Challenging the Dominant Paradigm

Professor Nancy Rothbard takes on the work/family debate, with some surprising findings.

By Nancy Moffitt

Nancy Rothbard recalls being startled, time and time again, when executives she interviewed for a Harvard research project repeatedly revealed the very personal details of their lives.

It was the early 1990s, and Rothbard had just graduated from Brown University. She had taken a research post with Harvard leadership guru John Kotter, who was working on a study about the class of 1974 MBA graduates, work that ultimately became the bestselling book The New Rules. Rothbard traveled across the nation interviewing the alumni, most of whom were successful male executives.

“As I did the interviews, I was struck by the fact that non-work subjects like divorces and problems with kids kept creeping into the conversation,” says Rothbard, 34, an assistant professor of management. “I’ll never forget one interview with a senior executive of a very large manufacturing firm. He told me that he hadn’t been able to concentrate for the last six months because his son had a drug problem, and he and his wife were distraught and didn’t know what to do. I was thinking to myself as I listened that I couldn’t believe these people were telling me these things, and that they were linking them to their work.”

Having grown up in a family business, Rothbard had witnessed such work/personal life connections interplay with, and sometimes interrupt and disrupt, employees’ work. But she’d suspected major corporations and their senior leadership were simply too focused on the big picture to be affected in any significant way by their own or their employees’ personal matters.

Had she been wrong? She spent the next decade finding out.

Facts of (Work/Family) Life

The work/family debate is nothing new. For decades, the media has talked of the impossibility of it all, of scheduled lives and exhausted parents, drained employees and family-wary employers, of tradeoffs, the “juggling act,” “the balancing act.” Women in particular are often cast in a sympathetic but harried light, unable to manage the challenges of lives too full – days overflowing with tasks at home and at work with little or no time to rest and recreate. The academic and government research literature has taken a similar bent, often focusing on the likely fallout to the children and employers of the work/family set.

Rothbard, who grew up working in her family’s Philadelphia office supply and furniture business, was intrigued by the parallels between her work at Harvard and her early observations driving to and from work with her father, listening to him worry about employees’ lack of focus. “A perennial question that plagued us was how to get employees to fully engage in their work,” she says. “When people were engaged, they were more likely to catch mistakes, come up with creative solutions, and be more committed and less likely to leave a job.”

After three years, two books, and three case studies at Harvard, her mind was filled with ideas, hunches, and questions. Are people with active and demanding personal lives inherently less focused and more likely to become drained and depleted on the job? Are employees who can work long hours and become more psychologically invested in an organization – people without families or other consuming personal interests – a safer and better bet? Rothbard began her search for answers in 1993, when she entered the University of Michigan’s PhD program. And her findings have been far different than the academic and popular literature would have us believe – far different, even, than her early anecdotal observations.

What’s the upshot?

Yes, people often flounder at home and at work during full-fledged crises. But a busy personal life, with children and careers and the inherent stress that comes with them, actually makes for a more engaged employee over the long haul, says Rothbard, whose views are the result of a major study she led at Michigan. Published in 2001 in Administrative Science Quarterly, the study, titled “Enriching or Depleting? The Dynamics of Engagement in Work and Family Roles,” yielded 790 respondents. It found that “work engagement” is not negatively affected by family-related stress, for men or for women. And women, the study found, most often throw themselves into their work even more during times of extreme personal stress, seeing the office as a kind of haven from a negative home environment.

“The depletion that is so feared by organizations from family to work does not exist,” Rothbard says. “And I suggest to organizations that their beliefs about women may be wrong. As a manager, don’t make the automatic assumption that a woman with a rich family life is not going to be engaged in her work. She could be very engaged. Her time may be limited, but her focus may be very much all there.”

Rothbard’s findings mean organizations can have some assurance that family involvement is not achieved at the expense of work. But the study also found that for women, leaving a negative work environment at the office isn’t so easy. Women struggling with an unhappy work life are often less engaged with their families. “This is a tough reality for women,” Rothbard says. “If they aren’t happy in their work, they are often less able to be involved and focused at home.” Men, conversely, are able to “segment” their work and home lives, the study found, so that negative emotions or stress typically do not adversely affect either role. “This isn’t to say that there aren’t men who find themselves incredibly drained at work by stress at home or at home by work stress,” Rothbard says. “But most men, I found, are able to put these things aside and function well in their various roles.”

Rothbard’s study went beyond issues of employee depletion at home and at work, however. As she began her work at Michigan, Rothbard was struck by the near-total lack of research on the benefits an individual’s personal life might bring to their work. She saw this as a critical oversight and tackled the issue in her study. “The work/family literature really only talked about the depletion issue – about the phenomenon of something negative happening to you and that it drains you and makes you less able to focus on your other role because you’re busy coping, whether it be work or family. I think this is only part of the story.” Rothbard found support for this argument in sociological research, which suggested that multiple roles are actually beneficial to many people.

“We all have positive, uplifting moments in our work lives and our personal lives. We bring those to our work and our homes, and they make us happy and open and available. They give us energy and help us engage and create,” she says.

Rothbard’s study found both men and women experience this enrichment, though not in the same way. Men’s positive work-related emotions spill over and enhance their family engagement, while women experience enrichment through positive family-related emotions enhancing their work involvement. “These findings contradict the dominant paradigm that assumes work and family roles are only depleting to one another,” she says, adding that she was somewhat surprised by the magnitude of the gender differences throughout her study.

All in all, Rothbard’s study makes some important contributions to work/family research, she believes. Her findings point to the importance of investigating both depletion and enrichment aspects of work and family, as well as pinpointing an emotion-based process by which engagement in one role relates to engagement in another role. “Assumptions about taking on many roles abound, suggesting that tradeoffs must be made between roles to achieve success in either,” she says. “This study provides a strong counterpoint to this view by revealing the potential for enrichment. For organizations, far from confirming fears that family life is achieved at the expense of work, this work suggests that, for men, family does not affect work engagement, and for women, family enhances work focus. Rather than trying to limit family commitments and participation in other roles, organizations may do well to encourage these activities, because people often gain energy from them.”

A Deep-Seated Interest

Rothbard grew up in Cheltenham, a Philadelphia suburb. While her father and uncle ran the Philadelphia office supply and furniture company her grandparents had founded in 1948, her mother, Aileen Rothbard, went back to school to pursue her PhD at Johns Hopkins when Rothbard was 13. Aileen rented an apartment in Baltimore where she lived a few days a week for two years, returning to Philadelphia for long weekends managing the household and caring for Nancy and her younger brother.

“Having gotten a PhD, I’m not sure how she did it,” says Rothbard. “She did everything for us. She ran the household. And getting her PhD was an incredibly enriching experience for her. She was happy and that happiness definitely spilled back into our family life.” Today, Aileen Rothbard is a research professor at Penn’s medical school. Her daughter admits that her deep-seated interest in work engagement and the way family can influence employee productivity was piqued by watching her parents in their respective roles.

After graduating from Michigan with her PhD in Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management in December 1998, Rothbard took a post-doctoral fellow position at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. She joined Wharton as an assistant professor in September of 2000. Recently married to Wharton accounting professor Brian Bushee, Rothbard lives in Center City, Philadelphia, and, apart from her work, enjoys reading fiction and traveling.

Her other research builds on her interest in organizational behavior. A 1998 paper, “Out on a Limb: The Role of Context and Impression Management in Selling Gender Equity Issues,” examines how and why people become involved in their organizations through something she calls “issue selling,” or calling the organization’s attention to key issues, events, or trends. “Essentially, we ask what motivates people to engage in discretionary and potentially risky activities on behalf of their own group within the organization,” she explains. The study of 1,019 MBA alumnae found that a woman’s likelihood of promoting a potentially controversial issue on the job has more to do with a favorable context, not individual characteristics. “Women who believe their organizations will be supportive and who have a close relationship with key decision makers perceive less risk to their image and are more likely to believe they can sell an issue,” she says.

Another recent project examining employee responses and reactions to corporate work-family policies such as on-site daycare and flextime had some surprising results, dispelling assumptions that on-site childcare is always an attractive perk. “Essentially I find that for people who prefer to keep the work and family spheres separate, greater access to onsite childcare decreases their satisfaction and commitment to the organization,” Rothbard says. “But for these same people, greater access to a policy like flextime, which allows people to keep work and family separate, increases their commitment. So employees’ responses to work-family policies may depend on the way they manage the work-family boundary; and if organizations offer policies such as onsite childcare, they should also offer policies such as flextime for people who are more comfortable with keeping work and family separate.”

Rothbard’s work, she admits, is full of surprises. “These are complex times for employees and employers. It’s important to understand what’s working and what’s not working, and why, and not make assumptions based on hunches or stereotypes,” she says. “These research topics are exciting to me because they matter both in work organizations and in people’s lives.”

Wharton Magazine - Background

Type to Search

See all results