The startling results of an American Psychological Association study, indicating males are as conflicted as females, contradicts a commonly held belief that men don’t stress over work-life balance. However, Krister Ungerboeck, a consultant for business leaders, isn’t taken aback by the fact that, despite public perception, both men and women have nearly identical levels of conflict in work-balance.
Ungerboeck says “men are dealing with the double whammy of feeling guilty for missing their kids’ lives and at the same time ashamed for not seeming cutthroat enough at work.” The former CEO of a struggling software company, which he expanded 3000%, Ungerboeck experienced at first hand the personal costs of stereotypical masculinity. That in-the-trenches experience enabled Ungerboeck to found CEO Growth, a coaching firm exclusively for the C-suite.
Despite common expectations, Ungerboeck says that the lessons he learned in his own career about giving consideration to the family are just as important as any bottom-line wisdom.
“As important as it is to help CEOs and owners push business to the next level,” says the father of two, “it is equally important to help them gain perspective on the value of a personal life.”
Glassdoor: Do you see men struggling with the expectation that they must live up to a stereotype of masculinity which the report indicates is outdated and toxic?
Krister Ungerboeck: Yes. There’s more of an expectation that men who are in the workforce, are going to put their job ahead of their kids, and their family. They’re going to be the ones who work late. But the truth is a lot of us struggle with that. Men often feel they aren’t “supposed” to take a personal day when their kid is sick, so they don’t.
I think there is an element of cultural norms, where maybe it’s expected for a man to be able to stay late. When I was a CEO, I was probably unconsciously more flexible when a woman, even a woman executive, if she needed to do some things… to go do things for the kids. There was an assumption about male and female roles.
I think that that maybe puts a little more pressure on male executives, or men in the workforce, who don’t get that flexibility. Add to that, if I were to look at the number of times that male executives came to me and asked for time off for their kids, it was significantly lower.
Many executives had wives who worked, and I think that’s there’s also some cultural expectation that in a two-income family (even if they are equal earners) that matters of the family would fall more frequently onto the female.
Glassdoor: How do we change the idea of masculinity in the workplace? If these are untruths, how do we knock them down?
Krister Ungerboeck: The change really needs to start from the top-down. Bosses need to make it clear that they prioritize their own children and their own family responsibilities, and let their employees see that it is okay to leave work early sometimes if your child is ill or has a ball game. They also need to encourage employees to use their vacation days and to take regular breaks.
Glassdoor: But a lot of employees feel unsafe to take family time. How do you allay those fears, changing the office culture?
Krister Ungerboeck: It’s the boss whose actions get amplified, right? So, if your employees hear you say, ‘Hey, I’m going to my son’s baseball game. I’m leaving the office at 4:30 today’ they know it’s safe for them to attend to their families too.
Being clear with people, letting people know, and then setting an example that it’s okay to leave at 5 o’clock is powerful.
Glassdoor: One of the biggest hurdles we all face is time. How do you handle all that time at work away from family?
Krister Ungerboeck: I have been guilty in the past of spending too much time working. I used to tell people that my longest day was 42 hours. We now know – we have research that shows us – that we don’t function well in that kind of situation. You can’t get good work done.
Someone told me once that it’s actually the people who really should be respected are the people who are able to get the job done and achieve the business results in 40-50 hours, not the people who have to take 80 hours to do the same level of results.
Glassdoor: Knowing from data that too many hours aren’t productive, have you changed your use of time?
Krister Ungerboeck: Yes. I don’t think that I’ve consistently spent more than 45 hours in the office in ten years. With emailing and phoning time (from home) it’s maybe 50 hours. It gets done and I have a better balance. I don’t have all the stress and anger that built up when almost my whole life was work.
Glassdoor: By managing your hours, but not lessening your productivity it sets an example, too?
Krister Ungerboeck: Yes, that’s setting an example.
It’s how you treat your employees’ time that also sends a message. When I would call my executives on the weekend or in the evening I have told them to let the call go to voicemail. That way I can let them know if they need to return the call right away, or if it can wait until Monday. If it’s an urgent matter they know to call. I don’t think that, probably for the last 10 years, I can think of a time that I would regularly call any executives outside of business hours unless it was urgent. And if you have urgent matters more than a handful of times per year, then you probably have a different problem in your business.
Glassdoor: This study makes the point that fathers want to be more involved with family than in past generations. Is that true from your experience?
Krister Ungerboeck: I think definitely, that compared to the baby boomer parents, my generation (in his early 40s) wants more involvement in our kids’ lives. A lot of the CEOs I coach want, of course, to improve professionally, but they want help with their personal relationships too.
Glassdoor: You refer to yourself as a “Recovering Asshole CEO.” Why did you change that toxic part of your life?
Krister Ungerboeck: It was a combination of a couple things. Part of the change came about after one of those anonymous 360 surveys. It was part of a leadership program that I was participating in. I had been told that the more toxic the boss, the more data is needed. If 30 people are saying all the same things about you, it’s hard to ignore. I knew I had to change.
In my case, the 360 survey crossed from business to personal. Before this survey, I thought, ‘I’m a different person at work than I am personally.’ But the data showed I was having the same problems at home.
When you have toxic leaders, they’re probably carrying that over to how they’re raising their kids, or carrying over to how they’re communicating with their spouse. Probably better to catch that earlier, before you get divorced, or you find out you have adult children you’re not connected with.
Glassdoor: You’re saying that working style can follow you home? That work and home are intertwined and not in a good way sometimes?
Krister Ungerboeck: Yes. You may be saying to yourself, ‘Hey, that’s what’s gotten me successful as a CEO or a boss’, but if you don’t change that behavior then you’re going to be passing these traits on to your kids. If you’ve got a lot of stress at work, you may be taking that home, to your spouse and kids There’s a fair amount of data that that stress and anger and frustration is contagious. By taking that frustration and anger home, it spreads to their family.
Glassdoor: How do you remedy that cycle of stress which has so much to do with a skewed idea of masculinity?
Krister Ungerboeck: This goes back to getting rid of that stereotype of masculinity. Probably one of the most impactful experiences I had with my executive team was when we actually went through a vulnerability exercise, where each of the executive team members shared. Half the people were crying because they were talking about things that were very powerful, from their childhood mostly. That brought the team together at a whole new level than we had before.
Glassdoor: How do you show vulnerability and honesty to your employees? What was their reaction?
Krister Ungerboeck: I’ve gotten teared up in front of my employees. The first time I got choked up was probably about 10 years ago. I will admit that there were certainly some individuals who came to me and gave me feedback, that they actually felt that was inappropriate that I was emotional in front of employees. But just as many employees gave me positive feedback that they felt more connected.
Glassdoor: Was it men or women that made those negative comments?
Krister Ungerboeck: It was men. Frankly, I think the individuals who did that probably were just not comfortable with being vulnerable themselves. So, I took it with a grain of salt. Certainly, there are people out there who still subscribe to the CEO must not show weakness, but I think it’s better to be authentic in the long run.
It’s hard to keep up that façade forever as a business becomes increasingly complex. It adds to the stress which bleeds into your home life.
Getting rid of toxic masculinity starts from the top. The leader’s actions give a clear indication of what’s valued in the working culture. If you appreciate your family and personal time, show it. That makes it all right for everyone and changes the culture.