In my last blog post on this site, Learning to Walk, I introduced and championed a flexible working model known as job sharing. I mentioned that despite its many benefits, it still remains the least popular of all flexible working options. I asked the question, “What are we afraid of?” and explored the possibility that the unusual blend of social and professional interaction could perhaps be a step too far from our comfort zones and something we may need to understand better before we can fully embrace the approach.

As a follow-up, I’ll explore another explanation: quite simply, that as adults we don’t practice what we preach about sharing. It’s okay, it would seem, for us to have a common goal of working together in a team or an organisation, but when it comes to sharing accountability and our role identity we are reluctant. Why could this be?

Why Sharing Isn’t Valued in Adulthood
As children we’re taught that sharing is beneficial because “you can achieve more” and “it’s more fun,” and we spend our life as parents telling our children, “share your toys” and, “play together nicely.” However, in the world we are in charge of creating as an “adults-only workplace,” we choose to leave this particular value at the door. “It’s mine not yours” becomes our attitude to decision making, financial incentives, customer ownership, and the old favourite, gaining kudos for our work. Are we rebelling? Could these criteria be responsible for creating this culture of non-sharing or is it something else, something less conscious?

In my research on this issue so far, I have come across a guru named Rosabeth Moss Kanter. In her book “Men and Women of the Corporation,” Kanter suggests that fundamentally, we as human beings look to minimise unpredictability in our personal and organisational lives in order to survive. We seek to maintain as much control, or predictability, in a situation as possible. If we know ourselves, we can handle a situation in terms of how we might respond. Even if it’s not “correct” or “successful” we can learn and move on and take full responsibility for our actions. We look to uphold this control in a team environment and look to construct teams which we feel are the most likely to succeed.

A Natural Urge to Not Share
According to a later study called Choosing Work Group Members: Balancing Similarity, Competence, and Familiarity [PDF] (Hinds, Krackhardt, and Wholey, 2000), we choose our team members by looking for four key qualities:

  1. Homophily: We seek peers with similar mental models in terms of beliefs, values, attitudes and personal characteristics. For example, we might feel more in common with someone who comes from the same country or region when we first meet them because of a language compatibility.
  2. Complementary skills: We choose to work with others who have skills which complement our own. Someone with a particular skill which complements the group or partnership may be selected in preference of certainty in terms of other areas of predictability.
  3. Reputation for competence: Rather than relying on information that may be deemed ‘private’ such as reviews or exams, we seek out an individual’s reputation based on their interactions with others in an organisation, such as references, or even less official information that is available via the ‘grapevine,’ to make a decision.
  4. Familiarity: We prefer to work with those we already know. Even groups of strangers express a preference to work with one another once they’ve interacted.

Perhaps this survival instinct we have of minimising unpredictability underlies our apparent fear or resistance to sharing in the workplace. Maybe instilling processes which address these four selection criteria is key to adults sharing in the workplace.

Would We Benefit from Required Job Sharing?
My next question is, if the organisation, communication, and humility required to achieve an effective job share are also described as key criteria for effective leadership, why therefore, is it not integral in our workplace? Far from being an exception to the rule, imagine if job sharing were a core part of professional development within organisations. Imagine a workplace where as part of your leadership development or personal development as a leader, you were expected to spend a period of your role in a job share, either with someone in a different department, or with someone from outside the organisation, or with a more senior colleague who was phasing out his work schedule for retirement.

Perhaps a new interpretation of job sharing is needed, a rebrand which brings it into the comfort zone of “professional development,” could have widespread benefits for organisations. In this way, enabling the benefits of “sharing” at every level could help create more effective, more successful, more productive, and more engaged workforces.

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