Nancy Halpern
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I can’t tell if it’s a compliment or not to be called a workaholic. Once upon a time, working hard was seen as the key to a successful and happy life, and the only way to achieve the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was to claw your way there through determined effort (with a dose of luck).

But somewhere along that yellow brick road (or ladder) something changed. I blame the Blackberry. Years before the iPhone, it was the first smartphone of its kind. And possessing one meant a new kind of cool. Being connected – and ultra responsive – meant that you had already arrived. You were important enough to be someone people wanted to talk to – now. 

If you can work at any time and be reachable anywhere, how do you protect the boundaries between the office and home without sacrificing career growth?

We’ve all reached an easy or uneasy peace with this, but what if your definition of working hard is different than that of your domestic or professional partner? You think the day begins at 7 a.m. and ends 12 hours later, while he clocks in 9 to 5 and thinks you’re crazy because you don’t. Or he sleeps with the phone closer to him in bed than you are, checking it right before slumber and right after rising, while yours is locked away because you consider the bedroom a non-tech zone? 

I doubt we’re going to reach agreement on how to define a workaholic. And, as with most meaningful and difficult topics, we’re in the land of subjectivity. After all, one woman’s workaholic is another’s driven success story. But if you do find yourself living or working with someone whose definition of working hard is way different than yours, some serious negotiation is in order. 

Follow these 7 steps to achieve greater balance and cooperation between two very different working styles:

1. Is it a pattern or a one-off? 

Is there a looming deadline? A financial crisis? An upcoming presentation?  Sometimes we all have to sacrifice the normal for the exceptional circumstance, even when those around us pay a price. Dispassionately assessing the frequency of the all nighters can prevent harsh words and worse blow ups. If it’s happening routinely and regularly, then address it; if not, try and let it go. Don’t make an incident a pattern if you don’t need to.

2. Examine work patterns.

Does your partner go to more meetings than you think she or he needs to? Do they have to read every document and make every decision? Sometimes what you’re dealing with isn’t a workaholic – it’s a control freak. If that’s the case, pitch your partner on how you want to help them free up more time for high-level, strategic meaningful work rather than the operational details they get sucked into.

3. Establish a fixed routine.

If it’s your romantic partner who seems missing in action, then you might benefit from a newly negotiated contract for time spent. Perhaps the bedroom becomes that tech-free zone you want, or one of you gets up 30 minutes earlier for a cup of morning Joe before the great commute. Agree that two nights a week are sacred and cancelable only in times of national emergency. You can do the same thing with a business partner. Agree, for example, that every Monday from 9 to 10 a.m. is for the both of you to plan the week out, or Friday from 3 to 4 p.m. to review, recap, and forecast the week ahead.

4. Have a plan — then reevaluate it.

Decide as partners what’s non-negotiable, negotiable, and not as important. Tie it to certain events and routines – date night? Sacred. Division of household chores? Negotiable. Vacation or meeting planning? You would rather make all the decisions anyway. And then talk about it six months in. What’s working? What isn’t? Is anyone feeling resentful or taken advantage of?

5. It’s not you. It really is them.

This isn’t a rejection of you. It’s just that there are people who are defined by their work. It gives them self-renewal, a sense of conquest, or the feeling of making a difference.  It’s a source of deep emotional satisfaction and intellectual stimulation that nothing else can provide. Loving one’s work doesn’t mean you, as the partner, aren’t essential above all. But it does mean your partnership is on the short list of really, really important things, and personalizing it will only lead to friction and arguments that no one wins.

6. Focus on yourself.

No matter how much you accommodate the other, how often and calmly you state your wishes, or how much you try to adapt, you can’t always change someone. If their behavior is really self-destructive, you just have to hope that they see it, too. Think about what you need for yourself and expand that sense of self-reliance and competency by expanding a skill set, making decisions independently, and pursuing what you’re interested in – while always communicating to them, without rancor, what you’re up to.

7. Focus on the partnership.

As long as you approach it from that perspective – without rancor – your workaholic other will be much more open to a reasoned and business-like conversation, whether they share your office or your bed.

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Nancy Halpern is an executive coach with a proven track record in helping senior leaders and their teams reach their full potential. She's been quoted in The Financial Times, The New York Times and other publications as well as appearing on both NPR and the PBS NewsHour.

 

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