Private lives and public service : role negotiation, career paths, and the patterning of workforce culture
- Workers are whole people, with complex lives lived across private and public boundaries. Balancing these multiple considerations exerts an influence on peoples' individual well-being, as previous research has demonstrated extremely well (Nippert-Eng 2008). I suggest, however, that how people within a particular work setting integrate their personal lives with more professional considerations also influences the character and condition of the workforce, through the accumulated values and experiences of the workers. Moreover, the present-day reliance on temporary, contract-based relationships between organizations and employees (Barley and Kunda 2004) dovetails with efforts at role negotiation that get played out in a dynamic manner over individuals' life course (Elder 1994) and results in ongoing career decisions about how long to stay at a particular job and where to go next. If people with particular values and experiences tend to stay, while others go, these career trajectories, in the aggregate, can influence the composition of the organizations they pass through. I suggest that this patterning of workforce character, condition, and composition informs a workforce culture that wears paths through and across organizations that ultimately shape institutional norms within the industries they constitute. I develop a framework and provide empirical data that illuminate one potential mechanism through which people's private lives influence institutional norms, both through the support and reinforcement of existing norms (as has traditionally been studied through processes of socialization), as well as through the erosion of prevailing norms and/or the construction of new norms (more typically the domain of social movement scholars and newer streams of inhabited institutionalism). As such, workers' private lives broker and mediate the work they perform and exert an influence on the institutions they inhabit (Lipsky 1980; Latour 2005; Hallett 2010; Bechky 2011). The conceptual contribution of this project focuses on the development of a more dynamic and robust theory of the microfoundations of institutional norms that is grounded in the study of workers' role negotiation processes across spheres over their life course. These issues are especially salient and consequential within the realm of public service or prosocial work, which generally encompasses significant stress from dealing with complex social problems, coupled with low degrees of functional task accountability and the identity complications that arise from performing work that is personally meaningful. The international aid sector, in particular, is an excellent site for study, as the negotiation processes between personal and professional spheres are especially prominent due to a high degree of temporary work assignments and frequent travel that requires people to live their personal and professional lives within the same physical spaces, but without a stable support network. With a rich analysis of original multi-level, longitudinal field, interview, and survey data collected from three organizations, I examine patterned differences in the values, experiences, and career trajectories of 225 international aid workers. I find that the workforce culture is shifting, with the older generation approaching their work as a calling that is driven by social service motives, while the younger generation is more concerned with work-life balance, intellectual stimulation, a positive work environment, and the desire for a stable professional career. Though these trends have been suggested by macro-level analyses of professionalization, individual-level studies often rely upon limited scales that reinforce existing assumptions about public service motivation (Perry, Hondeghem, and Wise 2010). These data suggest that when the norms of the modern economy and professionalized international aid work are moderated through the role negotiation processes of international aid workers, the resulting influence on institutional norms can be oppositional to the intended effects. In other words, while we assume that international aid work should become more portable and scientific, it could in fact be becoming more personal and idiosyncratic. The increasingly technical, temporary, and transnational nature of the modern economy may blur the boundaries between spheres in such a way that personal considerations influence professional decisions more than ever before. Moreover, the process of workforce professionalization creates personal incentives for individual international aid workers to sustain a viable career within the sector, despite institutional aims for international aid to "put itself out of business". In this way, organizations do not merely become more conservative over time as organizational survival displaces organizational goals (Michels 1911 ; Piven and Cloward 1977), but both organizations and institutions may become more conservative over time as individual survival informs and displaces both organizational and institutional norms. A close analysis of the professionalization (and nationalization) of the international aid sector and its influence on the negotiated lives of the workforce illustrates the conceptual advantages of enhanced theoretical tools that focus on the private domain in studies of institutional norms. The conceptual approach I present creates the space and tools necessary to examine this possibility. This research has implications for literature on professionalism, international management, and external labor markets. In addition, it contributes to the growing body of scholarship studying inhabited institutions and the sociology of work, as this research illuminates how role negotiation processes and patterned career paths inform workforce culture and institutional norms. It also has managerial implications as it examines employee satisfaction, well-being, and burnout; and it illustrates how career paths within and across organizations, sectors, industries, and countries are influenced by individual efforts at work-life balance in the modern work context. Finally, it illuminates the balancing act undertaken by organizations working in prosocial and public service domains between accountability to beneficiaries and to employees.
|Type of resource
|electronic; electronic resource; remote
|1 online resource.
|Oelberger, Carrie Robson
|Stanford University, Graduate School of Education.
|Powell, Walter W
|Powell, Walter W
|Meyerson, Debra E
|Ramirez, Francisco O
|Meyerson, Debra E
|Ramirez, Francisco O
|Statement of responsibility
|Carrie Robson Oelberger.
|Submitted to the Graduate School of Education.
|Thesis (Ph.D.)--Stanford University, 2014.
- © 2014 by Carrie Robson Oelberger
- This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-NC).
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