they are happy with the way they manage their life, not the way they balance work and life. This approach can help us to stop talking about work-life balance and start talking about the way people manage their “life” demands, with work experiences being a piece of overall life. Ultimately, we choose how big this piece is, hopefully with no regrets.