Work-Life Balance is PC for “Slacker”

The thought just hit me. Merging a CBS News report I watched this morning about how Slackers cost American businesses over $500 Billion in lost efficiencies per year (I won’t quibble with the estimate—even if it is a hyperbole of statistical abuse, the amount is clearly significant) and the book I was reading (Juicing the Orange by Pat Fallon & Fred Senn, 2006) where these advertising executives were writing about connecting, in a global climate, a common business theme (they were writing about United Airlines’ and their ad campaigns {as an aside – I can’t stop playing that damned Gershwin song in my mind as I write this – so I guess something must be working}) and how Americans are business and productivity focused while Europeans are more work-life balanced.

And it struck me ……. maybe that is the problem with this incessant discussion about how people desire a work-life balance; in as much as column inch after column inch of professional literature has been dedicated to this topic along with hour upon pabulum (and mundane) hour of seminars, lead by the modern day charlatan the “executive coach” has pummeled this mantra of this generation or that generation requiring greater work-life balance or they will leave firms for better pastures. Work-life balance is for slackers.

This concept of stressing work-life balance is pure poppycock. It is just a concept that says people want an excuse to be slackers. What people really need isn’t more balance but more extremes. The human capital issue isn’t one of balancing but one of creating extreme opportunities. People simply require a passionate reason to bust their butt on or for something and then to go play just as hard. The X-Games have street luge and it is not for the faint of heart or thin of skin. In this context of leveraging our human capital, the extremeness of the sport is an example of a generation’s demand from themselves to achieve success. Street luge is not for slackers. Work-life balance is for slackers.

It is not balance one seeks. It is opportunity. The opportunity to strut, to stretch, to leap, to fail, and to succeed. All at supersonic speed and with the bounding energy of leopard in pursuit of her dinner. This drive is transferred into their pleasures. Rave parties. Extreme sports. Exotic vacations. All-night gaming. These up and comers – they work hard and they play hard. Work-life balance is not in their vocabulary. Work-life balance is for slackers.

And if balance is not what they are seeking – working to bring more of it only leads to certain failure. Unless the definition of balance is merely the mathematical concept of average or the economic concept of equilibrium, balance is clearly the incorrect word and if words matter at all, the wrong word communicates the wrong concept. Words matter. Work-life balance is for slackers.

So what are we (leaders) to do? First – recognize that work-life balance simply means the Socialization of work. I do not want to work with Socialists. I want to work with stars…and superstars at that. I enjoy associating with people that push the envelope – theirs and mine. I do not learn from slackers and success requires a learning culture. So lets hang out the “No Slackers Here” sign. Work-life balance is for slackers.

Leaders should determine how to push their human capital to achieve greatness. That means leaders have to understand their HC and learn where they want to go and to grow. Then develop work and projects that catapults them further along their careers than they have any right to anticipate. Stop worrying about balance – balance is for tires. Think about extremes. Stop pandering to slackers. Great mind and great workers don’t want to hang with slackers. Slackers are dead-weight anchors and need to be released to the competition. Work-life balance is for slackers.

That means it is just fine to set impossible deadlines. It is critical that their acumen, creativity, stamina, and quest for excellence delivered are tested. Tested to the brink of failure. Then…….after they deliver their leader sends them packing into some X-Game style adventure or pleasure opportunity with the only charge to “recharge” and get ready for the next “shock wave of working adventure”. Slackers need not apply.

Every summer the news and trade press discusses the vacation and work policies of Europe versus the United States. This comparison includes days off, holidays, breaks, benefits, and the like. And the media promulgates that something must be wrong with the American way. Yet each and every year, the leading indicators surrounding productivity, patents, innovation, income, and overall opportunity are not pointed towards the slacker socialists, but instead to those damned unbalanced capitalists. Slackers don’t create; they waste resources, are inefficient, and interfere with success. Work-life balance is for slackers.

Here is to all of those overworked and under-balanced stratospheric HC investors out there. Do not look for balance – that leads to mediocrity. Search instead for opportunities to excel in both business and in life. For truly then, will you find blue skies over that personal rainbow. And leave the slackers behind.

Comments

  1. Good post, Dan. I agree this “work-life balance” mantra is the new fad of the month, along with Gen X, Y and Z.

    I agree with management thinker Charles Handy, in his new book, “Myself and Other More Important Matters” that the metaphor more appropriate for today’s knowledge workers is that of a “portfolio life.” This is simply a mix of different jobs, clients, skils, and perhaps even careers.

    Work and life are not two separate things, but inextricably woven together. I agree that achieveing a “balance” in this area is probably not feasible, nor am I sure it would be desirbable. I think it’s the work balance that matters, enjoying what you do, having passion, constantly stretching yourself (and others) to achieve something larger than any one life.

    I can’t wait for this work-life balance fad to pass, and now I’ll go get my tires rotated.

  2. “Don’t confuse your career with your life.” – Dave Barry

    Was the original post meant as a satire? I understand what you’re saying if you’re talking about Apple, Google, or some company/industry that makes a significant difference in the world, but public accounting?

    I was born at the tail-end of the Gen Xers, so discount what I’m saying accordingly, but regarding the statement, “it is just fine to set impossible deadlines,” in the real-world accounting firms I’ve worked at, the consequence of setting impossible (or even unreasonable) deadlines for employees is that they (stars included) leave the firm for greener pastures, especially the younger ones.

    Congrats if it’s different at your firm, but where I’ve worked the Gen X and Yers feel very little loyalty towards the firm. Most of us view accounting firms as commodities, so setting unreasonable deadlines doesn’t fly in a free (and tight) labor market where we can walk down the street to your nearest competitor, negotiate a better deal, get our signing bonus, and start working less hours with less hassle for the same or greater pay.

    Maybe work-life balance is a fad, but I would submit to you that demographics are not, and what the demographics say is that the accounting profession is aging, and there aren’t enough of us Gen X and Yers graduating with accounting degrees to fill your shoes.

    Supply and demand.

    Currently and for the foreseeable future, we’ve got the better bargaining position. Casual dress, flexible hours, work-life-balance, better coffee, home from work, etc. Get used to it. As one of my twenty-something accounting buddies recently joked, “You can’t fire me, you’re understaffed.”

    “Work hard and play hard” is a cliche. Why would most young accountants want to spend 60-80 hours per week having their “acumen, creativity, stamina, and quest for excellence tested” as a “star” or “up and comer?” At some point, marginal tax rates and burnout set in, and most people realize that it isn’t worth it to sacrifice their youth building someone else’s book of business when it is just as easy to start their own firm and work however hard they want for significantly more money.

    “Work less and play more” is a far healthier way to view life. Maybe I’m a slacker for believing that life is more important than work (and I generally prefer non-extreme sports to extreme sports), but so be it.

    “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” -Ferris Bueller

  3. Fred Mischler says:

    Can’t say I agree that the concept is so easily understood and dismissed. Work-life balance can also mean a direct affront to the kind of “cash-is-king, your way or highway, let others define my life and my values” kind of thinking that this post represents. Don’t get me wrong, most can understand the idea of the invisible hand of the market and that over the long run, there needs to be more income than expense for any enterprise to continue in existence.

    But does that mean that I too have to work 60 hours a week only to satisfy others’ ideas of what it means to be productive. Measures of success are and should be as wide ranging as our individual outlooks on life. The idea that dollars defines success can be the general consensus of business owners or managers. But for any particular individual it may only mean those owners and managers simply won’t employ that individual because they don’t fit into the corporate culture. The individual can and will find that place where the work and personal life feel more balanced.

    It is also interesting that our terms seemed to be getting mashed together. Slacker is a fairly recent term (perhaps popularized in the 1991 movie of that name, but as I recall also used in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High to describe Sean Penn’s character by a decidedly old-fogey-ish Ray Walston as Mr. Hand).

    However, we should note that the present “powers that be” in world control (I am being facetious here, hopefully, you see the humor) are the Boomers who started their lives with free-love and “tuning in, turning on and dropping out.” They had their fun, but now being the paternalistic narcissists they are, don’t want anyone else to express any alternative ideas. It’s also interesting that younger generations now have to work harder with many 2 income homes to achieve the same level of satisfaction that our parents had in their young family years.

    So slacker or hippie or boheme, the question of the level of one’s focus on business to the expense of personal life, or vice versa will continue.

    I don’t think this is a discussion of “to balance work-life or not”. Everyone has issues of such balance. The discussion is the place at which that balance is struck. If the continuum is total work – total freedom, it seems that our society has edged more toward the work side of the line and other societies are not willing to make that same balance. When I worked in Poland, and was getting stressed out by how much work we had to do and that our competition may have been getting the better of us, my CFO said, “the cemetary is full of indispensible people.” Meaning that I needed to stop the stress and deal with the issues we faced but recognizing that working to death did no one any favors.

  4. Dear Ross,

    Thanks for writing, however I think you may have misinterpreted my comments. I have no desire nor would I support any method of “branding” people. I am not branding people as slackers – nor am I suggesting that there are only two types of people (the workaholic or slackers). The gist of my comments were directed to the consultants to the profession(s) and the current lack of any significant leadership in most HC or knowledge based professional service firms.

    I ( and my fellow colleagues at VeraSage) participate in hundreds of conferences annually. In almost each and every one of them, some mouthpiece will lead a session on motivating, retaining, and recruiting people. And during these sessions, the preseter will discuss “work-life balance” as the driving force in today’s successful businesses. These consultants lable Gen X and Gen Y as the generation that refuses to work hard and under the conditions that the boomers thought were required. They continue to tell firm leaders and conference participants that what these “young” people demand is “work-life balance” and they repeat that mantra like its a relegion.

    I agree with you that I only want to work with and for smart people. I don’t want to be around people who operate like slaves or blindly destroying their lives for work.

    My comments were directed for leaders to consider that the truth is that it isn’t just about work-life balance as defined by the “leader” but that balance defined by the individual involved. And I beleive that the leading members of knowledge firms really are driven by extremes and not by mediocrity. As my good friend Ron Baker likes to point out “just show me any business book that is titled “Success through Mediocrity”. You can’t – it would exist as middle of the road is the home of road kill. Mediocrity is for slackers and not for real knowledge workers. And if you agree with this – leaders of knowledge workers need to recognize that motivation is individual and self-defined. Effectively, balance for you isnt’ balance to me.

    Our responsibility as leaders is to recognize what it takes to lead knowledge workers and to recognize as Peter Drucker explained that to effectively lead knowledge workers one must treat them like volunteers. And, volunteers that contribute their time and money to organizations are some of the hardest working people I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with.

    Work should be not only fun and enjoyable, it should be transforming. For consultants and firm leaders to believe that providing merely more vacation time or less stringent working hours will resolve the challenges associated with motivating and leading knowledge workers is not only misleading – it is naive and simplistic.

    Leading a firm is difficult and extremely challenging. Leaders shouldn’t be duped by populist conslant speak.

    Again, thanks for your commments.

    Dan

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