The secret to workplace success? Live it.

The secret to workplace success? Live it. October 29, 2015

Boy rolling out dough while a man, probably his father, looks on
Work-life integration benefits employers and families alike.
Image by Dmytro Vietrov/

Why do we treat work as if it were different from life?

No, really, think about it: why do many of us behave completely differently at work than we do at home or shopping or visiting friends?

Evidence Over Conventional Wisdom

Cover of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense
Pfeffer and Sutton (2006)

The general question is central to the third chapter of an excellent business book: Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management by Stanford University’s Jeffery Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton. The authors compare popular business wisdom with actual, rigorous research findings, and find the pop wisdom lacking.

Here are some of the “dangerous half-truths” we act as if we believe:

  • Work is fundamentally different than the rest of life
  • The best organizations have the best people
  • Financial incentives drive company performance
  • Strategy is destiny
  • Change or die
  • Great leaders are in control of their companies

The authors challenge these suppositions with cogent analysis, including history and social science. The idea that work differs from the rest of life is a modern phenomenon.

One hundred and fifty years ago, most people worked on farms, in small shops, or in workshops. Work wasn’t separate from the rest of life. People lived where they worked—or above where they worked—often worked with family members, and had more control over their work. Life was far from idyllic, as making a living often required more hours and effort than it does today. But it did mean that work and family roles were integrated.

Employers constantly struggle with the problem of control, which is why it is a central theme in organization theory, economics, and business history. … An early response to dealing with mass production employees, for example, was to hire and fire them willy-nilly, tolerate enormous turnover, and treat people as replaceable cogs in a machine. Employers were mainly focused on squeezing as much work out of each employee for as little money as possible. Page 67.

Pfeffer and Sutton point to “reducing role conflict” as a key strategy to increase retention and productivity. Citing studies published in the journal Work and Occupations (Bakker and Geurts 2004) and the Journal of Applied Psychology (Ernst Kossek and Ozeki 1998), they write:

The evidence shows that “a considerable proportion of employed parents (i.e., 40 percent) experience problems in combining work and family demands” and that the prevalence of work interfering with home is experienced three time more often than home demands interfering with work. Not surprisingly, many studies show that work-family conflicts undermine job satisfaction. Page 70.

Got that? Employers spend tremendous resources trying to ensure our home lives don’t interfere with work; meanwhile, it’s three times more likely that work interferes with home life.

How do we do better? Pfeffer and Sutton describe “the gains from letting people be themselves,” citing Sutton’s own book Weird Ideas that Work: How to Build a Creative Company (Sutton 2007):

What we are suggesting is that companies devote less effort to batting down who people really are and what matters to them, and more time using their people’s gifts, skills, and distinct charms to benefit both the company and their people. Research on creative organizations provides especially strong support for this conclusion. Creativity happens when people draw on what they know and who they are and say what they think, rather than pretend to be stifled clones of each other. The result is more ideas, more varied ideas, more combinations of ideas, and ultimately, more successful ideas.

Application to the Church: How about some church-life integration?

Change the words a little: why do we treat church as if it were different from life?

As you’ll read in the original “About Charting Church Leadership” post, a core principle for this learning community is that the ethics and work of the church does not and should not differ fundamentally from those of businesses, schools, and other organizations.

That is not to say that the church does not have a distinctively spiritual mission, we do. We don’t make widgets, sell services, or grant degrees. We feed the hungry and visit the sick, but it’s not our core mission to compete with restaurants and hospitals.

However, our mission to proclaim the gospel to all creation and to set the oppressed free is not a mission for once-a-week meetings in big rooms with old wooden benches or stackable chairs. It’s a mission of joy to be spread everywhere, to office, factory, living room, coffee shop, “field and forest, vale and mountain, flow’ry meadow, flashing sea.”

The problem with the church is not that we aren’t holy enough, that we aren’t set apart. It’s that we too easily come to behave as if holiness and spirituality mean we act strangely on Sundays and look down on everyone else all week. That’s not being set apart. It’s a simple, straightforward capitulation to worldly, corporate, popular culture that does exactly the same thing with the workplace: don’t be who God made you to be, be who we tell you to be. Keep your ideas to yourself, wear the uniform, sacrifice for the cause. As a previous post discusses, Packard and Hope wrote in Church Refugees (2015), “The church isn’t asking too much of people; it’s asking the wrong things of them.”

What if we took Pfeffer and Sutton’s advice into the church, and we let people be themselves?

  • When a fellow church member complains about musical styles and visits another congregation, let’s not panic and persecute them into becoming refugees. Instead, let’s commission critics as our ambassadors to research, compliment, and constructively critique the practices of other congregations. Even if they don’t stay, we learn something through a gracious exit interview. If they stay even a little, we become a stronger part of a more truly “catholic” church. In the 21st Century urban congregation, “floaters” who roam multiple congregations need not be low-commitment freeloading liabilities; they might be tremendous assets.
  • Instead of informally judging our congregations’ success by whether we’ve started programs to serve every demographic inside the congregation, let’s acculturate our membership to the idea that redeeming these outside commitments is the church’s mission. Kids are too busy with activities outside the church to attend youth group? Unless they’re in flagrant sin or committing crimes, refocus the church culture on making them effective evangelists.
  • Pastors who request a sabbatical or more family time or more study time for sermon prep or even, gasp, golf time, are probably not lazy or distracted. They are modeling for us a faith that God is the true Provider. Golf courses and coffee shops are great places for meaningful conversation and discipleship. Don’t punish your pastor for leaving the building, reward it!

Let the church be the church by letting people be themselves. The body of Christ is people with different gifts and roles working together in freedom, mutual respect, and gratitude. Funny thing is, that’s what makes a great business, too.

As I have written previously,

Let’s transform our congregations from ‘anchors’ that grimly compete for congregants’ scarce time and talents into “launching pads” that generously celebrate the varieties of Christian vocation.

Let people be themselves and watch the church grow.

Takeaway: The true discipline of the church is not making other people conform to Christ’s standards. It’s making ourselves conform to Christ’s standards and modeling His example so our neighbors are attracted to discipleship, so others can see what freedom is, what patience is, what forgiveness is. That is holiness, because the world usually doesn’t do it that way.

Next post: Pfeffer and Sutton advise businesses to banish the bullies.

Got an idea or a reference for our public Zotero reference library? Please comment below or join in on our Facebook pageWant to know when we post? Subscribe to Charting Church Leadership on the right side of this page.

Browse Our Archives