No one person can own it. It’s a movement of terms, phrases, articles, blogs and books. But it’s there. An inanimate cloud of cliché, opinion and advice that takes on a life of its own. A favored ubiquitous phrase is ‘work-life balance’ so as to not point fingers or leave anything out. ‘Leaning In’ and ‘Having It All’ often invoke strong feelings about the life choices of women and men. It’s hard not to arrive quickly at an opinion or take offense at a perceived standard of judgment. So, how does one navigate with all the conflict and debate?
There are standout pieces to point to for reference. Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a 2012 article in the Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in which she recounts her own story of choosing family over career. In 2013, Sheryl Sandburg wrote Lean In which found enough following to support a foundation and website promoting women’s equality in the workplace and male equality at home. In January 2015, Jennifer Szalai with the New York Times tried to help us understand “The Complicated Origins of Having It All”. Pointing back at least to the late 70s, there is a suspicious finger that flips through a wide variety of topics including feminism, parenting, corporate structure, entrepreneurial spirit, leadership and the American dream. But before you dig your heels any further into confirmation bias, let’s take a moment to think about how we apply information presented to us as ‘normative’ to our individual choices and life decisions.
First it is necessary to accept that we are all conformists to some degree, as conformity exists in any group. The negative connotation of conformity comes when choices are made without objectivity and lead to harm. This can be described as part of a concept called Groupthink. The term was popularized in research by Irving Lester Janis in his 1972 book Victims of Groupthink and again in 1982 with a revised Groupthink: psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes. But the term goes back much further in popular literature including a definitive 1952 article by Willliam H. Whyte, Jr in Fortune magazine. Whyte and Janis both reference the similar concept of ‘doublethink’ described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
For the sake of irony, let’s hear the definition from Wikipedia. “Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.” And for the sake of scientific validity, Janis defines Groupthink as “the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action…the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures.”
While Groupthink can easily become a scapegoat for bad personal decisions, the value is to avoid harmful decisions by objective reasoning and multiple sources of information. People often go astray into Groupthink when they feel they are upholding a universal value. Some values often associated with the discussion of ‘work-life balance’, ‘leaning in’ and ‘having it all’ are equality, freedom of choice, optimal health and quality parenting. Who can argue against these things? But the argument comes in how these values are upheld and what methods are used to achieve them. Two people who think they are upholding the same value can find themselves with opposing choices and methods.
In life, liberty and the pursuit of work-life balance, there are a few ways Groupthink can sneak up on you. The most obvious one is to accept someone else’s standard as normal. The essence of the warning to avoid Groupthink is that people can become so blind that they do not question a given standard of normalcy. A perfect example of this is the prolific nature in which women are asked how they achieve work-life balance but men rarely are asked the same question. Even more ironic is that these questions are often asked by other women who are intending to advance the cause of women’s equality. Another trap of Groupthink is to believe that ‘everyone thinks this way’ or to lump different voices together in agreement. An example is the thought that all feminists believe you can have it all and that women should push themselves to extreme measures of achievement to demonstrate this fact. This type of erroneous thought is often believed on opposite sides, by women who want to uphold feminist values and feel guilty if they don’t measure up and by those who criticize feminism and perceive the movement as a planned attack by feminists on traditional gender roles.
Equally important is not to blame Groupthink where it doesn’t exist. Such as to wrongly personalize one option as a standard by which there is judgment. A good example of this is the vilification of Lean In as an anthem against the choice of a woman to raise her children while not simultaneously in the workforce. Instead, Sandberg promotes that the option should exist for women to advance in careers without sexism or penalty for choosing to simultaneously have children. To advocate for one choice is not necessarily judgment against those who make other choices.
There are many voices on leaning in, having it all and work-life balance. Remember that while you are a member of various groups, you are an individual. You may choose to lean in or not, but be sure you are not leaning in to Groupthink.
Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic
Sheryl Sandburg wrote the book Lean In and subsequently created a foundation and website
Jennifer Szalai wrote “The Complicated Origins of Having It All” in the New York Times
Irving Lester Janis wrote 2 books: Victims of Groupthink and Groupthink: psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes
William H. Whyte, Jr. wrote the article “Groupthink” in Fortune magazine