• 03.16.12

Strive For Work-Life Integration, Not Balance

Stop trying to balance the mythical scales so that work and family demands and rewards are exactly even. Instead, take these steps to integrate the two for greater happiness and control.

Strive For Work-Life Integration, Not Balance

Late one night I pulled out of the parking garage at the small
airport near my home. There were no cars behind me as I handed my ticket over
to the lady in the booth, so I asked if she ever felt trapped in the tiny enclosure. “Never,” she answered. “I’m a writer,
and it’s only busy here when a flight comes in. The rest of the time I work on my book.” Her book? She volunteered that she is working on
a novel based on characters she has created from the parking lot customers she
meets.  Sure enough, there was a
laptop propped up on the tiny counter next to her.


This stuck with me for a couple reasons. First, I hope one of her characters is
not a tired-looking, middle-aged guy in an old Ford Explorer. Second, her
situation reminded me of a self-assessment
we have co-developed at the Center for Creative Leadership to help
people cope with the challenge of work-life integration. (See my last
to see why I believe the idea of work-life balance is a sham.).  

Our goal is to help managers and leaders
stop trying to balance the mythical scales so that work and family demands and
rewards are exactly even. Rather,
we try to help them understand this: Accurately assessing the nature of their
own personalities, their sense of self-identity, and the degree of control they
have over their work and family lives is crucial to finding satisfaction. Balance
is not the goal. Integration is.

A snapshot of this concept could be applied to the lady in
the ticket booth, whom I later learned is named Kate.

Understanding Your Behavior

Research shows
that a critical aspect of integrating work/life facets is the degree to which
you manage family interrupting work or work interrupting family. (We use the word “family” broadly to
include family in a traditional sense and also friends). How does that play out in your
case? Do you tend to
blend personal and work tasks?  If
so, you might be an integrator (There
are two types of integrators–Work Firsters allow work to
interrupt family. Family Firsters allow family to interrupt

Maybe you are more of a
Separator and you tend to keep these
tasks separated into defined blocks of time. If you are a Cycler you might switch back and forth between cycles of either
highly integrating family and work followed by periods of intentionally separating
them. (Think tax accountant in late winter). Recognizing which of these behavior
patterns most naturally fit you and creating a strategy that takes them into
account becomes a starting point for integration. Also understand this: None of
these types is inherently better, so it’s important to recognize which of these
are ideal for you–not which you think you should be.

Consider Kate’s situation. She told me that she doesn’t talk on the phone while she is
working. As a result, her family and friends don’t call her at work. One of the things she likes about
working at the airport (aside from the ready supply of book characters she
meets) is that that she never takes work home at night. At least at first glance, she seems
like a classic separator.


Discovering Your Identity

How we view ourselves plays a critical part in integrating
work/life roles. Do you mostly
identify yourself as work-focused, family-focused, some combination of
those two–or something else altogether? (Hint: don’t answer this one the way you think you should
answer it; be honest with yourself.). 

Work-focused people tend to identify themselves through their work
roles–manager, vice president, leader. Family-focused people see themselves primarily as a parent,
spouse, or friend. Dual-focused
individuals identify with and invest in themselves equally in both roles. (Hint #2.  Most executives initially claim to be dual-focused. More often than not, their actions say
otherwise.). Other-focused individuals primarily invest in interests that do not connect directly to work or
family. Kate immediately
introduced herself to me at the airport as a writer, not a tollbooth worker or
mother–a strong indication she would qualify as “other-focused.” 

Taking Back Control

In my work with executives, I often hear them explain things
away by saying “My job makes me be that way.” With some exceptions, it is usually the other way
around. This is one of the
exceptions. The reality is, there are some jobs that make successful work/life
integration very difficult. 

important is how they make you feel about the degree of control you have. To what degree do you feel in control
of how you manage the boundaries between your work and personal life? Someone with high boundary control has a high degree of ability to decide when
to focus on work or, by comparison, to focus on family. Working in a toll booth
would inherently create a situation where the person would feel they have
little control or flexibility. The
need to be in the booth at all times, as well as the small confines and
fishbowl surroundings, would create a sense of low boundary control. That
seemed to work just fine for Kate, though many other people would feel overly
restricted in a situation like that.

So here are a few key takeaways. First, do not try
to balance anything. Second, try
to integrate instead, which requires some real awareness of your preferred
behaviors, self-identity, and sense of control. You need to dedicate some time
to figuring out those preferences. Finally, there’s no “right” way to create an
integrated life. The possibilities of what success looks like are as endless as
the potential plot lines in a parking lot booth operator’s novel.


Craig Chappelow, who specializes in 360-degree feedback and the development of effective senior executive teams, is a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (, a top-ranked, global provider
of leadership education and research.

[Image: Flickr user Dennis Wilkinson]

About the author

Craig Chappelow, a senior faculty member at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is a leading authority in the development and use of leadership assessment products. He has worked for two decades with senior executives in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America.