How to Find Success at Work: Navigating the Iron Triangle

Finding the right work-life balance is like navigating an iron triangle which involves an individual, the boss, and the support of the people who are in their life.

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

Finding the right work-life balance is like navigating an iron triangle which involves an individual, the boss, and the support of the people who are in their life.

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