Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 260
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Crowded Lives

A new life-management model offers guidance for people with crowded lives.

The next time you're suffering through a really bad day, it may help you to recall the story of a man named John.

The story opens with his four-year-old daughter tugging at his sleeve to get his attention. Dinner is finished and the house is quiet, but home and family are not on John's mind at this moment. John discharged an employee earlier in the day, and it was the look of peril in this person's eyes that haunts John now, peril he had brought into this person's life by terminating his employment.

Meanwhile, the increasing urgency of his daughter's voice has attracted his wife. As she approaches, she thinks about his neglect of the family that she has complained about in their recent fights. Her voice is sharp when she speaks to him, and he reacts more to the tone of her voice than to the facts that prompted her words. Soon, they are arguing, and the last thing he says to her (just before tears well up in her eyes and she slams the bedroom door behind her) is, "You can be replaced."

Why did he say that!?

After a not-so-restful night's sleep on the couch, John begins a new work day and receives a follow-up visit from an eager employee who hopes to be promoted to a supervisor. Her interview had gone well, and John likes this person. This follow-up visit demonstrates initiative, he feels, so, he offers her the job. Bringing great pleasure into her day is just what he needed, but it is cut short by the surprised and angry voice of his next caller. It is another employee who wants to know if he should keep his appointment for an interview for this same position.

Oh no, he thinks, he hadn't finished all the interviews. What else could go wrong?

John is making bad mistakes. Trouble seems to follow him from work to home and it follows him from home to work. John isn't alone.

Life is often very crowded. Some people manage this crowding very well. Others, like John, fail miserably.

Experts from a variety of backgrounds offer advice to help people understand and manage their lives. They write books and articles, speak at seminars, and record training videos. The problem has also attracted researchers, and one of these, Boris Baltes, from Wayne State University, recently completed a study that should help.

Baltes selected the most promising new management model he could find that explains why some people manage their crowded lives well while others do not. It's called the SOC Life Management Strategy. Next, he created a survey which would identify people who followed the practices the model identifies as most helpful. Finally, he included questions that would identify people who were managing their lives well and people who weren't. He gave this survey to 241 people, and then allowed his computer to tell him if people who followed the practices actually reported better-managed lives. They do. Baltes' study supported the new model.

People who manage crowded lives and supervisors who manage people with crowded lives should benefit by knowing about it.

The SOC Life Management Strategy is a plan for adapting when life gets crowded. It has four components:

  1. Stating realistic preference goals - These are goals a person wants to accomplish when increasing crowdedness forces choices. For example, a young sales clerk who becomes a new mother may give up her goal to become a supervisor and stop completing tasks to train for this promotion. Instead, she may focus on improving her closing skills so she can increase her sales. This is a goal she does want to accomplish.
  2. Stating realistic loss-based goals - These are goals a person chooses when a sudden loss reduces one's resources, for example, losing a spouse, a natural disaster, or a physical loss, like one's hearing. For example, a new widow may set a goal of down-sizing and moving to an apartment.
  3. Focusing effort and resources on the selected goals - concentrating one's effort toward reaching the goal.
  4. Identifying and employing alternate resources to maintain progress toward goals when resources decline or demand increases. The young sales clerk mentioned above may line up both her mother and her mother-in-law to be available for emergency child care when her baby is too ill to go to day care.

Selecting reasonable goals and organizing one's resources to maintain progress toward reaching them is the essence of the SOC Strategy.

Reference: Baltes, Boris B., and Heather Haydens-Gahir (2003) Reduction of Work-Family Conflict Through the Use of Selection, Optimization, and Compensation Behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88 (6), 1005-1018.

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