How Perceived Control Motivates the Individualization of Work–Life Conflict

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Alison T. Wynn of Stanford University and Aliya Hamid Rao of Singapore Management University. They recently published an article in the ILR Review entitled “Failures of Flexibility: How Perceived Control Motivates the Individualization of Work–Life Conflict,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they recount the motivations for this research.]

While working as a management consultant for two years prior to graduate school, the first author, Alison Wynn, experienced firsthand the intensive work-life expectations that characterize the industry—and many other high-status industries. She became fascinated by the cultural underpinnings of the long hours, extensive travel, and emphasis on “face time.” Despite robust efforts on the part of companies to offer cutting-edge flexibility programs, she could see these programs fell short of their intended effects – providing employees with viable solutions to work-life conflict. This motivated us to pursue research exploring these challenges in more depth.

In an article that was recently published based on some of these data, we analyzed 50 in-depth interviews with management consultants at the top firms. We focused on exactly this issue: management consulting firms provide amongst the best flexibility policies intended to help their employees manage the extensive demands of their work. Yet, in line with our own initial impressions – and as previous research has documented – these policies were not enthusiastically embraced by employees. Why? Prior research has highlighted the role of “flexibility stigma,” which is the notion that using flexibility policies sends a signal to colleagues and superiors that you are not serious about your work. While compelling, we felt this was an incomplete explanation. In our manuscript, we argue that “perceived control” – or the sense control that employees feel they have over managing their work-life conflicts – is a powerful motivator in imbuing a sense of agency and encouraging private and individual solutions to work-life conflict.

In the article, we explain various aspects of perceived control: for example, how our participants saw managing their work-life commitments as a professional test, and how they viewed their ability to manage their work-life challenges as a testament to their suitability for this profession. But one important element that did not make it into the final manuscript was the problematic definition of success at these companies. The very understanding of what makes an employee successful contains built-in assumptions – such as the assumption that long hours translate to better results – when the reality often starkly contrasts with these assumptions. This definition of success was reinforced both culturally, in company norms, as well as structurally, in project assignments and evaluation procedures. By enshrining a definition of success wedded to ideal worker norms, companies create an environment that casts doubt upon flexibility programs promising work-life balance; employees wonder whether they can use available flexibility programs without compromising their own success.

Our study provides evidence that flexibility policies will continue to fall short until and unless they are accompanied by cultural shifts in what “success” entails and how much workplaces can demand from their employees.

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