Does success still cost so much?

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About the author:
Silvia Bagdadli is an Associate Professor at Bocconi University, Milan, Italy. You can contact her at

“Divorce, estranged children, ulcers, a coronary – these are the price top executives pay for success. Or do they? For some the answer has to be yes. Yet others cope with the toughest demands and still lead full lives outside the office. What distinguishes them?”

The quotes are from the front cover of a book I was reading few months ago, stimulated by a reviewer of a research paper. “Must success cost so much?” is the title of the book by Evans and Bartolomé published in 1980 which reports the results of a survey conducted few years before. Long time ago, 40 years from nowadays.

If you try to buy a new copy of the book on the web, you will get an old and used copy, with yellow pages, like the one on my desk, as the book is out of production. So let me synthetize the initial few chapters of the book for you in order to stimulate you to think, together with me, if the authors are talking about a phenomenon that disappeared or if it is somehow contemporaneous, after so many years.

The sample: 532, men, middle managers, who attended executive courses at INSEAD; all married, 93% with children; age ranged from 27 to 58, with an average of 39; the majority worked in international companies, in almost all functions. All men because – the authors say – women were rare participants at INSEAD in those years. They were all successful, or at least their companies considered them with enough potential to be worth sending on an executive development program; mainly Europeans, with a minority of USA and Southern Americans managers, overall including 20 different nationalities.

The results of the research portray five possible relations between professional and private life – spillover, independence, conflict, instrumentality and compensation – with the spillover being the most cited by both the working husbands and their wives. A spillover relation means that one side (personal or professional) affects the other in a positive or negative way and most often happens when individuals are struggling to be successful, are anxious, tense and insecure, and very involved in their work and career. The “emotional spillover” is the more diffuse one, which means that worries, concerns, satisfactions, and joys come home with the manager. The spillover relation is not the only relation existing between the professional and personal boundaries. Independence and conflict are the second and third most cited. Independence exists when there is a clear cut between the two boundaries and it happens more frequently when individuals are content with their success, feel calm, relaxed and secure and are reasonably involved. Conflict implies that work and life cannot be easily reconciled; individuals usually in conflictual relations are very successful, very excited, tense and secure about their career and over-involved.

From the 80s to the 2020s, what did change from this portrait? If we revise the huge work-life balance literature, we acknowledge that “spillover” and conflict” are still two major key words. The picture is even more dreadful if samples include women that usually perceive situations that are more conflictual than those experienced by their male counterparts, due to childcare and homecare. At the same time, the scientific medical literature still reports high correlation between stress and conflict at work and mental and physical diseases, in addition to family disruption.

The picture is hence not much different from the one reported in the 1980 research. Some managers, men and women, are highly independent in the two spheres and cope very well with the work pressure, others suffer conflictual and/or spillover relations. Recently work psychologists developed assessment tools able to detect, on the one side, the profiles of the potentially most stressful companies and, on the other side, the profiles of individuals less capable to set a line between professional and personal live. Of course, these are the individuals more in danger if they end up in a potentially very stressful company.

Even if the portrait is contemporaneous, something did change from both the organizational and the individual side. From the organizational side, we have to acknowledge that, in the past 20 or more years, companies invested a lot in the so-called work-life balance and flexibility practise, in order to help workers reconcile the two spheres. These practices are particularly useful to lower role conflicts for women and for all those responsible for childcare or elderly care, while at the same time striving to have a successful career. Whatever “successful” means.

On the individual side, we know that individuals are less bounded by single organizations and move more easily from one company to another, which might ease leaving particularly stressful companies. Moreover, as the 5C research testifies, career success is recognized to be a multifaceted construct including subjective dimensions such as positive impact and learning. These subjective dimensions allow individuals to feel satisfaction for their career even if they might not reach the “objective career success”, namely high salary and hierarchical level, and might not be working in a company but they might be free-lance in the so called “gig economy”.

These two changes might help reducing spillover and conflictual relations in contemporary careers, and making success less costly.

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