Crossing the Streams: Market Norms, Social Norms, and Work-Life Balance

Posted on Posted in Words on Personal Effectiveness, Words on Work-Life Balance

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Market norms and social norms collide to make work-life balance a challenge
Photo via GraphicStock

Would you ever give your friends $20 for having you over for dinner? And what the heck does that have to do with work-life balance? Read on.

Here’s the scenario. Your friends — people you like a lot, but just never see much of — invite you and your significant other over for dinner on a Friday night. You plan to pick up a nice bottle of wine after work, on your way to your friends’ house. You leave work and, rather than pick out the bottle of wine by yourself, you decide to pick up your significant other first because four eyes are better than two.

On your way, you get stuck in a snarl of traffic. A careless driver — probably on her way to her own dinner party — cuts you off so aggressively that you almost hit a car in the lane next to you. Your hackles are up — as are adrenaline and cortisol, which cloud your judgment and shut down the most advanced parts of your brain. By the time you get home to pick up your significant other, you’ve completely forgotten about the wine. Plus, if you delay much more, you’ll be late.

So you race to your friends’ house, arriving just in time, and receiving a very warm welcome and the kind of hugs that only long-lost friends can given. The cortisol and adrenaline your brain has been bathing in since that traffic incident finally recede, replaced by dopamine and oxytocin, making you feel loved and relaxed. As your friends, welcome you in their home, a smile splits your face from ear to ear.

And then you remember that you’ve come empty-handed! Feeling guilty and not wanting this love fest to end, you whip out your wallet. “I meant to bring along a really nice bottle of albariño to contribute to the meal, but the evening got away from me. Here’s 20 bucks.”

Whoa! The love fest comes to a screeching halt. Your friend looks at you like you just insulted his mom. Or his dog. Or his mom’s dog. An awkward silence falls over the party as your friend, his significant other, and your significant other all gape at you.

Market Norms, Social Norms, and Friendship

Of course, you’d never do this. You’d never pay your friends for a nice dinner party, for opening their home to you, for being your friends. But why not? And why would this seem like such a gross effront?

The answer lies in the difference between market norms and social norms. I first encountered this concept in Dan Ariely‘s work, but he probably wasn’t the first to explore it. Here’s how it breaks down.

Market norms are just what they sound like: the behavioral norms of the marketplace. In a marketplace, you expect to exchange money for goods and services — or, at least, to exchange things of value for other things of value. If you grab a six-pack of particularly tasty microbrews at a liquor store, you expect to give a cashier at the front of the store whatever price they’ve set. If you’re a marketing professional and a friend asks you for marketing advice for her business, you expect her to compensate you for your expertise. If you go to work 40 hours a week, you expect to be paid for both your time and the value you’ve added to the employer.

Social norms, on the other hand, are the behavioral norms of social interactions. In this domain, quid pro quo arrangements don’t exist — or, if they do, they are decidedly non-monetary. If your neighbor lets you use her drill, you’ll probably feel more inclined to look in on her pet coral snake when she goes on vacation. If you agree to meet a friend for coffee to talk over his relationship challenges, you know that your time, attention, and listening are gifts without strings attached. If a coworker wants to discuss a sticky work challenge after hours, you don’t expect to bill her or your employer for your time.

These distinctions are important. They help us understand what’s expected of us and what we can expect of others in different situations. Generally, with our friends, we know that market norms don’t apply (which is why most folks hate dividing up the dinner bill at a restaurant and prefer to just split it evenly). And generally, at work, we know that market norms do apply, i.e., we work for someone and that someone pays us for our work. And this is why handing your friends $20 at the dinner party just won’t do.

Market Norms and Social Norms at Work

But it’s also why work-life balance can be such a challenge. Think about it. How often do you put in a few extra hours on the weekend because you don’t want to let your team down? How many times has your boss asked you a “favor” that resulted in extra work you hadn’t planned for? Have you ever “pitched in” at month-end to help those last few orders get out the door so the company hit that revenue target?

As you’ve probably figured out by now, these situations mix market norms with social norms. Whether consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, they exploit our strong concern with social propriety to achieve marketplace goals. In other words, we’re crossing the streams.

When we cross the streams at work, the distinction between market norms and social norms gets blurred. We work hard — sometimes too hard — to make sure we’re “pulling our weight” and supporting our coworkers. We think about work when we’re on vacation because we want our employer — a community of which we’re a member — to be successful. And if we’re not careful, we can burn ourselves out while looking out for others.

The Power — and Danger — of Crossing the Streams

It would be easy to say, as Egon Spengler did in Ghostbusters, that we should never cross the streams, that market norms and social norms should never meet. In that formula, work is a pure quid pro quo, i.e. we give our time and expertise in exchange for compensation and benefits. It’s simple, it’s clean, and it’s much less confusing. And that works really well when the value created through work is as simple as it was during the Agricultural Age, the Industrial Age, or even the Information Age.

But in today’s world of work — which I have christened the Interaction Age — things aren’t that simple. In today’s world of work, value isn’t created by produce, machines, or even data. All of these things are still ingredients of value, but the real value comes to fruition through human interactions. That’s why so many of us spend so much time managing email, Slack chats, and other forms of communication as a central part of our jobs.

And these human interactions require whole, self-actualized, authentic human beings who are truly engaged in the process of creating value. That’s why we’re hearing so much these days about employee engagement, organizational culture, and work-life balance. It’s not because these things are the latest caprice; rather, it’s because these human factors have direct relevance to and influence on how much value any organization can create.

Given the complex dynamics of the Interaction Age, market norms and social norms are set on a collision course — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Business — whether for-profit or non-profit — is nothing more than humans serving humans. We have real human relationships at work — with coworkers, with suppliers, and with customers. As Gallup has found in its years of research, having a “best friend at work” is a key contributor to employee engagement. To be clear, Gallup defines engaged employees as those who “willingly go the extra mile, work with passion, and feel a profound connection to their company.” In other words, when we talk about employee engagement, we are largely talking about putting the power of social norms to work for market-based ends.

See, even though Egon Spengler said crossing the streams would be catastrophic, in the end, it was exactly what the Ghostbusters had to do to defeat Zoser and save the world.

Not only does being an engaged employee better serve your employer’s needs, it also makes you feel better and can actually contribute positively to your sense of work-life balance. So by all means, cross the streams, but do so with care.

Managing Market Norms and Social Norms for Better Work-Life Balance

Now that we know that our attempts to balance (or integrate or align or harmonize) our personal lives and our professional lives happen amid the crossing streams of market norms and social norms, what can we do to ensure that we benefit and don’t end up collateral damage?

Living inside those crossing streams is a dangerous task indeed. Allow yourself to be swayed too much by market norms and you end up a soulless automaton whose work is only a means to compensation. On the other hand, allow yourself to be sucked in completely by social norms and you’ll burn yourself out in the name of holding up your end of the social compact. No wonder it’s so hard to keep your head and your heart while keeping your job.

The answer to this conundrum is not a simple one, and it doesn’t come with a three-step magic solution for achieving work-life balance. However, there are some guiding principles we can all use to help us navigate these treacherous waters:

  • Bring Your Whole Self to Work: You have a unique combination of experience, expertise, and eccentricities, and when you bring these proudly to every sphere of your life, you maximize the contribution you can make. Don’t make the mistake of leaving your most valuable assets at the door.
  • Nurture Your Sense of Human: Success and happiness in both your personal and professional lives depend on meaningful human connections. Lean into the fact that business is just humans serving humans, and don’t be afraid to smile and make others smile.
  • Manage Your Energy: We all have three primary resources available to us: money, time, and energy. Of these, only one is truly renewable. Invest in the things that are important, not just urgent. Focus on sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Take restorative and renewing breaks throughout your work day.
  • Be Flexible and Adaptable: We’re all more productive AND happier when we have control over when, where, and how we work. Find the limits of flexibility within your own work. At the same time, remember that flexibility is a two-way street. Build resilience so that, when things change at work (as they inevitably will), you’re able to adapt with aplomb.
  • Take Charge of Your Experience: This is the real kicker. Whether you’re seeking work-life balance, integration, or alignment, the experience is yours to create. Sometimes, factors outside of our control can seem overwhelming, but in the end, we have the power to create our experiences. Don’t abdicate that power.

As we bravely endeavor to integrate our work with a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life, market norms and social norms will always conflict and contradict. The challenge is to know which set of norms applies in any given scenario, and to do our best to tease apart whether we’re responding to the right cues with the right behaviors. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to be both authentic and kind as we struggle — for our own good and for the greater good — to keep our heads and our hearts WHILE keeping our jobs.