Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Coupled Careers: Why Some Work Better Than Others

We humans have a habit of getting attached to each other. People often connect as couples, who may then form families, and their lives outside work become closely connected. But the lives of members of a dual-earner couple, especially professionals each developing their own careers, also become connected in the work world, for better or for worse. We often hear that couples with dual careers must make sacrifices and tradeoffs, such as when deciding where to live and how much to work, which could negatively affect one or even both partners. Yet some couples seem to have very different experiences: both members reap benefits in the workplace that emerge from their personal connection.

A new paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Jennifer Louise Petriglieri and Otilia Obodaru investigates how members of some dual-career couples – but not others – grow their professional identities and careers thanks to each other. They look at how each partner in a relationship can promote the other’s professional development by encouraging exploration and being supportive when the exploration has disappointing results. This type of support ranges from the breakfast conversation about important decisions to the evening consolation following problems at work.

Petriglieri and Obodaru home in on a feature of supportive partnerships that we often overlook: who supports, and who receives support? There is a radical difference between dual-career couples in which one partner supports the other and couples in which both partners support each other. A couple with a single supporter is essentially a relation in which support is traded for dependence. Inevitably the two partners will develop differently, and they will understand the tradeoffs involved in how much support to give and how much to receive. The result is likely a relationship with built-in conflict and weaker professional growth for at least one of the partners.

A couple with two supporters does not have this problem of unequal trade and dependence because each supports the other, usually in ways that are different enough to be hard to compare. This not only reduces conflict but also has another key benefit: because one’s own experience is an important source of support, mutual support means learning from each other and using the other’s professional identity to develop one’s own. Often this works well because partners have complementary skills, so through mutual support and learning they can grow their professional identities and improve their professional skills.

This research really is a combination of old and new knowledge. The old knowledge is that we learn by teaching and that dependence produces weakness. The new knowledge is that this explains how dual-career couples can benefit from each other’s professional identity. It should come as good news to any couple wondering if it’s truly possible to support each other’s careers.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Let’s Talk about Our Breakup: How Communication Facilitates Separation

Don’t worry, you haven’t stumbled onto a relationship advice column. I’m here to talk about an old problem for organizations: how to successfully divest parts of organizations that need to become independent entities. There’s lots of research on how to incorporate acquired previously independent organizations and turn them into parts of a larger organization. That’s because the problem of incorporating acquired organizations appeals to our appetite for growth, so it’s a sexy topic. But large organizations must deal with divestments as well as acquisitions, and divestment research is harder to find.

A recent paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Rene Wiedner and Saku Mantere teaches us some new things about the separation process. They look at the separation of one part of an organization in the English National Health Service from a larger part, and they examine what went right, what went wrong, and why. The findings offer very useful lessons, and some are surprising.

It would seem logical that for others to gain independence, we should not help them too much. Helping means communicating and giving advice, and that is exactly how organizations (and people) stay dependent on others, right? Well, when separating out an organization, this is exactly wrong. Regular and respectful communication actually makes the separation easier and more successful for both the “parent” and the “child” organization.

Wiedner and Mantere found that communication is important because it creates two kinds of respect: appraisal respect, which is based on recognized ability and effort, and recognition respect, which is based on shared values. Both forms of respect are needed for the newly separated organization to be fully autonomous, as it needs to be to function well. Interestingly, these forms of respect don’t require that the organization can already stand on its own at the time it separates. Quite the opposite: they enable the organizations involved to ask for help and give help, which leads more quickly to the divested organization experiencing autonomy and the divesting organization granting it. Autonomy in turn creates independence.

The message here is that separation involves some leaps of faith because the respect has to be given before the newly separated organization is fully autonomous and independent. This is why separation can easily fail: if we demand that a divested organization demonstrate its independence before we grant it autonomy and respect, we’re doing things in exactly the wrong order. 

Many parents already know this lesson, of course, because letting children become independent involves many leaps of faith. Before we hand them the keys, we can’t know for sure that our teens won’t wreck the car. Before we pay the tuition bill, we aren’t guaranteed that they’ll study hard in their college courses. In addition to reading this new research by Wiedner and Mantere, divesting organizations might do well to check out some parenting advice columns.

Wiedner, R., and S. Mantere
2018. "Cutting the Cord: Mutual Respect, Organizational Autonomy, and Independence in Organizational Separation Processes." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.