Stew Friedman Says Work-Life Balance is a Myth

Posted in: PSA Partnership

“Balance,” Stew Friedman told the crowd at a recent PSA Partnership event, “is bunk.”

Friedman is a professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who successfully put his research into practice in the early 2000s during a stint as a senior executive for leadership development at Ford. He has based much of his work around the idea of integrating work and life, yet Friedman doesn’t like the concept of work-life balance, we’ve all been hearing about for years. Holding both palms up to signify a balance scale, Friedman claimed that the pursuit of balance doesn’t actually lead to happiness because a balancing act requires you to alternate your focus between different areas of your life. In that approach, putting effort, time, and attention into one area, work, let’s say, means that the other area, life, suffers a corresponding negative reaction – if one goes up, the other goes down.

“Balance is just a bad idea,” Friedman said. “You should not be pursuing balance, and if you are, you’re going to experience heartache and be disappointed. I want you to think instead about creating beautiful music — harmony — over the course of your own life.”

This notion of harmony ran through Friedman’s engaging talk at PSA, which was rooted in the concepts and experiments he lays out in his book, Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life. “What does it take,” Friedman asked, “to have an impact not just at work, but in all the different parts of your life?”

Four-Way Wins

Friedman asked the PSA Partnership audience to think about leadership across four distinct areas: work, home, community, and private self (mind, body, and spirit). Friedman had audience members rate how they value each of the four areas, how they think they allocate their time across the areas, and how they think they perform in each area.

According to Friedman, the idea of total leadership starts with asking yourself three questions:

  1. What can I do that’s good for me and my family?
  2. What can I do that is good for my community or society in ways that they see as meaningful or valuable?
  3. What can I do that is good for my business life?

There’s no ‘or’ between these questions.

One inhibitor that participants identified was time — despite the fact that they were not supposed to include time as an inhibitor to success in their discussions. The salient point was made, however, that certain (often large) blocks of time are spoken for before a day even begins, particularly in business.

Friedman built on this notion, urging people to “break out of the prison of thinking of time as your only resource, and think instead about the quality of how you use your time to create connections, to build trust.”

“What happens in that time?” he asked. “Are you both physically and psychologically present? Are you there to be useful, helpful, and loving?”

Starting on the path to total leadership, Friedman explained, is about taking a fresh look at what is real, starting to generate ideas for innovation, and realizing you probably have more discretion to make changes than you thought. By studying these questions for many years, Friedman and his colleagues at Wharton have found that people who are great leaders in all parts of their lives follow these three principles:

Be Real

Act with authenticity by clarifying what’s most important to you. This can help you see what matters most to you, as someone interested in creating harmony among the different parts of life. “Assess your competing priorities and how they fit with your values and your vision of the world you’re trying to create,” Friedman said.

One exercise to get started is to tell the story of three or four events that happened to you throughout your life that turned you into the person you are now. “Everybody’s got that story,” Friedman said, noting that this inevitably informs what you believe in, what you care about, and what you’re willing to fight for. Another exercise is to picture yourself 15 years from now: You wake up. What happens? Who are you with? What do you do in the morning, the afternoon, the evening? Why does it matter?

Be Whole

Act with integrity. Friedman explained the Latin root of the word “integrity” is “integer,” meaning “one.”

“How do the pieces fit together?” he asked. “How do they cohere in your life, as one? Are you the same person wherever you go?”

Friedman suggests listing the most important people to you at work, at home, and in the community. Consider why they are important to you, what they expect of you, what you expect of them, how well you are meeting their expectations, and how those expectations match up or conflict across all the groups.

A next step is to have conversations with those people, saying, “Here is what I think is important to you, do I have it right?” Or say, “Our relationship matters to me going forward, I want to spend some time talking about how we can improve it.” Or, “Here’s what I see as being important to you, what am I missing?” You may be surprised to hear that your assumptions about what’s important to others aren’t entirely correct, and you can quickly adjust your efforts to focus on what really matters.

According to Friedman, being open, vulnerable, and willing to be wrong in conversations like this will lead to the best results.

Be Innovative

Act with creativity. “You are a scientist in the laboratory of your life,” as Friedman put it. In his book he writes, “To be innovative by acting with creativity is to adapt to new circumstances with confidence. Doing so keeps you vital, and effective leaders are continually rethinking the way things get done while focusing on results.”

When working out experiments, Friedman noted that taking small steps and finding small successes will give you the confidence to try bigger ideas, and to move forward by looking for ways to create change that is sustainable.

Stew Friedman, author of numerous books on leadership, is the founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program and the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project. His radio show, Work and Life, airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on SiriusXM 111. Click here for more information on total leadership.

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