Stockholm Syndrome, Learned Helplessness and Working Fathers

Many corporate cultures make it hard for dads to balance work and family. Let’s not compound the problem by also trapping ourselves. Here are 4 ways to avoid exacerbating our work-family struggles.

My cat's been an indoor cat so long, she doesn't even try to leave when we leave the door open. Sound familiar? photo credit: flossyflotsam via photopin cc
My cat’s been an indoor cat so long, she doesn’t even try to go outside when we leave the door open. photo credit: flossyflotsam via photopin cc

A Harvard Debate

I recently wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network*. In it, I discuss men’s flexibility stigma– that is, men who make use of workplace flexibility for family reasons often face negative perceptions and tangible repercussions, even moreso than women.

I then call for working dads who have job security and credibility to start to chip away at rigid company cultures so that it becomes more normal to talk about fathers’ work-family issues. This is a first step, I believe, in a long-term process of making more employers more amenable to work-family concerns.

Overall, the article was very well-received- tons of shares, tweets and comments, almost all of which were complimentary. Many said the piece resonated with them and thanked me for raising this important but under-publicized issue. But there was some debate as well. One commenter:

It’s a lovely sentiment and one that I advise all my colleagues to follow. But when the boss needs something and you know the desired timeline is Right Bloody Now, even if it was your fondest desire to be home in time for dinner, or bedtime, just once this month/year, the reality is that you do what your boss desires. The reality is that in this economic environment, there will be someone else to replace you once you’ve established that you are not entirely the property of the company. Of course the precious few years with your kids as they grow up, or with your spouse before you grow too old, are irreplaceable. But these days, a job is irreplaceable too, and houses, food, college, etc., are not free.

I get his point, even if he’s using hyperbole. And, of course, I live in the real world and understand that, these days, steady employment and financial security are hard to come by.

But the commenter implies that he finds it normal or even acceptable that you can’t even “be home in time for dinner, or bedtime, just once this month/year” because you must “do what your boss desires.” I fear that this represents the view of many working fathers who have given up on work-family balance prematurely.

Stockholm Syndrome and Learned Helplessness

This defeatist attitude strikes me as something akin to Stockholm Syndrome– in which a captive begins to identify with his captors or learned helplessness– in which, after bad experiences, one feels helpless and therefore stops looking for ways to escape/change a bad situation, even when options become available.

Many dads feel incredible pressure from their employers, and I don’t mean to minimize it. It is awful to be forced to sacrifice so much from family life for work. I understand that many employers demand more and more of employees because they can and that many dads see no alternative to acquiescing. I just don’t think we as fathers should internalize “work before all” corporate values and adopt them as our own. And we shouldn’t believe that just because “this is the way things are,” that “this is how it should be/will always be.”

Progress happens- usually very slowly until a tipping point when change occurs quickly.

Man in a Cage
We need to stop contributing to our own work vs family struggles (photo credit: flickr unknown cc licence)

Change is Possible

Why can’t corporate cultures change? Of course they can, and in a lot of places they have- there are many prominent examples of employers who are supportive of work-family. There is a rising tide of attention towards fathers’ issues, as demonstrated by recent media attention, the fact that HBR ran my article and that FWF has gained traction. Big companies like Deloitte & Touche have Dads Groups. Heck, there’s even a new reality show about stay-at-home-dads that treats caregiver dads with total respect.

I reject the commenter’s notion that aspiring for and working towards work-family balance is overly idealistic. I fully understand the current constraints many face, but know that change can occur over time.

How We Can Unlearn Helplessness

With all that said, what is a working dad to do? I’ll let some other commenters chime in.

1. Financial prioritization

“A practical place to start is with the family budget. With a wise handle on finances, e.g., focus on getting or staying debt-free, there’s more liberty to choose among work-life options, such as shared care or working four days a week. Finding ways to cut expenses is an exercise in trade-offs”- From Pat K, FWF commenter

2. Seek employment that is more amenable to work-family balance-

“About a year ago, my husband changed from a very rigid, demanding work schedule with a daily 3 hour commute to a job that is 20 minutes from our house and allows for flexibility in his schedule. He is happier, more engaged, and able to be involved in the day to day activities with our children more frequently.”- From Carol, FWF commenter

3. Find the courage to Downshift

“Getting over the idea that they will be cast as failures is the greatest challenge facing backtrackers… Stepping back is often the culmination of a painful battle between personal needs and professional expectations“- From Amy Salzman’s book on Downshifting

4. and most directly, we need to Stop Trapping Ourselves

“I find that another BIG issue when it comes to flexibility is imposed by the individual who is seeking it. That’s right – have a look in the mirror before you lay blame on the boss or the corporate culture. It’s been my experience that most men who have worked hard to build the reputation of being a hard worker have difficulty dealing with the inevitable by-products of working more flexibly”- From Dan, FWF commenter

To sum up, as I wrote in a prior FWF piece:

“If you have a demanding career, it is extremely hard to scale back or downshift without jeopardizing all you’ve worked and sacrificed for. Partner tracks and corporate ladders are not exactly forgiving if you try to revise the deal. Big-time income also often means financial commitments to such expenditures as private schools or jumbo mortgages on houses requiring upkeep and landscaping. It is seductively easy to get stuck on auto-pilot and continue on a fast track, even if it is no longer what is best for us or our families”

Many corporate cultures make it hard for dads to balance work and family. Let’s not compound the problem by also trapping ourselves.

What do you think about Flexibility Stigma? About trapping ourselves? Any experiences to share? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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* If you haven’t already read the HBR piece, please do so. I’d love to write there regularly, and this becomes more likely if my article there gets lots of hits, comments and shares.

10 thoughts on “Stockholm Syndrome, Learned Helplessness and Working Fathers

  1. It’s a complex and far-reaching conversation. But I am curious, Scott. Have you never found yourself in the position the commenter describes?

    I have, as a solo mother, in a job following a period of unemployment, with legal debt and no other prospects. “I can’t” wasn’t an option.

    That doesn’t make it right, or reasonable, or even good business. That doesn’t mean we don’t work for change either.

    • To answer your question- yes I have. But never that frequently. I’ve been lucky.

      But, that’s not really my point.

      As you imply. Yes, we need to live in the world the way it is, but never give up on change. We shouldn’t internalize defeatism.

      The commenter really made me think.

  2. I think you’re absolutely right to suggest that inflexible working practices are often accepted without reflection. To what extent do you think this is due to what I imagine are low levels of trade union membership in the US?

    • That is something I had not considered. However, teaching at a business school, I sometimes automatically only think about “professional” jobs that are highly unlikely to have even been unionized. Could definately be part of the unabashedly pro-US business culture, though

  3. Scott – thank you. I’ll definitely go read the HBR post. I was in the position being stigmatized for being an active father. (In fact I wrote about my experience here http://idolbuster.com/archives/2530).

    I call the attitude of your commenter corporate idolatry – he has internalized a company-first value system. To D.A.’s point, yes, there are times when the boss want/needs you to stay through dinner. But the idea that you can’t get home for dinner even once in a month is nonsense. That is a fear driven, irrational thought, and frankly is a recipe to get laid off because it leads to exhaustion, burnout, and mistakes. The way to increase employment security is to have a network outside the workplace – people who will help you get your next job.

    • Hi Greg- Thank you for your comment here and at HBR- I’ve read your work for a while now, and see many parallels with “corporate idolatry”

      You raise a good point- when you have to be “all in, all the time” for work, you have no reserves to draw from to renew, refresh, or frankly to respond well in actual “right bloddy now” situations.

  4. You have an excellent point, Scott. Working for an unreasonable or abusive boss can shrink your view of what’s possible. It’s hard to keep enough perspective and optimism to make a plan to get out of your situation (forget about trying to change the corporate culture) when you’re being bombarded by the demands for Right Bloody Now. Your commenter helps remind those of us on the “outside” giving advice and strategies for change that almost always, the mental state is what has to change first.

    • Thank you Katherine!

      I love your phrase about shrinking one’s view of what is possible, and about perspective and optimism.

      And, yes, I agree that as an academic I am coming from a pretty priveledged position in which I do not face such stark choices. But maybe that gives me the freedom to advocate. I was thrilled to bring this argument to the HBR blog, where not only dads, but also many executives could come across our argument.

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