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Nice Guys Finish First: Work-Life Effectiveness Increases Productivity


Work-life has long gotten a bum rap as being a huggy-feely HR discipline whose touted benefits cannot be supported by tangible evidence. But a growing body of research that shows how work-life effectiveness can bolster the bottom line encouraged WorldatWork’s 2017 Work-Life Advisory Council (WLAC) to initiate the yearlong Healthy Leader Project.

So far, much of the project, designed to help WorldatWork members address this business advantage, has relied on anecdotal evidence in the form of monthly articles featuring a business leader sharing a Healthy Leader practice. (Read why a senior executive with a telecommunications giant took the time to know her people personally.) Today, we are looking at some of that work-life-supporting research.

First, two caveats: 1) This is not an all-encompassing compilation of academic work, but a sampling and guide to help you, the rewards practitioner, begin or expand work-life programs; and 2) the main reason for the article’s format is that, frankly, I underestimated the extent of the research when starting to report and write the series almost a year ago.

Thanks to guidance from WLAC member Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, director of corporate partnerships for Boston College’s Center for Work & Family, I’ve been able to navigate my way through some of the latest, most convincing research. Sabatini Fraone also connected me with two passionate Ph.D. pioneers in the academic research of work-life — University of Pennsylvania’s Stew Friedman, founding director of the Wharton School’s Work/Life Integration Project and Wharton’s Leadership Program, and Ellen Ernst Kossek, the Basil S. Turner professor of management and research director for the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership at Purdue University.

When skeptics scoff at the notion that addressing nonwork aspects of employees’ lives can improve at-work job performance, Friedman is apt to point to results generated by Total Leadership workshops, which he began offering in 2000. At that time, he was serving as worldwide head of leadership development for Ford Motor Co. while on leave from Wharton. Meanwhile, Kossek can refer to scores of academic journal articles she’s published on the subject.

Producing a Four-Way Win
Society, much less the business world, is vastly different now than it was when Friedman started Wharton’s Work/ Life Integration Project more than a quarter-century ago. “Attitudes and expectations for men and women have changed a lot,” Friedman said. “People are more egalitarian. The digital age has altered the landscape of human interaction. Creating and maintaining boundaries between work and personal life is harder, causing greater strain and stress.”

That has led to an understanding that leadership development needs to deal with a person’s entire life, not just time spent on the job, he observed, and that one can learn leadership. “There used to be a stigma to coaching but now it is a sign of prestige and status. We are taking a better approach — that we all are imperfect and we all need help.”

Friedman guides people to pursue real-world individualized experiments designed to produce what he calls “four-way wins,” with demonstrable results for work, family, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit). For example, if a person decides to set up and perform an experiment to become a better listener at work, those developed skills could improve relationships with family members and friends while reducing stress and emotional strain.

“There’s a common myth that to succeed at work, you have to sacrifice everything else in your life,” Friedman said. “But you don’t have to put everything into work, and certainly not all the time. There is a growing body of research that shows that redirecting attention to other parts of life paradoxically helps people perform better at work; they become more focused on what matters, are less distracted by nonwork problems, and feel a greater sense of control. There is real economic value created by people who are doing four-way win experiments.”

Friedman has a following in both the academic and popular media, including more than 50 digital articles published online at the Harvard Business Review and best-selling management books such as the 2014 “Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life.” But he said the most compelling evidence of the benefits of work-life integration comes from research the Wharton School has conducted with participants in 18 years of Total Leadership workshops. In a study of more than 500 participants who took the four-month intensive workshop, researchers tracked and measured positive changes in:

  • Bolstering well-being in all parts of life
  • Working smarter
  • Increasing confidence as a leader
  • Leadership skills.

For example, leadership skills are grouped under the three core principles of the Total Leadership approach: “be real,” “be whole” and “be innovative.” (See Figure 1.)


Total Leadership is not limited to executive training, but is customizable for individuals at any level or career stage and in cultures around the world, Friedman said.

“It’s about leading people to a better place. We need to learn how to be fast and be smart experimenters as we learn how to work and live together,” Friedman said. “I encourage people to imagine they are scientists and in the laboratory of their lives, where the only failure is the failure to learn. With this mindset, and the support of others who are also experimenting with four-way wins, people demonstrate leadership growth and improved performance in all parts of life.”

The Inequality of Inflexibility
Establishing work-life boundaries and reducing inequities in flexible work schedules are two key focuses of extensive research by Purdue’s Kossek, who advocates promoting a “sustainable workforce.”

“When we think of sustainability, we typically talk about healthy physical environments,” Kossek said. “It also makes sense to provide a healthy psychological climate for human beings — don’t burn them out, but replenish them. People don’t work 20 or more years for the same company anymore, but employers need to think more than a couple of months out.”

Studies show that giving individuals the ability to have some control over work-life boundaries can increase employee engagement and trust in management, reduce stress and turnover, and improve moods, all leading to improved productivity, she pointed out.

Working with their teams and managers, employees should have a major say in setting work-life boundaries; to fit their diverse work-life needs and values, she said. Avoid hard-and-fast rules, such as legislation in some European countries that bans employees accessing work emails after hours. For example, a dad who leaves work a couple of hours early to handle a child’s doctor’s appointment might appreciate the opportunity to sign in from home in the evening to get caught up for the next day. “Companies need to be inclusive and avoid rigidity in how they manage work-life issues.”

Part of that rigidity is the inequality caused by limiting the types of jobs that allow flexible scheduling. “In the old days, managers would determine which jobs had flexibility,” she said. Those were usually higher-level white-collar professional and managerial jobs.

“Every job needs to have some flexibility,” as Kossek noted in a recent Harvard Business Review article. “Employers should consider how staffing practices and cross-training link to supporting flexibility, so workers can trade shifts and back up for each other.” One company cross-trained two secretaries to work for each other’s director so they could alternate taking Fridays off.

Kossek led a seven-author study, “Lasting Impression: Transformational Leadership and Family Supportive Supervision as Resources for Well-Being and Performance” (March 2018, Springer International Publishing). The study takes a giant step in proving that transformational (synonymous with healthy) leaders play a vital role in producing work-life boundaries that lead to long-term improved productivity.

“Recognizing that supervisors can be powerful change agents for informal work-family supportive cultures, employers should train and socialize supervisors to strive to demonstrate transformational leadership behaviors, including family supportive ones,” states the “Implications for Practice” section of the paper. “Our study offers evidence that impact of employee positive perceptions of FSSB (family supportive supervisory behaviors) is clearly linked to outcomes that matter for organizational effectiveness and individual performance, health and well-being. Therefore, organizations may convey to supervisors that they should embrace and communicate an inspirational vision to employees of how the organization values employee success in both work and nonwork spheres. To realize this vision, supervisors should provide individual consideration of employees’ work-life conflicts and actively rolemodel their own work-life management.”

The study also presents proof that a “lagged” relationship between FSSB and employee outcomes such as job performance, job satisfaction, turnover and employee health produces some very practical results. For example, employees who have less work-life conflict are found to be more apt to follow safety rules throughout their employment. That reduced work-life conflict produces factors that lead to a safer workplace due to fewer distractions and a better focus.

Here are more examples of Kossek’s work-life research

“With increasing diversity and inclusion, more and more people have different nonwork situations,” Kossek said. “It’s about adapting to the changing nature of the workforce. Employers who get it will become the employers of choice.”

What Other Researchers Are Discovering
Here’s a sampling of other research findings on healthy leadership’s contributions to the bottom line:

  • Half of the 7,272 U.S. adults surveyed reported that at some point in their career, they left a job to get away from their manager. The study also showed that managers account for at least 70% of variance scores for employee engagement, a driver of business success. (Gallup. 2015. “State of the American Manager.”)
  • Millennials’ view of their managers’ concern about them directly affects their job satisfaction, according to a study of 1,100 white-collar workers ages 25 to 35 with at least two years’ experience. Respondents who strongly agreed with the statement “my manager really cares about my well-being” scored a 4.5 on a 5-point job satisfaction scale, more than twice as much as the 2.2 for those who strongly disagreed. (Boston College Center for Work & Family. 2015. “How Millennials Navigate Their Careers: Young Adult Views on Work, Life and Success.”)
  • Supervisors who experienced a high level of family-work conflicts exhibited more abusive relationships with work subordinates, which often surfaced as ego depletion, concurred a two-study, five-author article. (Stephen H. Courtright et al. 2016. “My Family Made Me Do It: A CrossDomain, Self-Regulatory Perspective on Antecedents to Abusive Supervision.” Academy of Management Journal 59(5): 1630-1652.)
  • A targeted group in an IT company whose supervisors were trained to be supportive of employees’ personal needs and flexible work arrangements showed improvements in work-family conflicts and family time adequacy over a control group. (Erin L. Kelly et al. 2014. “Changing Work and Work-Family Conflict: Evidence from Work, Family and Health Network.” American Sociological Review 79(3): 485-516.)
  • Companies in the 100- to 250-employee range whose leadership encourages high levels of helping behavior such as collaboration significantly outperformed those with lower levels, according to a study conducted by Cornell University and University of Arizona researchers. For example, sales growth in companies in the top 25% of employee collaboration was twice that of companies in the lowest quartile. (Collins and McClean. 2017. “How Does Leadership Structure Affect the Bottom Line?” HR Spectrum.)
  • Hard-driving, success-at-all-cost executives hurt the bottom line as self-aware leaders with strong interpersonal skills produce better financial results, concluded a study of 72 senior executives at 31 public, venture-backed and private-equity companies. (Green Peak Partners. 2010. “What Predicts Executive Success.”)

Hopefully, this article has armed you with resources to convince even the most devout members of the Leo Durocher School of Management that work-life effectiveness is a key to success in today’s business environment. Durocher, whose motto was “nice guys finish last,” was a big-league baseball player and manager who died in 1991 — coincidentally the same year that Stew Friedman started the Wharton School’s Work-Life Integration Project.

Jim Fickess Bio Image

Jim Fickess writes and edits for WorldatWork. Fickess has a master of mass communication degree from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he was an adjunct professor. His master’s thesis was one of the first academic studies of the coverage of ethical issues by business media.