Category Archives: At work

How we balance work and family life may be learned from our parents

There is a new qualitative study co-authored by Dr Ioana Lupu from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) that looks at how parents influence the work-family life balance from their children later on in life. One insight? Women who had stay-at-home mothers ‘work like their fathers but want to parent like their mothers’.

From the press release:

Previous work-life balance research has focused more on the organisational context or on individual psychological traits to explain work and career decisions. However, this new study, published in Human Relations, highlights the important role of our personal history and what we subconsciously learn from our parents.

“We are not blank slates when we join the workforce — many of our attitudes are already deeply engrained from childhood,” according to co-author by Dr Ioana Lupu.

The study argues that our beliefs and expectations about the right balance between work and family are often formed and shaped in the earliest part of our lives. One of the most powerful and enduring influences on our thinking may come from watching our parents.

The research is based on 148 interviews with 78 male and female employees from legal and accounting firms. Interviewees were sorted into four categories by the researchers: (1) willingly reproducing parental model; (2) reproducing the parental model against one’s will; (3) willingly distancing from the parental model; (4) and distancing from the parental model against one’s will.

The study shows a number of differences between women and men who grew up in ‘traditional’ households where the father had the role of breadwinner while the mother managed the household. Male participants who grew up in this kind of household tended to be unaffected by the guilt often associated with balancing work and family.

Male participant in the study: “I’ve always had a very strong work ethic drilled into me anyway, again by my parents, my family. So, I never needed anyone looking over my shoulder or giving me a kick up the backside and telling me I needed to do something — I’d get on and I’d do it. So, I found the environment [of the accountancy firm] in general one that suited me quite well.” (David, Partner, accountancy firm, two children).

Women on the other hand were much more conflicted — they reported feeling torn in two different directions. Women who had stay-at-home mothers “work like their fathers but want to parent like their mothers,” says Dr Lupu.

Female participant in the study: “My mum raised us…she was always at home and to some extent I feel guilty for not giving my children the same because I feel she raised me well and she had control over the situation. I’m not there every day … and I feel like I’ve failed them in a way because I leave them with somebody else. I sometimes think maybe I should be at home with them until they are a bit older.” (Eva, director, accountancy firm, two children).

Women who had working mothers are not necessarily always in a better position because they were marked by the absence of their mothers. A female participant in the study remembers vividly, many years later how her mother was absent whereas other children’s mothers were waiting at the school gates.

Female participant in the study: “I remember being picked up by a child-minder, and if I was ill, I’d be outsourced to whoever happened to be available at the time . . . I hated it, I hated it, because I felt like I just wanted to be with my mum and dad. My mum never picked me up from school when I was at primary school, and then everybody else’s mums would be stood there at the gate . . . And it’s only now that I’ve started re-thinking about that and thinking, well isn’t that going to be the same for [my son] if I’m working the way I am, he’s going to have somebody picking him up from school and maybe he won’t like that and is that what I want for my child?” (Jane, Partner, law firm, one child and expecting another).

An exception was found in female participants whose stay-at-home mothers had instilled strong career aspirations into them from an early stage. In these cases, the participants’ mothers sometimes set themselves up consciously as ‘negative role models’, encouraging their daughters not to repeat their own mistake.

Female participant in the study: “I do remember my mother always regretting she didn’t have a job outside the home and that was something that influenced me and all my sisters. […] She’d encourage us to find a career where we could work. She was quite academic herself, more educated than my father, but because of the nature of families and young children, she’d had to become this stay-at-home parent.” (Monica, director, AUDIT, one child)

“We have found that the enduring influence of upbringing goes some way towards explaining why the careers of individuals, both male and female, are differentially affected following parenthood, even when those individuals possess broadly equivalent levels of cultural capital, such as levels of education, and have hitherto pursued very similar career paths,” says Dr Lupu.

She says the research raises awareness of the gap that often exists between unconscious expectations and conscious ambitions related to career and parenting.

“If individuals are to reach their full potential, they have to be aware of how the person that they are has been shaped through previous socialisation and how their own work?family decisions further reproduce the structures constraining these decisions,” says Dr Lupu.

Abstract of the study:

Prior research generally presents work–family decisions as an individual’s rational choice between alternatives, downplaying the crucial role that upbringing plays in shaping work and parenting decisions. This article emphasizes how habitus – historically constituted and embodied dispositions – structures perceptions about what is ‘right’ and ‘normal’ for working mothers and fathers. This relational approach explores how the entrenched dispositions of individuals interact dynamically with contextual imperatives to influence professionals’ work–family decisions. Drawing on 148 interviews with 78 male and female professionals, our study looks at much deeper rooted causes of work–family conflict in professional service firms than have hitherto been considered. We show how dispositions embodied during one’s upbringing can largely transcend time and space. These dispositions hold a powerful sway over individuals and may continue to structure action even when professionals exhibit a desire to act differently. In turn, this implies that the impediments to greater equality lie not only in organizational and societal structures, but within individuals themselves in the form of dispositions and categories of perception that contribute towards the maintenance and reproduction of those structures. Additionally, in a more limited number of cases, we show how dispositions adapt as a result of either reflexive distancing or an encounter with objective circumstances, leading to discontinuity in the habitus.

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Funny on Sunday: Why not to seek advice from successful people.

 

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A downside of expertise? Skilled workers more prone to mistakes when interrupted

Expertise is great, it’s what makes the difference between a novice and an expert. But every wish comes with a curse, and even expertise has maybe a downside according to this new study as it shows that highly trained workers in some occupations could actually be at risk for making errors when interrupted

From the press release:

The reason: Experienced workers are generally faster at performing procedural tasks, meaning their actions are more closely spaced in time and thus more confusable when they attempt to recall where to resume a task after being interrupted.

“Suppose a nurse is interrupted while preparing to give a dose of medication and then must remember whether he or she administered the dose,” said Erik Altmann, lead investigator on the project. “The more experienced nurse will remember less accurately than a less-practiced nurse, other things being equal, if the more experienced nurse performs the steps involved in administering medication more quickly.”

That’s not to say skilled nurses should avoid giving medication, but only that high skill levels could be a risk factor for increased errors after interruptions and that experts who perform a task quickly and accurately have probably figured out strategies for keeping their place in a task, said Altmann, who collaborated with fellow professor Zach Hambrick.

Their study, funded by the Office of Naval Research, is published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

For the experiment, 224 people performed two sessions of a computer-based procedural task on separate days. Participants were interrupted randomly by a simple typing task, after which they had to remember the last step they performed to select the correct step to perform next.

In the second session, people became faster, and on most measures, more accurate, Altmann said. After interruptions, however, they became less accurate, making more errors by resuming the task at the wrong spot.

“The faster things happen, the worse we remember them,” Altmann said, adding that when workers are interrupted in the middle of critical procedures, as in emergency rooms or intensive care units, they may benefit from training and equipment design that helps them remember where they left off.

Abstract of the study:

Positive effects of practice are ubiquitous in human performance, but a finding from memory research suggests that negative effects are possible also. The finding is that memory for items on a list depends on the time interval between item presentations. This finding predicts a negative effect of practice on procedural performance under conditions of task interruption. As steps of a procedure are performed more quickly, memory for past performance should become less accurate, increasing the rate of skipped or repeated steps after an interruption. We found this effect, with practice generally improving speed and accuracy, but impairing accuracy after interruptions. The results show that positive effects of practice can interact with architectural constraints on episodic memory to have negative effects on performance. In practical terms, the results suggest that practice can be a risk factor for procedural errors in task environments with a high incidence of task interruption.

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Good question answered: despite technology, why are there still so many jobs? (TED-talk by D. Autor)

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Funny on Sunday: “The feeling when you realize the robots will steal your job”

This is certainly one of the funniest things I’ve seen this week!

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Barack Obama explains why #solutionism doesn’t work

I shared this already on Twitter, but I think this short text by president Barack Obama is so important that it would be a mistake not to share it here.

Read this and than think about Bill Gates, Zuckerberg, and many others.

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This big genetic study talks about the existence of unrealized human potential, and is probably correct

When you start talking about genes and education, often people will start having all kind of itches. This new study not only looks at the influence of genes on education, but even finds that the same genetic score that has predicting power for academic achievement – always to a certain extent – also has predictive power on labor market outcomes.

But sociologists don’t have to fear. This study isn’t about nature conquering nurture, as the study actually proves that childhood SES is a very important factor. I often summarize it as follows: in perfect conditions the biggest influence would certainly be genetic, but the worse the environment is, the bigger the influence of nurture.

Some could suggest that bringing genetics into this area sounds strange, a discussion we often see when discussing including intelligence in this kind of research. Still, I think that including these kinds of factors can only benefit social studies, helping us getting babysteps closer to understand the complexity of the world.

Abstract of the report:

Recent advances have led to the discovery of specific genetic variants that predict educational attainment. We study how these variants, summarized as a genetic score variable, are associated with human capital accumulation and labor market outcomes in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). We demonstrate that the same genetic score that predicts education is also associated with higher wages, but only among individuals with a college education. Moreover, the genetic gradient in wages has grown in more recent birth cohorts, consistent with interactions between technological change and labor market ability. We also show that individuals who grew up in economically disadvantaged households are less likely to go to college when compared to individuals with the same genetic score, but from higher-SES households. Our findings provide support for the idea that childhood SES is an important moderator of the economic returns to genetic endowments. Moreover, the finding that childhood poverty limits the educational attainment of high-ability individuals suggests the existence of unrealized human potential.

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An important blow for informal learning at work?

We’ve discussed the 70-20-10-model before on this blog and in our book and the defenders of the model usually respond that you don’t need to take the percentages too literally and that the model puts an emphasis on the importance of informal learning.

But the latter may have received a bit of a blow this week by the results of a longitudinal study by the Dutch SCP. I didn’t got their study when it was released, but an article in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant pointed me to the study this weekend.

This isn’t a small study, as 4500 respondents between 16 and 65 who are in a profession are being followed as long as a possible in this longitudinal approach.

What are the important conclusions regarding formal and informal learning:

  • Regarding the life long learning of less educated workers, informal learning doesn’t work.
  • Employees who receive less formal learning opportunities don’t compensate this by informal learning.
  • Actually: the people who do learn a lot in a formal way, are the same who learn a lot informal.

 

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Childhood can affect performance under stress in adulthood

This study actually confirms a theme that has been a subject of my posts for a while: stress in early age can have a lasting effect. The study by Leyh et al. again adds another nuance from neuroscience: the emotional bonds with our primary caregiver or parent in early childhood are the basis of our ability to regulate our emotions as adults. Do note that the amount of persons tested in this study is really, really small (8), so I would rather regard it more as a pilot study than a big confirmation.

From the press release:

Imagine two candidates at a high stakes job interview. One of them handles the pressure with ease and sails through the interview. The other candidate, however, feels very nervous and under-performs.

Why do some people perform better than others under emotionally stressful conditions? The clue might lie in early childhood experiences, a recent study published in the open access online journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found.

Emotional bonds with our primary caregiver or parent in early childhood are thought to be the basis of our ability to regulate our emotions as adults.

“We know from other studies that our history of attachment directly influences how we act in social situations;” explained Dr. Christine Heinisch, one of the authors of the study; “but what about reaction to a neutral stimulus under emotional conditions?”

A good example of this in daily life, says Dr. Heinisch, is when a car approaches a traffic light. Under neutral conditions, it is easy for the driver to follow the signal. But what happens under emotional conditions?

“Usually, people tend to make more errors, like stopping too late or even driving through when the traffic light is red. Sometimes they stop although the light is still green,” she explains.

But not everyone’s actions are impacted by emotions to the same extent. Some of us had emotionally responsive caregivers or parents in childhood, while others didn’t.

It is these early experiences, according to the “attachment” theory in psychology, which influences the ability to regulate emotions as adults. “We expected those having problems with emotional regulation to make more errors in performing a task — and one significant variable influencing this is our attachment experience;” said Dr. Heinisch.

To test this theory, their group conducted a study on adult subjects with different childhood caregiver experiences. Subjects in the study performed a task of identifying a target letter from among a series of flashing letters. This task was administered under conditions that evoked a positive, neutral, or negative emotional state. The researchers then assessed task performance and analyzed EEG recordings of brain function in their subjects.

The results were revealing. Subjects who did not have emotionally responsive caregivers in childhood (insecure-attached) had more trouble performing under emotionally negative conditions than the others (secure-attached). They also had lower brain activity in response to the target letter under negative conditions than secure-attached subjects.

The lower task performance correlated with inefficient strategies for emotional regulation seen in insecure-attached adults. This could mean that a greater share of cognitive resources was allocated for regulating emotions, and consequently, less was available for performing the task.

One potential limitation of this study is that the target letters were unrelated to the emotional context cues provided, and therefore had little real-life relevance. In future studies, the authors plan to use a person or an object with emotional significance as target, and socially relevant situations as the context of the task.

One thing seems clear though — childhood emotional experiences have long lasting consequences for your ability to perform a given task.

Abstract of the study:

The induction of emotional states has repeatedly been shown to affect cognitive processing capacities. At a neurophysiological level, P3 amplitude responses that are associated with attention allocation have been found to be reduced to task-relevant stimuli during emotional conditions as compared to neutral conditions suggesting a draining impact of emotion on cognitive resources. Attachment theory claims that how individuals regulate their emotions is guided by an internal working model (IWM) of attachment that has formed early in life. While securely attached individuals are capable of freely evaluating their emotions insecurely attached ones tend to either suppress or heighten the emotional experience in a regulatory effort. To explore how attachment quality moderates the impact of emotional contexts on information processing event-related potentials (ERPs) in 41 individuals were assessed. Subjects were instructed to detect neutral target letters within an oddball paradigm. Various images taken from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) served as background pictures and represented negative, positive and neutral task-irrelevant contexts. Attachment representation was assessed using the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) and individuals were assigned to one of three categories (secure, insecure-dismissing, insecure-preoccupied). At a behavioral level, the study revealed that negative emotionally conditions were associated with the detection of less target stimuli in insecure-dismissing subjects. Accordingly, ERPs yielded reduced P3 amplitudes in insecure-dismissing subjects when given a negative emotional context. We interpret these findings in terms of less sufficient emotion regulation strategies in insecure-dismissing subjects at the cost of accurate behavioral performance. The study suggests that attachment representation differentially moderates the relationship between emotional contexts and information processing most evident in insecure-dismissing subjects.

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Trouble at work? Blame your parents…?

“Hey, we’ve got another study to write a press release about”

“What’s it about?”

“Leader-follower relationships and attachment theory”

“Attachment theory? Ah, this means parents and parenting style!”

“Yes, but isn’t this research a bit far fetched and purely correlational?”

“Probably, but who cares.”

“And didn’t the 152 employees had to fill in a questionnaire about their attachment as an adult today rather than they have to say anything about their childhood?”

“Boring!”

“But…”

“Don’t worry, let me do this press release:”

“It seems cliché, but, once again, we end up blaming mom for everything in life,” said Harms while laughing. “It really is about both parents, but because mothers are typically the primary caregivers of the children, they usually have more influence on their children.”

Harms, an assistant professor in management at UA’s Culverhouse College of Commerce, studied manager-employee relationships in the workplace and found a link between parenting styles and workplace behaviors. His new research is published in the journal Human Relations.

Harms and his colleagues studied how so-called attachment styles impact how employees react to their supervisors. Their research was based on the work of John Bowlby, an early psychoanalyst, who argued that the way parents treat their offspring could have long-term implications for how their children approach relationships. In particular, the work focused on how parents acted when their infants cried out for help.

“You’ll see this in almost any parenting book you buy,” said Harms. “Should you let the baby cry, or should you rush to comfort them?”

Babies learn over time that when they feel abandoned or threatened they can either count on their parent to come to their rescue right away or they need to escalate to high levels of distress in order to get attention. Or, on the flip side, if babies learn that parents are simply not a reliable source of comfort, they stop making overt appeals for help.

Individuals with reliable parents view others as potential sources of support. Those individuals with unreliable parents tend not to see parents as sources of support. These people are often categorized as having anxious or avoidant attachment depending on the style they adopted to cope with distress.

“Anxiously attached people genuinely want to be loved, but they are nervous that the important people in their lives won’t return their affection,” explained Harms. “So, they overreact anytime they think their relationships are threatened. They use guilt and extreme emotional displays so that others will stay near and reassure them. They get really upset and can’t turn it off. On the other hand, avoidant people feel, ‘I don’t want to love you, and you don’t need to love me. So just leave me alone.’ You won’t find these people weeping over broken relationships.”

Harms and his colleagues speculated that individuals may transfer this pattern of thinking into the workplace and, in particular, that it may influence one’s relationship with one’s boss.

“Your boss is sort of like your parent,” said Harms. “They’re the ones who can take care of you, they’re supposed to train you and support you. This is especially true for individuals new to the workforce.”

Their research also finds that the way bosses treated their subordinates impacted some, but not all, employees.

“Essentially, we figured that bosses would matter less to individuals with secure or avoidant attachment styles,” said Harms. “Secure individuals have a long history of caring relationships, so they have other people who they can fall back on. And avoidant individuals just simply don’t care. It was the anxiously attached individuals we were most interested in.”

Their findings showed that when anxious followers were paired with supportive leaders, they were perfectly fine. But when they were paired with distant, unsupportive leaders, the anxiously attached employees reported higher levels of stress and lower levels of performance.

“They felt threatened,” said Harms. “Their deep-seated anxieties leak out, and it starts to preoccupy them in an unhealthy way.”

In general, avoidant individuals reported lower levels of stress but also less willingness to help co-workers.

“Good boss, bad boss. Whatever. They just don’t care. They just want to do their job and go home,” said Harms.

So, would the working world be a better place if parents just hugged their kids more?

“Probably,” said Harms, “but we can make a difference even if people come into the workplace with insecurities. Our research shows that a mother or father figure later in life can provide that needed love and support, even in the context of the workplace.

“Ultimately, though, the relationship between a manager and their subordinates has to be like a parent-child relationship in another way,” said Harms. “You can provide attention and support early, but the sign of a mature relationship is that you trust one another to the point where managers can trust their subordinates to let them be autonomous, and subordinates can act without seeking permission. In other words, you graduate and move out of the house.”

Abstract of the study:

The current study utilizes attachment theory to understand how leader–follower relationships impact emotional and behavioral outcomes in the workplace. Specifically, we examine the roles of two dysfunctional attachment styles – anxious and avoidant attachment – as determinants of trust in leaders, stress and citizenship behaviors. Results showed that followers with anxious attachment orientations reported experiencing more stress, whereas followers with avoidant attachment orientations were less likely to engage in organizational citizenship behaviors. Moreover, we found that the relationship between attachment orientations and workplace outcomes are mediated by affective and cognitive trust. However, these negative outcomes only occur when the follower has a leader with an avoidant attachment orientation. Implications for training, selection, job design and understanding leader–follower dynamics are discussed.

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