Dan Pontefract thinks you should banish the term ‘work-life balance’ from your vocabulary.
The organizational culture expert and author proposes a different metaphor: Work-Life Bloom, also the title of his new book out Tuesday. He argues that the “zero-sum game” of work-life balance is a myth, that we instead exist on a spectrum of thriving and struggling in both work and life.
Workers travel through four points on that spectrum, he says: when they’re ‘blooming,’ they’re thriving in both work and life; when they’re ‘stunted,’ they’re thriving outside of work but struggling professionally; ‘budding’ workers are doing well at work but not at home; and those in a state of ‘renewal’ are struggling both at work and personally.
A gardener can help their plants along with water and fertilizer, but despite their best efforts, sometimes nature takes over and a crop fails — Mr. Pontefract says leaders should think about workers’ wellbeing the same way. They can offer conditions for their teams to thrive, but they’ll sometimes be affected by things beyond anyone’s control. No one will ever thrive at work 100 per cent of the time, he says, and no team will see 100 per cent of its members thrive at the same time.
It’s a new way to think about employee engagement, he says, and a timely one — research shows about two thirds of Canadians are ‘quiet quitting,’ or disengaged from their work. In a global survey Mr. Pontefract conducted in his research for the book, just 36 per cent of respondents said they’re blooming.
The Globe and Mail recently spoke with Mr. Pontefract about his book, leadership and the surprising gap in how many non leaders are ‘blooming’ compared to leaders.
Was there anything you found in your research for the book that particularly surprised you?
Twenty-six per cent of non leaders are ‘blooming’ and 48 per cent of leaders are. That seems strange and not cool. I’m not naïve; I don’t think people can all bloom at the same time, but to have a [22-point] gap between leaders and non leaders, that was terrifying. Another one was that 46 per cent of males were blooming [compared to] 32 per cent of females. That’s not cool either.
Reading the book, it’s clear you don’t believe there are many leaders who think like the Work-Life Bloom framework. Why is that?
There are a few factors. Power is pervasive; it can be one of the more addictive drugs in our organizations. We think leadership should be about upholding the power and not thinking about the humanistic values or the humanistic needs of team members, who are often the ones doing the work. The second one, I would say, is the busyness factor. There’s this systemic overloading of people’s calendars. There’s this willingness to execute at all costs. We’re so good at being busy that we continue to lose sight of the space, the time, the opportunity for creative thinking, critical thinking, the time to nurture, the time to water the garden.
Was it a conscious choice to use a nature metaphor in Work-Life Bloom, to make the connection between workers and the natural world?
Yeah. Business is full of mechanistic language, and I’m not certain why we need to separate the fact that we’re human beings [from our work]. There’s this Scientific Principles of Management-esque rigidity that is pervasive in our organizations. But everyone, in one way, shape or form, has experienced a garden. Everyone can understand that you need to nourish a garden; nourishment comes from sun and nutrients and care and so on. But [also,] no garden truly lasts — and that’s the cycle I think we need.
You write that good leadership means accepting those cycles in employee engagement and adapting to them. Can you talk more about that?
You can’t expect an entire organization to be highly ‘engaged’ when we’re all tending to our own personal garden. Things happen. There are [weather] events, there are soil issues, there are bad seeds, and you have to deal with them. Analogously, inside an organization, there are acquisitions, buy-outs, mass layoffs, new bosses. There are people who quit; there are people who die. There’s hope as well. There is sun and there is rain that allows plants to flourish. We as leaders, and senior leaders in particular, need to be thinking about how certain events can create highs and lows. So, let’s have these conversations. Let’s be authentically open and transparent with these conversations. But leaders need to also know that we can’t force people to bloom.
How can leaders evaluate their team members’ performance outside of that traditional standard of consistent engagement?
If we’re only measuring output, then we’ve got a problem. If we can integrate a measurement that is both output and input, that’s a whole other ballgame. Performance evaluations are after the fact — they are asking questions about the accomplishment of the tasks or the objectives that you set out to do that year. I don’t see anything, necessarily, wrong with that, [but we should also focus on questions] like, ‘What is trust to you?’ Trust is an input towards how [the employee is] going to feel at work. ‘Tell us about it at the beginning of the year, then on a monthly or quarterly basis.’ Now, you’re getting data across a period of time, not at the end of the year.
This interview has been edited and condensed.