Most managers are well aware that when it comes to this topic, there is no shortage of opinions about what work-life balance means, how to address it, and the impact it has on teams and organizations. More than that, most company training programs don’t prepare managers to talk about this topic because they know scripted, formatted conversations don’t work when it comes to managing issues related to imbalance. Each team, each person, each manager is different.
At most companies, managers avoid talking about the impacts of imbalance because they are unsure of how to begin, what to say, and in most cases have limited resources to support them (and their team) beyond an initial conversation. If a manager does begin a conversation with their team, the conversation can quickly get weighed down in the “pain points” — the impact imbalance is having on the team or individual (or both).
When the conversation is solely focused on the pain points, people get stuck on venting about the impact — things like workload, disengagement, too much email, too many meetings, limited resources, and unclear roles and boundaries. In these types of conversations, it’s hard for managers to identify and/or address the root cause of the problem. This is one of the reasons why managers share that they avoid having these conversations — they are fatigued from all the complaining and feel powerless to help.
Other managers avoid the topic completely because they don’t really want to know the extent of the impact out of fear of learning too much and not knowing how to address issues that blur the lines between personal and professional support.
To that end, the most common work-life balance strategy for managers is to address the pain points one at a time with an endless sea of tips and tricks in order to try to ease the greatest pain of the moment in an attempt to create short-term stability until the next big deadline, fire drill request or reorganization.
The reality is both managers and individual contributors have accountability for creating balance. The only successful strategy to address this topic is to start talking about “it”, the work-life balance elephant in the conference room. Change can only begin when managers are willing to (and have the courage to) have a sincere conversation about the atmosphere of the team. When the focus shifts from venting about pain points or blaming others to really discussing the root causes and listening to each other’s needs, imbalance can start to be disrupted.
Talk about the greatest pain points first, and ask, without judging or criticizing, what is driving this behavior and how managers can begin to break the imbalance loop. Then, work as a team to set boundaries to support or protect team needs based on what type of support is required at this point in time, thus setting a foundation to build from issue to issue.
One role of a manager is to lead, and it’s difficult to lead cultural transformation if managers are not willing to talk about some of the real blocks to building a sustainable, profitable organization. Change will not happen overnight. These types of behavioral shifts take time to interrupt, and can only happen one behavior, one authentic conversation at a time.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on May 4, 2016.