Work-life balance Part III: Workaholics and Balance in Small Business

“It’s true hard work never killed anyone but I figure why take the chance?”  Ronald Reagan, former U.S. President

“For workaholics, all the eggs of self-esteem are in the basket of work.” Judith M. Bardwick, Business Consultant & Author

Question: “now that having a phone/email in your pocket 24/7 is a universal norm, how does it affect your professional life and how do you unplug on your days off without coming across as lazy or uncaring, and is someone who never unplugs a better employee/manager because they’re always available?”

Name: Dani Sage

Current occupation: Certified Health and Wellness Coach, Wife, Animal mom, Salon manager; “Just A Gluten Intolerant Workaholic In Domestic Bliss!”


Lucky interview: Dani Sage, friend of sine.over.cosine. and vastly superior blogger- (highly recommended!)

Over the past couple of posts, I’ve discussed work-life balance.  Research into work-life balance is often centered on corporate practices, such as employee benefits and policies.  But nearly 50% of the U.S. economy is small businesses, or those firms that employ 500 employees or less.  Small business also represented 65% of job growth from 1995-2011.[i] Starting or managing a small business can be a grind, and the experience of small business owners appears to be unique.

Many small business workers describe themselves as  “workaholics.”  Interestingly, academics have recently honed in on workaholism as a concept.  In a recent summary of previous work on the concept, work psychologists found that “workaholism is related to many negative outcomes such as burnout, job stress, work–life conflict, and decreased physical and mental health.”  In clarifying the definition of a workaholism, the authors found “solid evidence that workaholism is best conceptualized as an addiction to work that leads to many negative individual, interpersonal, and organizational outcomes.[ii]”  An alternative approach taken by Dutch human resource management researchers conceptualized workaholism as “as a compulsive inner drive to work excessively hard.[iii]”  Their approach highlighted that certain personal beliefs contribute to exhaustion and workaholism.  The study followed academic staff members over time, finding that workers’ performance-based self-esteem (self-esteem derived from performing well on the job) and a predisposition to working until “enough work was done” contributed to exhaustion.  Ouch.

The Real World Experience

But what is it like to be a self-confessed workaholic?  Enough of the studies, let’s here some experiences!

Enter Dani Sage.  Dani is a small business owner, friend, and fellow blogger (who, by the way has her act together MUCH more than I do on this blog thing…).  Her blog is The Stay at Work Housewife, which is an apropos title, considering the work-life balance series I’ve been writing.  Dani follows my blog for some reason (I’m honored) and has submitted ideas for previous posts.  One day she sent me a long message about technology, etiquette, the work/life “line,” delegating decisions, and other topics.  To her, and many small business managers, unplugging from work a) isn’t an option, and/or b) needs to happen.

Sooooo, I’m not sure I have a direct answer to Dani’s question.  (I’ve tried to elaborate about general balance here and workplace practices here) So, instead of hitting her with even more theories, I thought I’d ask her about her experience, and then offer some reflection:

s.o.c.: What does work-life balance mean to you? 

Dani: Finding the right work-life balance to me means not letting my career ambitions affect my personal relationships and vice versa. At this stage in my life I feel like it is easy to let my career consume most of my time because I don’t have kids, and most of my friends are at the same place in there career, so they are very understanding if I cancel plans because of something work related.  My biggest challenge with work-life balance is trying not to feel guilty, or less hard working, if I take time away from work (even after work hours) to socialize, or do something for myself.

s.o.c.: What are your biggest passions in and out of the workplace? 

Dani: My biggest passion in the workplace is employee development. I feel that as a manager, you measure your success by the success that you create for others.  I love developing talent in my industry and watching my employees’ career grow, and as a result, their personal lives.

My biggest passion in my personal life is cooking, I really enjoy trying new recipes and entertaining my loved ones.  It is important to me to keep myself and my family going with healthy, fresh meals.

s.o.c.: What is your biggest frustration with work demands? With home demands? 

Dani: As the manager of two busy salons, my biggest frustration with work demands is the expectation to be constantly available. All of my employees know that I have a cell phone, and they don’t hesitate to get ahold of me with questions (questions that could easily be saved for the next business day), I think this problem stems from how casual text messaging feels. Although answering a text doesn’t take much time or effort away from my day/evening off, it is still my work life spilling in to my personal time.

My biggest frustration with home demands is that there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. I am usually too tired at the end of my workday to get anything done around the house, so my days off are filled with to-do lists.

s.o.c.: What techniques do you use to help with balancing work and life demands?

I mostly use my two days off during the week to balance out my personal life. On Sundays I take care of my “Have To Do’s” (cleaning, laundry, prepping meals for the week ahead, grocery trips) and Wednesdays are reserved for my “Want To Do’s”; I decompress, catch up on reading, hit up happy hour and I treat myself to a massage every 3 weeks. On my days off my phone is on silent and I only check it every few hours.

It is one of my “work rules” that I leave my home life at home, everyone is human and allowed to have bad days, but no matter what is going on in personal life, it is unacceptable to let it effect my job.

s.o.c: Do you find keeping home issues from affecting your work difficult?

Dani: My team knows that even though Dani as a person has sympathy for [home related] problems, business doesn’t have sympathy, especially in this industry.  People come to us to feel better and they aren’t paying you to have a bad day.



Dani isn’t alone in her struggle to balance work and life demands.  Actually, she pretty much sums up the whole discussion.  Where does one draw lines?  How does one maintain relationships and obligations across work and non-work domains?  This experience seems to fit very well into the previous discussions in this series, and in academic study in general (what we in academia call external validity!).  Leaving work and home separate is a messy business, perhaps especially in small business.

My questions to you:

  • What does balance mean to you?
  • What do you think about the term “workaholic?”
  • How separate are your work and non-work domains in life?
  • What is a small business owner/manager like Dani to do?


Works Cited

[i] Nazar, J.  “16 Surprising facts about small businesses.” September 9, 2013.  accessed 4/3/14  SOURCE: uses US Census data

[ii] Clark, M. A., Michel, J. S., Zhdanova, L., Pui, S. Y., & Baltes, B. B. (2014). All Work and No Play? A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Correlates and Outcomes of Workaholism. Journal of Management, 0149206314522301.

[iii] van Wijhe, C. I., Peeters, M. C., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2014). Enough is Enough: Cognitive Antecedents of Workaholism and Its Aftermath. Human Resource Management.

Quick post: Is college football a job? Unionization of student-athletes and NCAA rules…

As you know, this is a blog about the world of work.  As many of you may not know, I like sports- especially college sports.  This story presented a public debate related to work and sports, which is of course the best of both worlds… so here’s an impromptu post!

In an interesting ruling, the first case of NCAA athletes forming a labor union may occur at Northwestern University. The student-athletes, primarily football players, petitioned for recognition by the university as a labor union. Interestingly, the university argued that athletes were not “employees” while under scholarship. The official decision by the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency that decides if a request for unionization is legitimate under the law, came out today. The NLRB found that the the request was legitimate, and that players may unionize. Of note, the official ruling notes that the plethora of work-like policies and rules show evidence of an employment relationship. For example: Did you know that student athletes had to submit their off-campus leases to the head football coach for final approval? Apparently that university-imposed rule ensures the integrity of the amateur athlete- ensuring he or she does not accept any trade for his or her athletic abilities outside of their university scholarship. Logically, this is actually a reasonable rule with the intent to comply with NCAA rules.  Also, NCAA athletes actually must concede the use of their name while under scholarship.  For example, a student-athlete University of Minnesota recently lost his scholarship eligibility for using his name in a YouTube song… which he was not compensated for at the time of NCAA sanctions….  fascinating…  (for a funny, but sad take, see coverage by The Daily Show here)

One way this NLRB ruling can be interpreted: the rules intended to ensure “amateurism” of athletes may have been a factor in their being deemed “employees.” More simply, compliance with NCAA restrictions that prove amateur status actually shows evidence of an employment exchange. Now that is irony! Grid-irony.

ESPN coverage here:

Read the official ruling here:

Lots of opinions on this one…

Employer Solutions: Benefits or Blurring Lines? Work-life Balance… Part 2


Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of United Kingdom, on types of workers: “First, those whose work is work and whose pleasure is pleasure; and secondly, those whose work and pleasure are one.”

Sven, a very bright young man, has asked me to consider “the future of work-life balance.” In the last entry, I attempted to lay out some basics of work-life balance (here).  In part 2 the aim is to discuss Sven’s inquiry with by considering : 1) why employers may differ in their work-life benefits offerings, 2) challenges to lines or boundaries between work and life associated with communication technologies, and 3) the concept of work life integration.

Benefit offerings… discretion and competition

The models Sven discussed in his question took two contrasting approaches.  First, he mentioned Google, which builds a city around employees to meet needs on site.  This model seems to hint that employees don’t need to leave- the company has them covered.  Work and life occur in the same physical space.  Second, there is a mention of alternatives, such as hours away from being physical “in the office.” This model allows for flexibility to meet needs as well, but the individual is supplying solutions, as opposed to the company.  The employee can work from the office, home, a coffee shop, while running errands, and so on.  These models differ greatly in both offerings (practices or options) and where boundaries lie, or if boundaries exist at all.

So why might programs differ? Last spring, I was a teacher’s assistant for a course on Employer-Sponsored Employee Benefits Programs here at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota (an elective course in the elite Master of Arts in Human Resources and Industrial Relations program).  This course is designed to help HR professional think through which benefits make sense for employers to offer.  Work-life balance falls into a broader category of discretionary and non-discretionary benefit offerings.  The course is taught by a consultant with decades of experience in facilitating benefits program designs.  The image below considers ways to discuss these benefits[i] .

Time Off

  • Traditional time off programs—vacation, holidays, floating holidays, personal, sick
  • PTO banks
  • Time-off buying, selling, and donating
  • Sabbaticals/vacation bonus
  • Disability/integrated disability management
  • Leave of absence—maternity/paternity, adoption, family leave, FMLA,  phased leaves
  • Time off for community service
  • Time off donation
  • “No vacation”


Dependent Care

  • On-site centers
  • Resource and referral services
  • Adoption assistance
  • Spending accounts/voucher programs
  • Subsidies
  • Back up child care
  • Before/after school care; summer programs
  • Discount programs
  • Reserved slots in centers
  • Overnight business travel policies
  • Lactation programs


Flexibility and Time

  • Workplace flexibility—flextime, compressed workweeks, work at home, telework, part-time, job sharing, summer hours, phased retirement
  • Virtual work and redesign of workplace
  • On-site conveniences and personal services
  • Concierge services
  • Online discount services


Life Management

  • Employee assistance programs (EAP)
  • Long-term care programs
  • Wellness
  • Casual dress
  • Financial planning
  • Group purchasing program
  • Educational assistance
  • Home purchase assistance
  • Group legal
  • Relocation assistance


The course lecture summarized four key points: First, work-life benefits and practices are still emerging.  Second, the design, competitive practice, and employee acceptance of work-life benefits continues to develop.  Third, there is a trend toward improving and expanding work-life initiatives. Fourth, all organizations want to be seen as a “good” employer to potential employees and their communities at large.[ii]  Interesting to note, the course discussion and text diverge in their approach to describing work-life benefits.  The text is agnostic, stating differences in discretionary offerings are merely an employer choice. The modern reality is that employers have to provide adequate benefits to meet needs (many of which are covered by law), but may be pressured by labor market competitors to go beyond adequate to competitive.  Heck, employers may even do this on their own.  In fact, many offerings, such as flexible scheduling, may prove advantageous to the employer at a low cost.  A company must use practices that acknowledge influences stemming simultaneously from employee desires and other employers’ competition.

Technology and being on call… crossing or blurring of lines…

Another force affecting work-life balance is the continual advancement of communication technologies.   The divide between home and work is not nearly as stark as it once was.  Leaving a set shift at a factory would seem like a clear split- at least physically leaving the job behind.  With smart phones and email, communication technologies are altering this split.  As noted in their influential book The New American Workplace[iii], authors James O’Toole and Edward E. Lawler III (both of the University of Southern California) note that employees can be reached electrically “whether they are at home, in the car, or out to dinner…”  The authors refer to the best work-life balance company policies as indicating Hi-Involvement companies.  What isn’t clear is when involvement becomes invasion.  This is the experience many of us have- the “I thought we were going to spend time together” moment.

This availability of communication technology also appears to imply both benefits and costs.  A 2007 study by Wendy Boswell (Mays Business School at Texas A&M University) and Julie Olson-Buchanan (Craig School of Business, California State University, Fresno) found that employees with higher ambition and job involvement were more likely to use varying communication technologies in their non-work hours.  Use of technologies was also found to increase work-to-life conflict, as reported by self and significant others.[iv]  Technology can cross lines, blur lines, empower, or tether employees.  What matters are the policies and practices endorsed by employers and employees alike.

The future… are lines the past?

In order to respond to Sven honesty, most would say this: I don’t know what work-life balance will look like in 10 years.  I’m not sure we know what it looks like now.  But the line between work and life demands seems increasingly less defined. There is a new term that enters the discussion here: work-life integration.  As noted in a recent piece by Dan Schawbel, integration means blending, as opposed to balancing, work and life demands.  Under integration, one could imagine not benefits offerings, per se, but more of a set of work-life demands discussions.  This integration may be unique to the freedom provided by certain professions.  Jin Park, a brilliant researcher here at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota (and my office mate) has two kids.  I don’t know how he does it! He sees not balance, but integration as the key discussion.  According to Jin, work doesn’t “end” and life doesn’t “begin” at any time or place.  The key is understanding and addressing those demands. The nature of our profession (thought work- academia) does not impose shifts or specifically dedicated hours of work on critical tasks- at least not beyond teaching or office hours.  Our workplace doesn’t have steady customers, sales hours, or a call center (your call is important to us, though).  However, many jobs are becoming more flexible in work completion.  Is integration the future?


So what does this mean?  Expectations of employers and employees seem to be evolving.  Employers are monitoring employee needs and market offerings for flexible benefits, designed to help work-life balance.  Communication technologies seem to be evolving in a way that alters both hours and location of work.  And lastly, there is some debate that certain jobs have moved beyond balance, towards models of integration of work and life demands.

My questions to you:

  • Do you look at potential employers’ work-life practices when considering a job offer? Do you know if those offerings are industry standard? Appropriate?
  • Where do you draw the work-life line?  Where do those around you draw that line (i.e. coworkers and family alike)?
  • What do you think about work-life integration and/or work-life balance?

Weigh in below by clicking “comments” or “Leave a reply.” I’d be honored!


[i] Martocchio, Joseph J. (2008)  Employee Benefits: A primer for human resource professionals. 3rd ed. McGraw-Hill Irwan. New York.

[ii] Leone, Bob. (2013)  Lecture: Employee Benefits HRIR 8053.  Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.  April 17, 2013.

[iii] O’Toole, J., & Lawler, E. E. (2007). The new American workplace. Palgrave Macmillan.

[iv] Boswell, W. R., & Olson-Buchanan, J. B. (2007). The use of communication technologies after hours: The role of work attitudes and work-life conflict. Journal of Management, 33(4), 592-610.

Schawbel, Dan.  (2014) “Work life integration: the new norm.” 1/21/2014 accessed 3/25/2014

Demands and Domains: Work-Life Balance… Part 1


The challenge of work-life balance is without question one of the most significant struggles faced by modern man. -Stephen Covey, business author

There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences. – Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric

Question:  “What will the work-life balance look like in ten years? Today I see several competing models. Places like Google build entire cities that encourage their employees to spend as little time outside of work as possible. Other employers are more flexible with hours physically at the office, but often expect employees to be on call 24/7, especially in terms of email.”

Name: “Sven”
Current Occupation: Director of Development

This is a good one, Sven!  I’ll probably take this question on in multiple parts.  Work-life balance is a theoretical concept, a set of strategic decisions, and an experience for employees and employers alike.  First, this entry will take a hack at discussing research and practice knowledge related to work-life balance.  Possible future entries- Why do policies differ? Also, I may have a blog lined up to discuss a unique work-life balance experience- that of the small-business owner that is ALWAYS on call via ubiquitous communication.  Stay tuned.  I’ll aim to discuss specific practices and models later… (not evading your question, I swear!)

This subject truly is ripped from the headlines!  In the last year, major employers have been in the headlines for altering policies related to work-life balance.  Last year Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, made the news by altering the company’s work-from-home rules.  Her logic was that “people are more productive when they’re alone,” and then stressed “but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”[i]  She was widely analyzed, praised and criticized by business journalists (even within the same news network/company[ii]). Google, on the other hand, offers expansive benefits, including food and on-site medical services.    But, it isn’t as simple as that. What do employees and employers seek in striking the balance?

Below, I aim to discuss the troubles with conceptualizing what work-life balance is, the trouble with employees’ and employers’ expectations related to separate demands from work and life, and trends in work-life policies.  Big agenda ahead!  Let’s think together!

What is work life balance? Expectations…

In 2013, the United States ranked #27 out of 36 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) index of work-life balance[iii].  The OECD ranks countries based on two indicators: time devoted to leisure and personal care and 2) employees working very long hours.  But workplaces may not define this balance so simply.  Going deeper, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)[iv], the world’s largest membership organization devoted to human resource management, defines Work-life balance as follows:

“Having a measure of control over when, where and how individuals work, leading to their being able to enjoy an optimal quality of life. Work/life balance is achieved when an individual’s right to a fulfilled life inside and outside paid work is accepted and respected as the norm, to the mutual benefit of the individual, business and society.”[v]

Whoh.  One could write an essay, blog, dissertation, and/or rant in reaction to that definition alone.  This goes beyond a balancing act to require optimal quality of life and right to fulfilled life in and outside of work.  This definition seems to imply that the individual defines the fulfillment.   However, the mutual benefit to business and society implies that still other parties may also be considered. Employee must consider the needs of the employer and society.  Employers need to adjust to all employee differences and societal demands.  Society needs to weigh in with an assertive voice. My point?  This balancing act is a conundrum.

Research on work/life balance… in theory…

In order to fully examine work-life balance, let’s try to agree on what the concept is, and why it matters. Many readers may have a mental model about what this term means.  Merriam-Webster defines balance as “a state in which different things occur in equal or proper amounts or have an equal or proper amount of importance.”[vi] So, one may think that we are thinking about proper amounts of importance on work and life.  What does imbalance imply?  Who defines what is proper?

In many academic minds, being out of balance implies conflict.  Work-family conflict (WFC) has been defined in research as “a form of inter-role conflict in which the role pressures from the work and family domains are mutually incompatible in some respect. That is, participation in the work (family) role is made more difficult by virtue of participation in the family (work) role.” [vii]  It is important to note that the individual employee is defining where the source of conflict stems from, and satisfaction is assessed by that individual.  In such studies, WFC can take one of two directions: a) Work interference with family (WIF), or b) Family interference with work (FIW).  Under this model, the balancing act occurs within the individual, as they navigate the demands from both work and life. However, research seems unclear on the distinct impacts of WIF and FIW on satisfaction within work or family domains specifically.[viii]  Both WIF and FIW are linked with well-being and behavior, and in both domains of work and family life.[ix] Conflicting studies both show and don’t show that FIW is more strongly associated with impacts in family-related outcomes, while WIF is more strongly associated with work-related outcomes.  It seems this is one area where the field isn’t clear.  In summation, the source of the conflict does appear to matter (comes from work OR family), but it isn’t clear where the negative outcomes occur (impacts on work OR family).  So… is that confusing?  It should be.

Also, individuals may have differences in how they perceive work-family conflicts.  Some individuals may be more prone to be impacted by work-family conflict.  A 2012 study by psychology professors at the University of South Florida found that individuals with lower emotional stability (neuroticism) are more vulnerable to work-family conflict, where as positive affect (general positive attitudes) tend to protect individuals from conflict.[x]  So is WFC a person-by-person discussion? Try optimizing that equation!

The employer’s role… in practice and theory…

What about the employer?  An employer has a different set of conflicts.  The employer may want certain productively, and to ensure certain operations.  Work rules and norms matter to organizations.  Customers need access to employees.  Employers need to rely on employees to be effective at work.  If the above mentioned conflicts actually detract from employee productivity and satisfaction, than the employer should be considering the role of organization practice in helping balance worker needs. That balance may, in turn, lead to more effective employees.

Often, work-life practices are pitched by employers as benefits.  The Society for Human Resource Management conducts surveys of employee benefits.  According to 2013 data, 57% of organizations offer flexible work arrangements,[xi] organizational rules and practices which often allow for greater employee freedom in means achieving work. A 2009 SHRM special survey indicated that employees’ personal/family lives were positively affected by formal flexible work agreements.[xii]

Additionally, the firm may gain from employee loyalty in promoting work/life balance. A 2013 study[xiii] by professors of business and psychology (at Wake Forest, University of Texas at Arlington, Bowling Green State University and the University of South Florida) indicated that employee perceptions of their workplace’s support in family matters explained significant differences in employee commitment.  More plainly, if the employee believes the workplace is supportive, they give back.  The data from SHRM also supports this, citing lowered levels of turnover, an expensive source of cost to employers.[xiv]


Work life balance will continue to hit headlines, as employers and employees seek to reap benefits (and avoid costs) due to conflicting work and life demands.  While defining the properties of balance is complex, workers and the HR department both seem to gain value from flexible policies.  Trends show the discussion is important to outcomes for both workers and employers.

So, my questions for you….

  • How do you define work-life balance?
  • What should matter to employers?
  • What should matter to employees?
  • How flexible is your work arrangement?  How does that effect your view of your employer?

As always, submit your ideas through “Leave a reply” below.  I’d be honored.

P.S. A special thanks to super researcher and super mom Patti Dahm, for helping me find some research on this subject! Patti is a fellow doctoral student at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management (and intellectual superior!)

*image from Microsoft Clip Art- (c) 2014 Microsoft, under Office EULA

[i] Tkaczyk, Christopher.  “Marissa Mayer breaks her silence on Yahoo’s telecommuting policy.” CNN Money, April 19, 2013.

[ii] Weinberger, David.  “What Mayer misses on work-life balance.”  CNN Opinion.  March 2, 2013.

[iii] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2013). OECD Better Life Index accessed 3/14/2014

[iv] FULL DISCLOSURE- I am an active member of SHRM.  Membership does not imply that I agree with, nor endorse SHRM opinions on matters related to HR practices or employment policy.

[v] Society for Human Resource Management: HR Terms Glossary. accessed 3/14/2014

[vi] Merriam-Webster online dictionary: balance. accessed on 3/14/2014

[vii] Greenhaus, J. H., & Beutell, N. J. (1985). Sources of conflict between work and family roles. Academy of Management Review, 10, 76–88.

[viii] Shockley, K. M., & Singla, N. (2011). Reconsidering work—family interactions and satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Management, 37(3), 861-886.

[ix] Amstad, F. T., Meier, L. L., Fasel, U., Elfering, A., & Semmer, N. K. (2011). A meta-analysis of work–family conflict and various outcomes with a special emphasis on cross-domain versus matching-domain relations. Journal of occupational health psychology, 16(2), 151.

[x] Allen, T. D., Johnson, R. C., Saboe, K. N., Cho, E., Dumani, S., & Evans, S. (2012). Dispositional variables and work–family conflict: A meta-analysis. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 80(1), 17-26.

[xi] Society for Human Resource Management (2013). State of Employee Benefits in the Workplace- Flexible Work Arrangements. accessed 3/18/2014

[xii] Society for Human Resource Management (2009).  Workplace Flexibility in the 21st Century. accessed 3/18/2014.

[xiii] Wayne, J. H., Casper, W. J., Matthews, R. A., & Allen, T. D. (2013). Family-supportive organization perceptions and organizational commitment: The mediating role of work–family conflict and enrichment and partner attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(4), 606.

[xiv] Ibid- 2009 SHRM

Checking in

Colleagues, friends, family, and intellectual superiors:

Thank you for a rewarding and engaging 2013!  This little blog has been around only six months, and I’m humbled by the reception.  All ideas have come from thoughtful, thought-provoking, smart, and engaging people!  Your contributions deserve the credit for starting interesting conversations.

I recognize that I am behind on maintaining a regular post schedule, but that will change soon!  Here’s a preview of content coming soon:

  • Work-life balance: conflicts, blurred lines of separation, and the human experience.  This is going to be a cross-post with another blogger (an honor!)
  • Free speech and employment: grey areas
  • Employees behaving badly: what discipline does at work (cross post with other researchers- another honor!!!)
  • Cognitive dissonance in the reality of managing: “rewarding for poor performance” and “punishing for good performance”

Again, I would like to extend a giant thank you to all contacts, new and old, that made 2013 so engaging. My goal is to help others improve their lives through research and the advancement of knowledge about the world of work. Simply put, I wouldn’t do this work without an aim to help you, my friends and colleagues (and intellectual superiors). More directly, I couldn’t do it without you! I’m humbled and honored to be a part of your network!

Happy holidays, and a prosperous New Year to all of you.


Thanks to all of you!

No new content with this post- just a thank you to readers/discussion partners!  I started this blog earlier this year with the audience in mind.  I have been overwhelmed with the response.  Hundreds of viewers from all over the world, and lots of interaction with colleagues, friends and family, and intellectual superiors alike.   The thoughtfulness of idea submissions continues to amaze me.  It is humbling that so many thoughtful people believe I can help them think about the world of work.  That’s a lot of responsibility…even for a little blog.

To the point of this post.. in America, late November means giving thanks.  As such, I thought it would be appropriate to give thanks to you, the community of individuals that help drive this discussion.

So….. Thanks!

It continues to be an honor and a privilege to think with all of you.  I have been a bit behind on content, but I’m working on that.  I already have some really cool suggestions for near-future blog entry topics (ex. Why do high performers get punished?- Thanks Sherry! What is the future of work-life balance?- Good one Sven!).  Keep those ideas coming- I’ll get to them, I swear!


Don’t forget to submit your ideas, and feel free to interact on Twitter via @BenjArtStafford

Motivating Work- Dollars and Sensing


Age-old question: Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation… Is it better to offer monetary rewards/prizes/fear of replacement or is the idea that “I can be better” enough in the workplace?

Current occupation: Educator

Another great question!  I received this one from Kathryn, a high school teacher.  Her question began with an interest of how to motivate students to perform in the classroom (rigorous debates in education policy are outside my expertise).  Kathryn then thought about businesses.  Businesses need to motivate staff to perform.  How do managers or organizations do that?

Background… where I’m coming’ from…

One major area of theory that grounds my Ph.D. program at Carlson School of Management  is Organizational Behavior.  Organizational Behavior (OB) refers to “an interdisciplinary field dedicated to better understanding and managing people at work.” (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2001) The OB theories consist of studying interpersonal attitudes and preferences, and behavioral dynamics within organizational contexts.  Those attitudes, preferences, and dynamics are often then linked to some indicator of organizational performance.  Good background as OB will be my main lens for addressing this question. (NOTE: all lenses are inherently incomplete- as I previously noted here and here).

First, what is motivation? The textbook for our intro management class here at the University of Minnesota defines motivation as “the desire, stimulus, or incentive to pursue a particular course of action.” (Gulati, Mayo, & Nohria, 2014) Another text in Organizational Behavior defines motivation as “psychological processes that arouse and direct goal-directed behavior.” (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2001)  Perhaps the simplest definition, the Merriam-Webster defines motivation as “the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something.” (2013) Given these definitions, how does one address Kathryn’s question? What acts or processes exist within individuals and organizations that give employees reasons to perform?

I’ll do my best to respond to an excellent and perplexing question by raising related questions.  First, what drives individual motivation?  Second, what can organizations do to motivation employees?  Lastly, I’ll give a note on fear tactics in management, and then create an evasive conclusion…

This is a lot to tackle.  Let’s think together! (It might even be rewarding!)

What drives individual motivation?

So what drives that motivation within individuals?  One set of discussions centers around extrinsic and intrinsic rewards.  Extrinsic rewards motivate by tangible means, such as compensation.  These tangible benefits are also easily comparable.  For example, if an employee sees a comparable difference in a desired reward (pay) based on a certain type of behavior (sales, for example), this may motivate them.  In contrast, intrinsic rewards are often associated with less tangible, personal factors.  Perhaps someone enjoys the challenge of their work, or the delight of customers, or the great time they have with their coworkers.  From this perspective, the employees psychologically process the mix of rewards from the organization and/or job, both extrinsic and intrinsic, when considering how much discretionary effort to give toward organizational objectives.

Additionally, recent research by Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, both professors of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School, has looked at broadening the discussion of individual motivation.  Rewards aren’t merely intrinsic or extrinsic in their modeling of motivation.  Their Four-Drive Theory (2002) utilizes evidence from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and other fields.  Elements of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards are pervasive, and rarely work alone.  The four drives are described in the table below, with definitions and examples (applied from Gulati, et. al 2014).

Type of Drive Definition (loose) Example motivators
Drive to Acquire  Individual acquisition of scarce goods and social status
  • Rewards with competitive elements, like pay-for-performance
  • Pay is competitive in labor market
Drive to Bond Individuals’ desire to connect with others
  • Collaborative work environments
  • Organizational cultures with shared meaning/belonging
Drive to Comprehend Individuals’ longing to ‘master’ meaningful work
  • Job design- distinct and important roles in the organization
Drive to Defend Individuals’ desire to promote justice and defend against threats
  • Workplace rules that are fair, clear, and non-arbitrary with important rewards

What can organizations do to motivate their employees?

Well, I’ve already blown some of the surprise in the table above.  Organizations have many options for adjusting work settings to meet individuals’ needs and align behavior with organizational objectives.  The first option that often comes to mind is the structure of pay within organizations.  According to experts, pay structure should do three things. First, the structure should support organizational strategy.  What is the company doing?  What job function (or jobs) is critical to motivate for the company to achieve their goals?  Second, pay must support work flow.  The pay should create alignment within the business, valuing the same types of behaviors.  If work units A and B need to communicate, the reward systems should not cause them to have separate motivations.  Lastly, pay should generically motivate.  According to Milkovich and Irwin, experts on compensation, “the challenge is  to design structures that will engage people to help achieve organization objectives.”

Judging from the Four-Drive theory, it seems that pay isn’t enough.  In practice, this is obvious to anyone who has ever worked.  Employers must have a sense of employees’ needs and the alignment/misalignment with their reward structures.  Employers are constantly altering workplace policies and job designs, creating opportunities for advancement, and tinkering with other job enhancing tools.  Some organizations use work-life balance policies to allow employees flexibility.  Other organizations offer reimbursement for coursework that isn’t even job related! GASP!  Still other workplaces create pleasant work environments.  These actions may engender loyalty and motivation in their employees.

A note on fear of replacement…

A key element of motivation theories is that efforts depend on ‘arousal’ of the individual.  Few things bring more arousal than fear.  Much research in social psychology has focused on fear.  Dr. Robert Cialdini, former professor at Arizona State and perhaps one of the most influential social psychologists of our time, and his colleagues say that “fear arousing communications usually stimulate the audience to take action to reduce the threat.” (Goldstein, Martin, & Cialdini, 2008) Those researchers note one exception to the rule: when the audience is without a clear way to take action to reduce a threat.  In fact, research says this may actually paralyze all action- the opposite of motivation.  If a boss provides little feedback beyond “you are replaceable,” he or she should not expect that message is motivating meaningful action.  Though it is particularly difficult to get good research on negative supervision and leadership (see my earlier posts here and here), one can’t imagine the fear tactics work in the long-term.

Conclusion… sort of… again…

What can research tell us? Or, at the heart of Kathryn’s question, which rewards matter more, and why?  In organizational behavior, there is one answer to every question: it depends.  In the case of rewards, chapters of textbooks are dedicated to illuminating “it depends.” It depends on a laundry list of factors: job context, the individual employees’ differences, the organization’s business model, the labor market, and etcetera.

Basically Kathryn, I don’t know, and lots of smart people that study motivation don’t know either.  Nothing works all the time.  Pay is part of the equation.  The equation is much broader than pay. To hearken back to organizational behavior…. It depends….

So, my questions to you, the audience:

  • What motivates you to take action in your work?
  • Which of the Four-Drive Theory elements matters most to you?
  • Which of the Four-Drive elements does your employer seem to emphasize?

Join the conversation and comment below!  I’d be honored!


Goldstein, N. J., Martin, S. J., & Cialdini, R. B. (2008). Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.

Gulati, R., Mayo, A. J., & Nohria, N. (2014). Management (1st ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

Kreitner, R., & Kinicki, A. (2001). Organizational Behavior (5th ed.). New York, NY: Irwin/McGraw-Hill.

Lawrence, P. R., & Nohria, N. (2002). Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Merriam-Webster, Inc. (2013). Motivation- Dictionary and Thesaurus. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from

Milkovich, G. T., & Newman, J. M. (2008). Compensation (9th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

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