In praise of work-life conflict

Many of us find it nearly impossible to balance work and life. And most of us who struggle with work-life conflict, including me, loudly decry it.

But in this post, let me sing one particular praise of work-life conflict: a busy home life gives you a substantially stronger negotiating hand at work. How? By allowing or even requiring you to credibly refuse those annoying, unnecessary, and time-consuming organizational requests that you really shouldn’t even be hearing—but that someone is always making. Whatever its other drawbacks, work-life conflict can help make this particular aspect of work life negotiable.

Let’s make this a little more concrete and then a little more formal. Imagine Tim and Tom. Tim faces a daily struggle balancing work and life; he and his wife both work, and it’s all they can do to get their jobs done while also ensuring that their four young kids grow up healthy and wholesome. Tom, despite working in the same organization, lives a dramatically different life. Single, he rolls out of bed around 8:30 am, sips a cappuccino or three while sifting through the news, then meanders into the office an hour later. Right around 5 pm, he meanders back home and settles in for the nightly Law and Order marathon. Nor are their very different lives any secret around the office: everyone sees Tim’s pictures of his family, hanging over his mountain of paperwork, and wonders how he does it. Anyone who needs a Law and Order update heads over to Tom.

And then there’s Tammy, HR generalist. Her project of the month? “This office needs a weekly newsletter! I think we need to feel more connected to each other, as real human beings—and what better way than sharing our experiences on a weekly basis?”

Now, imagine that she approaches both Tim and Tom one morning, in hopes of recruiting a newsletter editor. “It won’t take much time,” she says, “only about three or four hours a week.” Put on the spot by an effusive Tammy, what will Tim and Tom say?

Tim will really have no choice. Much as he might love the idea of editing a weekly newsletter, there are literally no minutes left in the day. If he did, he’d have to sacrifice his “real” work and/or miss some portion of his children’s lives. “Sorry, I just don’t have enough time,” he’ll say, gesturing to his desk full of papers and wall full of pictures. But how about Tom? Well, maybe he’ll try that same line of argumentation, but where will he gesture? His “no” will be a lot less credible, and the crafty Tammy will probably know it and press him about his other commitments. With no particular answer other than Law and Order, chances are that she’s found her first newsletter editor.

So here’s the point: having a busy home life gives you a credible BATNA at work. In case you don’t feel like clicking that link or haven’t read that post, BATNA stands for “best alternative to negotiated agreement.” It’s your next-best alternative to the current negotiation, and it’s your greatest source of power in any negotiation. With a life replete with work-life conflict, your BATNA is giving up something truly important. So you can easily, confidently, and believably make like Tim and kindly refuse. With a life free of any conflict, you may have to make like Tom and succumb to the wily Tammy.

So am I encouraging everyone to develop work-life conflict (or have four kids)? No, conflicts between work and home obviously come with some major costs. But I am suggesting that the busiest among us, even while decrying their busyness, may wish to recognize and leverage that busyness to good effect in the workplace. And the most leisurely among us may wish to develop and communicate a credible hobby, or at least keep their leisure private.

Does your busyness help you to focus in the workplace?


Getting your ideas implemented: What a prospect (theory)!

From time to time, we all have good ideas that could help our organizations thrive. Assuming we want to share them, and assuming decision-makers want to listen, the obvious challenge is to convince them that the benefits outweigh the costs, the upside justifies the risk.

In a world of slim budgets, that’s never easy. But a dose of prospect theory can make this difficult prospect negotiable.

In short and in simple, prospect theory indicates that people act very differently when they think they’re losing versus gaining something. In particular, “losses loom larger than gains,” meaning that our pain from a $1 loss is greater than our pleasure from a $1 gain. A critical corollary: when we think we’re losing, we take risks to right the ship; when we think we’re gaining, we get conservative to protect our gains.

What does this have to do with selling ideas? Well, any idea can be described as a gain or a loss—it’s a matter of language (i.e., “framing”). And I would argue that most people (self included!) intuitively put the wrong frame on their ideas, unwittingly limiting their persuasiveness.

To see why, imagine you discovered a cheaper way to make your organization’s widgets. You’re confident your new method can save the organization $1 million a year, but it requires them to buy a $250,000 technology. The question is how you sell it to your superiors.

Well, if you’re like most people, you’d make sure to emphasize the benefits. So you’d say something like: “This will save us a million dollars a year!” Since you’re saying what your organization will gain, you’re describing the benefits with a gain frame.

A gain frame could work, but it’s probably not your best strategy. Why? Because, according to prospect theory, gains aren’t very motivating; people who feel like they’re gaining don’t feel particularly inclined to take risks, like shelling out $250,000. But what if you instead said: “If we don’t adopt this method, we will continue to lose $1 million a year.” Same information, and just as true, right? But prospect theory clearly suggests that the loss framing will strike a deeper chord, motivating the decision-maker to pay closer attention and accept more of the inherent risks. In sum, when talking about the benefits, our intuition suggests a gain frame, but a loss frame will probably work better.

And what about the costs? Assuming you caught a decision-maker’s attention with your loss-framed benefits, she’s sure to ask about the costs. Well, the intuitive and direct answer is obvious: “It’ll cost us $250,000.” Since you’re emphasizing the outflow of cash, you’re essentially using a loss frame to describe the costs.

A loss frame is alright; hopefully, she will rationally compare the small costs with the huge benefits and sign on the dotted line. But since you’ve put her in a loss frame, prospect theory suggests she could also experience amnesia about the benefits and start worrying about where in the world she can find a quarter million dollars. So what if you said something like this instead: “We would have to make an investment in a promising $250,000 technology.” Again, basically the same information, and just as true. But you’ve now portrayed the expense as a gain, which it really is if your projections are accurate. So, when talking about the costs, our intuition suggests a loss frame, but a gain frame will probably work better.

Does this all seem like a lesson in language games? Well, over three decades of research suggest that small words can have huge effects. So if your projections really indicate a major organizational opportunity, and if you really believe that you’ve gotten them right, then it’s worth your time to carefully consider the smallest turn of phrase.

Here’s to the prospect (theory) of getting your next idea implemented!

Your nontransitive preferences are driving me crazy!

One of the great frustrations of daily life, not to mention neoclassical economics, is nontransitive preferences. Huh? In English, transitive preferences would mean that if B is better than A, and if C is better than B, then C must be better than A. But in daily life—when dealing with children or coworkers, for example—we often encounter people with nontransitive preferences: those who make these comparisons, then defiantly defend A.

In these frustrating situations, we have a choice. We can either become neoclassical economists and assume that these people and their silly preferences don’t exist. Poof! There go our kids. Or we can acknowledge their existence and figure out how to deal with them. Although the former may be better for economic analysis, I believe the latter will make life more negotiable.

Parents, how often have you had a conversation like this? “Billy, do you want to go to the pool or the park?” “The pool!” “Ok, or we could go to the beach?” “Yeah, the beach!” Then, halfway to the beach, “Can we go the park?”

Non-transitive preferences.

At work, how often have you heard something like this? “Our widget project is much more promising than our lepton project. But our quark project is much more promising than our widget project.” Then, in a memo two weeks later, we’re going with the lepton project!

Non-transitive preferences.

Does this mean that people are irrational? From my perspective, that’s not a very helpful question. More helpful is to ask why it happens, which also suggests what you can do. Here are five common reasons for non-transitivity, along with some suggestions about how to respond:

  1. They are confused: Sometimes their non-transitive preferences simply reflect their confusion. Perhaps they didn’t understand which playground you meant, or got lost somewhere else on the logic train. In this case, it might help to review all of the options before deciding (or deciding again) and/or ask them to make one decision between all three options.
  2. They are trying to confuse you: Sometimes, they understand their own preferences perfectly well but think they can lose you along the logic train. Perhaps they were trying to pacify you in the meeting but thought you’d forget their statements by the time the memo came out. In this case, you may want to document everything carefully as the conversation unfolds.
  3. You are confused: If we’re accusing others of confusion or malevolence, it’s only fair to admit that we can sometimes get confused too. Maybe Billy wanted to go to the park all along, but we were distracted by an interesting blog post on non-transitive preferences when he originally expressed that preference. In this case, you may want to repeat the process.
  4. They are conflicted or their preferences are changing: Non-transitive preferences don’t have to reflect confusion or malevolence; they could also reflect shifting preferences. Maybe the quark project was our priority during the meeting, but then new information on the market for leptons came to light. In this case, all you can do is roll with the punches.
  5. The options are incomparable: Similarly, sometimes the options are apples and oranges (and lemons). They are incomparable, so any comparisons between them are inherently unstable. Maybe going to the park is such a different experience than going to the beach that Billy’s opinion is bound to change depending on what he’s thinking at the moment. In that case, you and Billy should probably consider the independent merits of each option rather than comparing them to each other.

Non-transitive preferences can be infuriating—to parents, in organizations, and for economists. But, by acknowledging their existence and developing a plan to deal with them, we can make life at least a little more negotiable—if not a little more neoclassical.

Work-life balance as a negotiation with yourself

In today’s hurried and harried age, almost everyone has a hard time with work-life balance. The fundamental reason is obvious: the constantly increasing demands of work and life continually crash up against the fixed 1440 minutes in each day.

And while it’s technically true that we can’t expand the clock, negotiation research has spent the better part of 50 years exploring how to unfix fixed resources. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that we can make life more negotiable by treating work-life balance as a negotiation with ourselves.

The prototypical negotiation study gives two people a seemingly fixed resource like money, then lets them fight it out. Yet, it studies the steps they can take to avoid fighting it out—how they can “expand the pie” rather than simply carve it up. By analogy, what if the fixed resource was time, and what if the two negotiators were our work self and our life self? In that case, five classic negotiation principles would apply:

  1. Don’t assume a fixed pie. The fundamental reason that negotiators fail to expand the pie is they assume it’s not expandable. Thus, two sisters fighting over an orange cut it in half rather than discovering that one sister wants the inside for juice, while the other wants the outside for garnish. They assume the orange is fixed rather than exploring how to “squeeze” more value out of it. With respect to work-life balance, perhaps we could start by assuming that time is not as fixed as it seems? By looking hard enough, most of us can find ways to squeeze more value out of our time—to take that conference call from the car instead of listening to talk radio, to do more web surfing during lunch and less during story time.
  2. Build trust (with yourself). Exacerbating the tendency to assume a fixed pie is the tendency to assume that of our counterparts are nefarious demons. But when negotiating with yourself, you should pretty much assume that’s not true. So take the time to validate both sides of yourself. Remind your life self that your work self is a good and worthy soul—a valid self that only wants the best for the rest of yourself. And remind your work self that your life self is equally trustworthy—that it’s out to maximize your happiness, not tank your career. By explicitly trusting both sides of yourself, you’ll be able to…
  3. Communicate your core interests. Negotiators often fail to expand the pie because they don’t explicitly share their priorities, nor ask about their counterpart’s priorities. Instead, they engage in positional battles in which each tries to grab as much of the fixed pie as possible. If work-life balance is a negotiation between our work self and our life self, might it help for each self to be honest with the other about what is most (and least) important? Might our work self admit to our life self that’s it really important to rock this project but less important to visit the company picnic? Might our life self admit that our daughter’s soccer game is much more important than fixing that squeaky bathroom door?
  4. Insist on your priorities (but only). Contrary to popular belief, negotiation research does not tell people to “compromise,” nor to demand the world on a silver platter. It tells people to hold firm on the things that matter most, but relinquish the things that matter less. If the report is critical, buy yourself an hour by forgetting the squeaky door. But if the soccer game is critical, skip the picnic, and only retrieve your phone to take a picture.
  5. Define and enforce a clear agreement. Negotiations are worthless unless they result in a clear agreement that gets implemented. Similarly, an agreement between our work self and life self is worthless unless we’re explicit about its terms and judicious in enforcing them. So if you decide that 12-5 pm on Saturdays is family time, write it down or at least repeat it often enough that you don’t let 12 slip to 12:30. In a word, draw boundaries and be ruthless in enforcing them.

This is not rocket science, and I don’t pretend that it is. But I hope that thinking about work-life balance as a negotiation helps you to actually attain it. Signing off in search of my own balance…

When to ask why

A past post discussed the power of why, suggesting that a well-placed “why?” can surface a wealth of information from the people who disagree with us—toddlers and workmates alike. Like almost everything in life, however, the power of why has limits. Why? To find out, let’s consider an age group somewhere between toddlers and colleagues—teenagers.

If teenagers do anything consistently, it’s to ask their parents for money. And since they want the money more than they want to explain the reason, these requests can often raise hackles. In such situations, a well-placed why can make life negotiable, whereas an ill-timed why can make life miserable.

To see what I mean, imagine that your independently-minded teenager Buck approaches you on a Saturday afternoon. Hopeful that he plans to acknowledge your existence, you smile at him cheerfully and say, “Hey Buck, how are you?”, to which he curtly replies: “Can I have some money?”

You need to know where he’s coming from. Good time to ask why? Yes. When you’re trying to understand a person’s basic motivations, whys are essential for doing so. So feel free to why-away. “To go to the movies,” Buck answers, adding that, “I need 35 bucks.”

Now, even boatload of sweets would not bring the total to $35, so you know this number is inflated. You need to bring it down. Good time to ask why? Probably not. Think about what would happen if you did. Would he stammer and offer the complete lack of an explanation? Or would he be prepared to offer a convoluted and esoteric chain of reasoning that somehow justified his outrageous request? Probably the latter. And think about what would happen then. Having anchored you on his unreasonable request, then explained it in a way that drives the anchor deeper into your sand, would he now reduce his number? No, you’d be giving him something much closer to $35 than whatever it really costs.

“But don’t I need to need to understand his calculations?” you’re thinking. “And don’t I have to ask ‘why’ to do that?” Well, yes, but not yet. Assuming you’re also interested in parting with a reasonable amount of money, I’d suggest taking this opportunity to make an aggressive counteroffer yourself. “How much does a movie cost these days, Buck? Like $10 with the popcorn, right?” Now, what is Buck likely to do? Thrown off by your gambit, he’s likely to make some concessions. First, he might ask for $30, then (when offered $10 again), $25.

But suppose he got stuck at $25—was completely unwilling to budge. You’re now staring at a huge gap between your $10 and his rigid $25. Good time to ask why? Yes. When your counterpart has already conceded and is now stuck, it’s a good idea to ask why again—now to understand the source of the rigidity. So suppose you asked “Why 25?” Maybe you asked it again, and asked it a couple different ways. “Because I have a date.” he finally muttered, embarrassed.

Voila! It all makes sense. You now know where he’s going (from why #1) and with whom (why #3); any parent of any teenager knows how essential this information can be. But you’re also giving him a realistic amount to do so (by avoiding why #2). And seeing your Buck in the early stages of young love, you’re more than happy to do so.

Bottom line: It’s good to ask why at the beginning, if you’re trying to understand their motivations. It’s good to ask why at the end, if you’re trying avert an impasse. It’s not so good to ask why in the middle, right after you receive a first offer that obviously needs to come down.

How have your whys helped or hurt in the past?