On Management

Dec. 21, 2004
Management's search for meaning is an effort at achieving balance.

In 1946, Viktor Frankl wrote his moving book, Man's Search for Meaning (rev. ed. 1998, Washington Square Press), in which he reflected on life in a concentration camp. The most memorable part of the book is his commentary on what "kept people going." Each torturous day -- in unbearable conditions, facing unspeakable cruelty and the specter of death as a near certainty -- these people clung to life, sanity, and hope. This may seem a strange beginning to a column on management, but it suggests a parallel in the daily struggle for meaning that afflicts many middle managers, more than a few executives, and their families. Each morning they rise and go through the ritual of getting ready for work, then juggle the pressures of family, household duties, and their jobs. Electronic communications now has made it possible for our work days to extend -- or perhaps I should say "intrude" -- into our home lives. Pagers, cell phones, e-mail, the Internet, voice mail, and even answering machines keep us more in touch and more productive than ever. But they also form a cruel coalition to steal precious moments from the time in which we struggle to be husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, neighbors, part of the community or church, and last, but certainly not least, individuals. We can hardly ignore or block out their insistent chirp, vibration, and simple omnipresence. What if the next message is an important one? How can you know unless you check? "It'll only take a minute," you tell yourself. But that minute becomes five or 10, and after taking time to send answers, suddenly an hour has slipped away. The children are ready for bed, the trash needs to be taken out, the laundry hamper is overflowing, and dirty dishes adorn the kitchen counter in testimony to a hastily eaten and thrice-interrupted dinner. Today's pile of reading material lies untouched and spilling over those from yesterday and the day before. Each day it grows like a relentless organism, casting a pall of guilt if not dutifully shuffled through. Throwing some out is the only sensible thing to do -- but which ones? The material you discard unread will certainly contain the information the boss refers to at the next staff meeting, where peers will nod knowingly and comment while you struggle mutely to look knowledgeable. Is this what life in management has become? Somehow the parties at the country club, golf on Saturdays, the camaraderie of the occasional fishing trip, and family picnics on sunny Sundays after church never seem to happen. All of our energy is consumed by things that "have to be done," from the 7 a.m. commute to the 7 p.m. return (on the good days) to the six hours spent at the office on what used to be short Saturday morning drop-ins. In addition, there is the e-mail check each evening for messages from the West Coast or Asian offices and an occasional pager call in an emergency. Work alone now occupies more than 80 hours a week for most managers. Fatigue is a near-chronic condition. Laughter around the house is rare. Life must have meaning, but it is hard to discern when life is like this. At work we talk about priorities, but what about at home? What about family? What about you? When do you get a little time of your own? What keeps you going? For Viktor Frankl and his fellow concentration-camp inmates, it was the hope of survival and life after the suffering. What sustains you? Work is meant to be the means to earn sustenance, so life can be more pleasant. Work is meant to be a rewarding experience in which we gain fulfillment, a sense of achievement, and some recognition. But children grow up only once. Miss it and there is no recovery -- no "undo" button. Finding the meaning in life requires balancing the conflicting demands on our time, attention, and the emotional energy that makes each of us special. I have struggled with this balance in my own life for over half a century -- and I still do each day. If this column causes you to interrupt the mindless drill momentarily, to reflect and rebalance your life for a short while, to search for and find meaning again, it will have served its purpose. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is president of The Enterprise Group, a consulting business. He lives in Knoxville. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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