How to Find Success at Work: Navigating the Iron Triangle

Expert in Work/Life Balance

Ellen Galinsky, President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute (FWI) helped establish the field of work and family life while at Bank Street College of Education, where she was on the faculty for twenty-five years. Her more than forty-five books and reports include the best selling Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child NeedsAsk The Children, the now classic The Six Stages of Parenthood and the highly acclaimed Workflex: The Essential Guide to Effective and Flexible Workplaces. She has published over 125 articles in academic journals, books and magazines. At the Institute, Ms. Galinsky co-directs the National Study of the Changing Workforce, the most comprehensive nationally representative study of the U.S. workforce—updated every five years and originally conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor in the 1977. She also co-directs When Work Works, a project on workplace flexibility and effectiveness first funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that has produced a series of research papers, and has launched the Sloan Awards as well as conducted the National Study of Employers, a nationally representative study that has tracked trends in employment benefits, policies and practices since 1998. Information from FWI’s research has been reported in the media more than three times a day since January 2010. In 2011, the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute formed a ground-breaking, multi-year partnership that takes When Work Works out to businesses around the country.

At FWI, Mind in the Making projects include professional development for early childhood educators, interactive learning opportunities for families, 0 – 8 systems building within the Community Schools context, a video series that highlights cutting edge early childhood research, the development of materials for pediatricians, and small grants to diverse learning community partners. Mind in the Making has sold more than 100,000 copies and had more than 1.5 billion media impressions since April 2010. A leading authority on work family issues, Ms. Galinsky was a presenter at the 2000 White House Conference on Teenagers and the 1997 White House Conference on Child Care. She was a planner and participant at the March 2010 White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility and worked with the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor on the Regional Forums on flexibility that continued the work of the White House Forum. She served as the elected President of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the largest professional group of early childhood educators. Ellen Galinsky is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2004 Distinguished Achievement Award from Vassar College. She was elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources in 2005.

A popular keynote speaker, she appears regularly at national conferences, on television and in the media, including the CBS Evening News with Katie CouricWorld News Tonight and Oprah. Ms. Galinsky holds a Master of Science degree in Child Development/Education from Bank Street College of Education, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Child Study from Vassar College and numerous honorary doctoral degrees.

Ms. Galinsky is also a photographer. The latest shows of her photography were at the New York Hall of Science (2006 and 2012), UMA Gallery in New York City (2004 and 2007), RiverWinds Gallery in Beacon, New York (2008), GaGa in Rockland County, New York (2009), Blue Door in Yonkers, New York (2012) and Upstream Gallery in Dobbs Ferry, New York (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013). Ellen Galinsky is married to artist Norman Galinsky, and they are the parents of two grown children: Philip, an ethnomusicologist and founder-director of Samba New York—an inspiring new performance group—and Lara, Senior Vice President at Echoing Green—whose mission is to unleash the next generation of talent to solve the world’s biggest problems—and co-author of Be Bold and author of Work on Purpose.


  • Transcript


Ellen Galinsky: One of the things that I’ve thought a lot about is, the either/or black-and-white world we live in. There’s the assumption that something is good or something is bad, and there’s the assumption that it’s up to the employee to figure that out. We have that discussion going on with Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In. You know, how much is -- of women’s problems are women’s problems because they’re not leaning in, they’re not taking responsibility for their careers, and how much of the responsibility is up to the employer to create the environment that women need or men need to succeed at work?   

I think it’s, in a sense, an iron triangle, and I think of it as an iron triangle because it really all goes together. You have whatever the demands of work, and with technology those demands have gone way up. You’ve got an individual who has to take responsibility for taking action to do something about the issues that they’re facing. And then you can’t do it without the support of the people who are in your life. If you’re talking about work, it’s your boss, it’s your coworker and it’s the culture of the organization.  

We go from this either or world -- well, it’s up to us, it’s up to our organization -- and if we could just understand that this triangle is really an iron triangle, that you can’t separate the three parts of it if people are going to thrive. And if they are together, that is, if you have demands that you can manage, if you have, if you take action to solve the problems that you have or the issues that you face, and if you have the support of people around you, you tend to thrive. And you’re more engaged at work, you’re more likely to want to stay at work. All those good things happen. But our debates go on this pendulum, and for as long as I’ve been doing this kind of research, you know, I’m always looking at one side of the pendulum and saying, “No, no, no, no, wait, there’s this other side” or looking at the other side and saying, “No, no, no, wait, it’s not just up to the individual.” 

I think the best solutions, as I’ve seen them in companies, come at the team level, that is, if it’s just a one off deal to, for example, to create a more flexible workplace, then one person get something and somebody else doesn’t. The person who’s the good negotiator, the favorite of the boss, may get something that other people don’t get. Or one person’s responsibilities may affect other people. I have a kid so I’m running off, or I have an elderly parent so I’m running off, or I’m practicing for a sport so I’m running up, and it affects other people. 

So it really - I think these solutions have to come at the team level where you create a culture of support where people aren’t assumed, where it’s legitimate to think that people have a personal and family life. And, in fact, if their personal and family life is good, they tend to be happier at work, more engaged, all those things. Again, not this either or notion. 

But if you can figure out how to make work more efficient so that it works for the employee and the employer, those have to go together. Flexibility, in my view, has to work for the employee and the employer. And if you can figure those out at the team level, then you’ve got win-win solutions and we see productivity going up. 

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd