It’s possible to spend less time at work and become more productive, says esteemed academic Friedman. The trick is to achieve work-life harmony, not balance.
Stewart D. Friedman is an esteemed academic, bestselling author and award-winning teacher who The New York Times once claimed was viewed by his students “with a mixture of earnest admiration, gratitude and rock star adoration”.
Thirty years ago, he landed his dream job at the Wharton School in Pennsylvania after completing a PhD in organisational psychology examining succession systems and talent management in Fortune 500 companies.
Then in 1987, everything changed with the birth of his son. Suddenly Friedman was consumed by a question he’d never before considered: how was he going to care for a child and make sure the world was a safe and nurturing place for him?
The question that started it all
When he returned to work a week or so later, Friedman decided to set aside the assigned topic for his MBA class and instead presented his students with his newfound dilemma.
“What are you, as future business leaders, going to do to make sure that you’re cultivating the next generation, not just of talent in your company, but the next generation full stop?,” – Stewart D. Friedman, PhD.
“How are you going to do that and fulfil your career aspirations?” he asked the class.
The students’ responses were telling. Some were unhappy they weren’t discussing the material they had diligently read for class. Others considered the topic irrelevant, asking what it had to do with business. “And then there were others, men and women, who were leaning forward in their seats, eager to have this conversation and grateful that I was bringing up this question,” he recalls.
One student threw the question back to Friedman, saying, “Well you’re the professor, you tell us. What should we do?”
It was a career-defining moment. Until that point, Friedman had been in the business of asking provocative questions to encourage people to think differently. Now, he realised, he wanted to find answers to these questions.
“That’s when I decided to change the focus,” he says.
In 1991, he established both the Work/Life Integration Project at Wharton to study the intersection between work and the rest of life, and the Wharton Leadership Program. In 1999, he joined Ford Motor Company, where he created an innovative leadership development program called Total Leadership that focused on the whole person, not just their role at work, before returning to Wharton in 2001.
For many people the dominant work-first model, which prioritised work above all else and made sacrifice a prerequisite of success, simply wasn’t working. Burnt-out workers – typified by tired working mothers and absent, workaholic fathers – embraced as a solution to their problems the notion of ‘work-life balance’. But in Friedman’s view this treats the issue like a zero-sum trade-off that pits work against everything else.
Introducing four-way wins
Friedman says it’s possible to spend less time at work and become more productive. In books including Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life (2014) and Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life (2008) he promulgates an approach to leadership that integrates all aspects of life – work, home, community and self – to achieve harmony, not balance.
He introduced the idea of ‘four-way wins’, small-scale experiments designed to benefit all areas of life, whether directly or indirectly, based on a person’s carefully articulated values and vision. It could be as simple as starting a new exercise regime that means you’re healthier, less stressed and have more energy to invest in other areas of your life.
“You start to think of yourself as an agent of change, as a leader in your life,” he says.
“The real power is in reflecting on what happens as a result of your experiments in trying to create these four-way wins. Even if they fail, you start to think differently about what’s possible.”
Importantly, Friedman’s strategies are accessible to anyone, regardless of their seniority.
“Everyone can figure out something they can do now that enables them to move in a direction they want to go and has the potential to have an impact on their work, their home, their community and their private selves. How do I know that? It’s because I have been talking about this for 20 years in virtually every continent and I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t come up with something.”
A pioneer in the field, his research was initially dismissed by some as peripheral – “women’s issues” dressed up as academic theory, and social welfare in disguise – but slowly his ideas found an audience. “There was an emerging army of people who were coming to the realisation that the relationship between work and the rest of life had to change.”
Decades later, the landscape is very different. “Labour market competition is a big driver. Companies are competing with each other to be seen as the most family-friendly to attract the best talent because it’s now a competitive advantage in the labour market if you are seen as a place where you can have a life.”
Friedman will share his theories of leadership with audiences at AHRI’s 2019 National Convention and Exhibition. He hopes they will leave “energised to create positive change in their world, with ideas for action that they feel are important.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 edition of HRM Magazine.
Stuart will be featuring the “four-way win” exercise during his Total Leadership Workshop at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition this September.