Opting Out: Balancing Personal and Professional Goals

By Barb Krantz Taylor

All companies compete to find the best people in the workplace to fill their key leadership positions. But once they hire them, are they able to keep them happy and productive?

Some of the most promising and highest potential leaders we have worked with have attained great success in their jobs and worked hard to earn that success, only to ultimately decide that the price to remain is too high. The problem isn’t that they aren’t suited for the work, but rather that the size of their workload is too much to handle in a normal work week.

As the new generation of workers becomes qualified for higher positions on the corporate ladder, they have a different set of expectations than their predecessors. By and large, these are people who work to live, and not the other way around. Ironically, those who are the most talented, ambitious, and have promising futures are the ones searching hardest for balance in their lives. They choose in greater numbers to avoid the jobs that require 60+ hours in a typical week.

This choice has been called “opting out,” and it has been described in numerous places, most recently in The Opt Out Revolt: Why People are Leaving Companies to Create Kaleidoscope Careers by Lisa Mainiero and Sherry Sullivan.

Burning Out the Brightest

To me, the tragedy isn’t that people are losing jobs, because as the book title suggests, those who opt out are doing just fine, thank you. Rather, it’s that the most promising and productive people are the ones leaving, meaning the companies involved are losing some of their best and brightest emerging leaders. I hear them say things like: “I value myself too much to pay such a high price for success at work.”

To be fair, we shouldn’t label companies in question as taskmasters. Surely, some organizations are better than others at demonstrating that they value a work/life balance for their employees. But in many cases, the nature of management jobs – the ones higher up on the corporate ladder — require a larger time commitment. People who stick to a 40-hour week don’t get let go, but they do get put into a new box that limits their potential ascent within the organization.

Gender plays one role in this phenomenon, but not the only role. Women seem to opt out in greater numbers, often because of choices to focus on raising children. Their employers seem to show a willingness to reduce the workload for new mothers or parents, but these employees also lose their status as high potential leaders in the organization. (To be fair, men are opting out, too.)

Organizations are rapidly realizing that their pipeline for emerging leaders is becoming sparse, and many senior leaders have publicly discussed the lack of qualified people in the workforce.  That’s why opting out poses a greater problem for them than for individuals. There will always be bodies that are willing to fill leadership roles. But from our perspective, the ones leaving are the ones that demonstrate the highest levels of emotional intelligence, relational capacity, and maturity.

Tasks Before Relationships?

There’s another side to this discussion of heavy workloads. As an alternative to opting out, many try to adjust their jobs to make them more manageable. We work with leaders who work to prioritize tasks, and invest their time in more urgent matters. This adjustment leads to a different set of challenges.

At the Bailey Group, we often talk about relationship-based leadership as a core characteristic of an effective leader. The ability to be a coach, mentor, motivator, and people-focused leader is a valuable and powerful part of a leader’s job. Sadly, we observe that this relationship-based work, which takes a significant investment of time and energy, is the part of the job that gets set aside when leaders try to streamline their workloads.

Whether this adjustment represents an intentional decision or an unintended one, reducing the relational part of the job has numerous repercussions for organizations. As one-on-one meetings get postponed and team meetings become tactical instead of strategic, workers become less engaged. The leaders in question struggle: they know that they need to be more attentive to the needs of their staff. They are used to being successful at their jobs, and frustrated to be missing opportunities to help their team develop. Yet to readjust requires adding time to the workday, reinforcing this cycle of overactivity.

My colleagues and I observe that opting out is the right choice for some people. They find other ways to succeed, fill their time productively, and invest in new relationships, both professionally and personally. Since they’ve had professional success, they can afford to take breaks. In time, they build successful new careers and generally feel better about themselves.

Our clients tell us that key leadership positions are becoming harder to fill, with organizations investing considerable resources in recruiting and transitional training. Some companies communicate that they value employees with balanced lives, but then take actions that contradict the message. That’s a growing problem, especially as baby boomers retire and the next generation of leaders—those who place even greater value on balance—take their places.