Being your best self

A Woman Looks In The Direction Of Her Black And White Reflection

Just today another email dropped into my inbox from a renowned female coach urging me to play bigger. It’s a message that’s constantly being thrown at women; as if we’re somehow shrinking from our potential or perhaps not being assertive enough in our lives. The thing is: if we’re juggling the caring load with a challenging career (and probably several other things as well) ‘playing bigger can seem both daunting and exhausting.

What if there was an easier way? One that appears smaller but is likely to be more powerful – leading us to feel we’re fulfilling on our potential?

There is: and it’s the art of being our best self. The temptation is to rattle through crazy busy lives on autopilot, doing the minimum to get by. What if we paused, reflected and chose to hold a deeper vision of who we are. Everything would begin to change. Psychologists sometimes talk about ‘possible future selves’ – the people we might choose to become. But the reality is we also have possible current selves – who we choose to be in the moment.

Being your best self is an exercise in mindfulness and it’s built on forging a deep connection to our spiritual core. Then, at any moment and in any challenge, we can stop and ask ourselves: “what’s the best action I can take right now?” I’m not talking about getting more strategic, but about becoming more authentic; acting with more integrity. How would your best self react in this situation?

When we go through life mindfully we begin to find more balance. It becomes easier to identify when to act and when to let things go. We grow more confident in our sense of worthiness. We begin to understand that we cannot be our best self when we’re lacking focus and feeling pulled in a thousand different directions.

Our best self recognises that in order to thrive we need to assert our needs, to ask for support, set boundaries and hold others to account. As we commit to being our best selves, we not only hold that vision, but we extend it to the people around us – creating a space for them also to be their best selves.

That way we do more than simply #upcycle our jobs. We #upcycle ourselves as we grow into the best version of ourselves.

And when we do we might just find we’re playing bigger.

Making better decisions

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When our lives fall out of balance our decision making will suffer. Psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann developed a theory of decision making under stress which describes five patterns of coping behaviour dependent on the degree of decisional conflict and stress involved. It seems that both extremely low and extremely high stress levels lead to poor decision making while moderate levels of stress are more likely to result in carefully made decisions.

In Janis & Mann’s first scenario no decisional conflict is perceived and little or no stress experienced. The individual complacently chooses to continue with a current course of action while ignoring any information about potential risks or losses.

The second scenario arises where an individual reacts to a challenge or threat by precipitously switching to a new course of action without giving the matter much thought. Her strategy is the uncritical adoption of whichever new course of action she considers most relevant, or has been most strongly recommended to her.  Again, the belief that no risk is involved means there is no conflict regarding alternative choices and accordingly little or no stress.

The third scenario occurs when a person believes there are serious risks involved both in staying with a current course of action and in moving to a new one.  A state of decisional conflict arises, compounded by pessimism about finding a good solution to the dilemma. The individual then attempts to reduce this distressing emotional state by one of three strategies collectively labelled ‘defensive avoidance’:

  • Procrastination enables her to postpone the decision, turning her attention away from the conflict to other, less distressing matters.
  • Shifting responsibility to someone else (buckpassing) enables her to evade the dilemma and provides her with a handy scapegoat should the decision turn out poorly.
  • Inventing fanciful rationalisations in support of one of the alternative choices she wards off stress by selectively attending to only the good aspects of that alternative and by ignoring negative information about it.

In the fourth scenario the stress is further increased by the severity of risk inherent in competing courses of action. The decision maker believes a better solution might be found, but also that she has insufficient time to search for and evaluate that solution – compounding her distress. She adopts a strategy of ‘hypervigilance‘, impulsively seizing a hastily contrived solution which appears to offer immediate relief and overlooking the full implication of her choice. In its most extreme form, this state of hypervigilance looks like panic.

The fifth scenario – considered the optimum by Janis & Mann – is one of vigilance. The decision-maker is in a state of mental conflict since she recognises there are serious risks associated with the competing alternatives.  However, she is also able to confine the stress surrounding her decision-making to moderate levels, confident that she will find an adequate solution and believing she has adequate time to do so.

What can you do if you recognise the behaviour described in scenarios two to four either in yourself or in your work colleagues? Firstly, you need to realise that the very stresses which are causing faulty decision making are also likely to inhibit the recognition that someone is under extreme stress. Following a good stress management routine will help.

Secondly, recognise that time pressures increase the stress in decision-making.  However, it’s the perception of having too little, rather than the amount of time itself, which is important. Tell yourself that you have enough time; and if you genuinely feel this is not the case then ask those who are waiting for your decision(s) for an extension.

Finally, try not to be too hard on yourself. None of us is perfect, and nobody can predict exactly how a complex decision will turn out. Recognise that even with a strategy of vigilance you may not always get it right. And keep in mind the wise words of Theodore Roosevelt who observed that “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything“.

Feeling like an Imposter?

Mystery Hoody Man Wearing Black Mask Holding Two White Masks In

Imposter syndrome is a phrase that’s often bandied about in the media; the suggestion being that it’s a key roadblock to women’s career success. Often conflated with poor self-esteem and one’s ‘inner critic’ true imposter syndrome is rare and affects both men and women equally. To grow into Balanced Leaders it’s important we understand what Imposter syndrome really is: not least because research has shown it can contribute to work-family conflict.

Imposter syndrome – or more accurately impostor phenomenon – was first identified by two American Psychologists back in 1978. It’s defined by six clear characteristics: feelings of intellectual phoniness; a belief that one’s success is attributed to luck or hard work and not ability; a lack of confidence in one’s ability to repeat past achievements; a fear of being evaluated by others and failure; the inability to derive pleasure from past achievements and a fear that one’s incompetence will be discovered by others.

It’s quite possible to feel like an imposter without suffering from imposter syndrome. Doing our best to appear competent in a professional role and also be a good parent can lead to feelings that we’re not achieving either – that we’ll be found out as a fraud. Often that’s a consequence of having little clarity in what’s expected of us in both our workplace and home roles. We take on the expectations of others and try to live up to them. Perhaps it’s time to re-consider and write our own role scripts.

Our feelings of being an imposter can be exacerbated by the complexities inherent in the modern workplace; and which increasingly call on us to navigate circumstances we’ve never before encountered. As women we know we’re likely to be judged harshly should we make a mistake; so it’s important that we connect with our inner power and grow ourselves into the leaders we want to become.

Research has shown that our feelings of being an imposter can lead to emotional exhaustion which in turn can result in work to family conflict. This happens when we feel that playing our family role is made more difficult by the demands of our work role. Psychologists explain this by talking about the Conservation of Resources. Each of us has finite physical and psychological resources and we do our best to guard these. When we feel like an imposter we are likely to expend more of these resources in order to do a good job, leaving us depleted during our family time.

The good news is research has also shown that when we feel supported by our employer we are less likely to suffer the damaging effects of feeling like an imposter. So we can help ourselves by:

  • Asking our manager to clearly define the outcomes expected of us;
  • Asking for the resources we need to be effective in our work;
  • Identifying what gets in the way of us achieving our workplace objectives and doing our best to eliminate those obstacles.

At the heart of the imposter phenomenon lies a deep-seated and flawed self-image constructed over many years. Changing that self-image is likely to require psychological support from someone qualified to help. But feeling like an imposter some of the time is almost inevitable as we navigate life’s challenges and changes. In all likelihood you’re not suffering from a syndrome; you’re simply experiencing the normal doubts and uncertainties that go with undertaking something new. The good news is you’re more than capable of resolving those doubts and uncertainties; and taking the necessary action that will get you to where you want to be.

It’s time to #Upcycle Your Job

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As I write this blog post I’m excited to report that after months of work my book is finally being published on Friday. Half way through developing the manuscript I changed the title to #Upcycle Your Job and the more I worked with that the more sense it made to me.

Upcycling has been a growing trend in the past few years. When we upcycle we take something we would otherwise discard and improve it to create something of higher quality or value than the original. If we can do that with our clothes and furniture why not with our jobs?

In an ideal world employers would regularly upcycle their jobs
in line with their flexible working practices.

Re-designing jobs will soon become a necessity as we move into the age of Artificial Intelligence and the Gig Economy. And when we focus on the notion of improving rather than simply redesigning we become more creative and end up with work that’s more valuable to our organisations. The result is upcycled jobs that fit our 21st century working lives.

Occupational Psychologists have known for years that the size and shape of jobs has an impact on wellbeing. Unfortunately it’s an increasingly negative impact as employees struggle to disconnect from mobile technology that keeps them constantly tied to work. For many women the situation is exacerbated by employers who agree to reduced hours working but fail to provide any guidance on how the job might be redesigned to accommodate this.

Having people working on unproductive tasks until they are exhausted is not a sound business strategy. When we upcycle jobs we focus on high value outputs that use our most valuable skills. It’s not a new idea but one to which I was first introduced (via the Work Out process) back in the 1990s when working for GE.

In the absence of employer led initiatives upcycling our job is down to us: and our career may well depend upon it. If you’re tempted to upcycle I offer the following advice:

  • It’s unlikely you’ll be doing anything new. There’s plenty of evidence that employees already engage in crafting their jobs to make best use of their skills and personalities. There’s also evidence to suggest job crafting enhances wellbeing.
  • The intersection where your work-life balance preferences and your flexible working arrangement meet is personal so you’re the best person to upcycle your job accordingly.
  • Running around with too much to do and little focus will only result in exhaustion. It won’t get you promoted. What will is an upcycled job that supports you to achieve the key tasks for which you were hired.

This month I invite you to become the Balanced Leader of your own life; and let my book show you how to #Upcycle Your Job.

 

#BalanceforBetter – IWD 2019

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Another year has gone by and once more we’re getting ready to celebrate International Women’s Day. This year’s campaign theme is #BalanceforBetter – urging us to take action and build a gender balanced world.

There are plenty of economic, social and moral arguments for gender balance in all aspects of life. In the business world there’s mounting proof that achieving gender balance at all levels will have a positive impact on the bottom line. And in my experience achieving that balance requires an employer to support good work-life balance.

There’s growing evidence that mothers (and an increasing number of fathers) are compromising their careers in their efforts to achieve work-life balance. There’s also considerable research evidence confirming that flexible working is a key factor in supporting women’s career progression. Wider access to well-structured flexible working arrangements often has other benefits. For example, it allows fathers to be more involved in child rearing; which in turn enables mothers to participate more fully in the workplace. In an ideal world our employers would be fully convinced of the benefits that accrue when everyone can work flexibly; and would have practices in place to make that happen.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world and we still have a way to go. Waiting for our employers means we could be waiting a very long time. If we want change then it’s down to us to make it happen. To guide our actions we can draw on lessons from previous generations of working women:

  • We embrace our pioneering role. The corporate world needs a new band of leaders ready to complete the workplace revolution by modelling new possibilities. Not just for our own sake, but also for the benefit of future generations. Do we want our daughters and sons to struggle with work-life balance in the same way we currently do?
  • We connect with our power to source the courage we need to ask for #better. It’s easy to feel disempowered in the face of embedded cultural norms that tell us we must choose between career and caring – we cannot have both. When we dig deep we remember that we’re not only entitled to live a balanced life but that doing so is essential for our wellbeing.
  • We take the first step recognising that change often happens slowly and incrementally: and that’s no bad thing. When we’re pioneering new ways of working things will not always run smoothly. We’ll need to make adjustments on the journey; to pause and reflect. And we’ll need to remember that as our life circumstances change we’ll want to restructure again to hold onto our work-life balance.

The International Women’s Day website reminds us that it’s a year-long campaign, not a one-day event. So if you’re ready to join the call and #BalanceforBetter why not make that the focus of your life in 2019? Connect with me and let’s work on Balanced Leadership together.

Everyday courage

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When we think of courage most of us will think in terms of big, bold, brave acts. Such as – for example – those taken by the Suffragettes a century ago; and which contributed to improved lives for so many women. While few of us are likely to be called upon to demonstrate this level of bravery; we can all be courageous in our everyday lives.

Submitting a flexible working request – particularly in a senior role – may not at first glance appear to be an act of courage, although I choose to see it that way. When we ask in the belief it will improve not only our own lives but those around us we’re demonstrating the courage of our convictions – which the Oxford dictionary defines as being ‘brave enough to do what one feels to be right’.

Challenging a corporate culture that forces us to compromise well being and family time for the sake of our career has to be a good thing. If we don’t then nothing will change and our daughters (and sons) will find themselves in exactly the same position down the line. We’re acting with integrity when we take a stand. Writing in Rising Strong researcher Brené Brown defines integrity as

choosing courage over comfort’

Brené’s books are full of great advice on how to be more courageous.

Courage means finding the confidence to step outside our comfort zone. As women we often feel uncomfortable when we think about doing this at work. We know we’ll be criticised regardless of how we step out of line; and there will be people waiting for us to fail (after all terms like the ‘glass cliff’ were not coined for nothing).

How can we cultivate the courage to become Balanced Leaders?

  • We start by having faith in the value we bring to our employers; and the contributions we make. Aiming for balance will make us more, not less effective; and more likely to stay in workplaces that desperately need to improve their gender balance.
  • We hold onto our sense of entitlement to a balanced life. Balance allows us to be present for all those important non-work moments that add to the richness of our lives. As they say: nobody on their deathbed regretted not working more.
  • And we continue to hold a vision of a better working world for the generations of women that will follow us.

Emmeline Pankhurst reportedly said: ‘courage calls to courage everywhere’.

Whether it’s the enormous courage that enabled her to endure or the small everyday courage demonstrated by our grandmothers and mothers as they pressed for progress in the corporate world; it’s all been moving us towards the same end – an improvement in women’s lives.

The corporate world still needs to change; to embrace the value of women’s contributions at every level. As women we must find the courage to change it. If we wait for our employers we could be waiting another century.

So this month I want to encourage you to step outside your comfort zone. Embrace those small everyday acts of courage that will improve not only your own working life but also that of the women around you. Let’s build on the courage of earlier generations of women, grow ourselves into Balanced Leaders and complete the workplace revolution.

Better balance in 2019

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The days leading up to the start of a new year are traditionally the time to set resolutions that will in some way improve our lives. And in 2019 resolving to improve our work-life balance is more essential than ever before.

Recent research conducted by my colleagues from the Work-Life Balance working group revealed that as the UK battles the inexorable trend towards an #AlwaysOn workplace culture less than half of employers have a work life balance policy or provide any guidelines on switching off from technology. So it seems that if we want better balance we’ll need to take control of it ourselves. My new book – which walks you through the process of developing your own balanced arrangement – will not be published until the spring. In the meantime here are three simple principles that will support you in having a more balanced life in 2019.

  1. Know where to draw the line. That’s the boundary line between work and the rest of your life. Traditionally work-life balance researchers have grouped people into separators who like to keep work separate from the rest of their lives; and integrators who prefer to combine the two. In reality it’s two ends of a continuum. So while modern life increasingly demands integration a degree of separation can aid recovery from life’s stresses and lead to improved well-being. That might mean deciding to have one ‘non-work’ day at the weekend to devote to family; or perhaps agreeing not to check emails and text messages for a couple of hours around family mealtimes. Uninterrupted time with loved ones enables us to be more fully present so we enjoy their company and connect more deeply.

What would suit you? Choose where you draw the line – and resolve to stick to it in 2019.

  1. Re-write the rules. I’m talking about the rules which govern the way we play the key roles of parent and worker. Everybody has their own opinion of what makes a good mother or father; of what it means to be a professional; of what makes a dedicated and ambitious employee. You’ll never meet the sum total of those expectations – so set your own instead. What will make you feel you’re doing a good job as a parent? Your children’s needs will change as they grow and mature. And there will come a point when they will fly the nest altogether: which will give you more scope to focus on other aspects of your life such as work. In the meantime what will make you feel you’re keeping control of your career? Do you want to work less hours? Or simply have the flexibility to work around family needs?

Again, the choice is yours. Set your own markers of success and ignore the judgements of others.

  1. Work intelligently. Whatever your current workload there’s always scope for reducing the amount of time you devote to low value activities. Can you automate or even eliminate these? For example, a coaching client of mine faced a daily mountain of emails from people who saw her as the quickest route to resolving their workplace issues. Then she got involved in a high priority project which meant letting her emailers know she would not be responding for a fortnight. At the end of that period her email load had reduced by almost 80% as people found ways of resolving their dilemmas elsewhere. As a consequence she found she had more time to focus on the high value elements of her job without the constant email interruptions.

So what are the high value tasks in your work? What’s getting in the way of you doing them? And how can you reduce or eliminate those obstacles?

Three simple principles that can be implemented in small steps; and will lead to better balance in 2019.