Being more playful

Halloween Concept - Beautiful Witch Playing With Magic Stick On

Children are a powerful reminder of the pleasure and potential of play. As we watch them try on ‘pretend’ roles and navigate relationships in team games we know they’re building future skills. Some of my most joyful memories are ones of how my son and I would play together as we walked to his pre-school.

According to play researcher Stuart Brown play not only lifts us out of the mundane but also helps us make new cognitive connections useful for our everyday lives. Through play we can learn new skills without being directly at risk.

Our human need for play is such that Brown asserts the opposite of play is not work but depression. Despite this our need for variety and challenge can get buried under an overwhelming sense of responsibility as we grow to adulthood and take on caring roles.

Women – in particular – can often feel they have little time or energy for play. Life becomes a constant juggle between work and home responsibilities. If that’s you then you may want to treat yourself to a copy of Barbara Brennan’s book ‘The Gift of Play – Why Adult Women Stop Playing And How To Start Again’. In it she describes her own journey back to “heart play” – the kind of play that speaks to your heart and soul.

Play is not only essential to recovery – a critical factor in maintaining good work-life balance – but can also be a powerful tool for reinventing our careers and ourselves.

In her book Act Like A Leader Herminia Ibarra suggests we engage in what she calls identity play as a way of exploring new possible selves and stepping into bigger leadership roles. As she explains: when we work we’re serious but when we play we meander, change course and have less purpose. When we’re playing with who we might become we’re exploring new possibilities without committing to any of them. We hold our future selves lightly and assess our options.

According to Ibarra

 

“playfulness changes your mind set from a performance focus to a learning orientation”

 

We become less stressed, more curious and more open.

Brown believes play also has improvisational potential since we’re not locked into rigid ways of doing things. This opens us to serendipity and chance; and can be a powerful asset in navigating life’s uncertainties. He says:

 

“When people are able to find that sense of play in their work, they become truly powerful figures.”

 

Will you make a little more time for play in your life? Will you focus on being a little more playful in your approach to daily tasks – both at work and at home?

As Brown says:

 

“It can be transformative.”

Tuning your radar

Beautiful woman pilot wearing uniform with epauletes, headset si

Living and working in balanced ways often requires us to navigate restrictive corporate cultures that tell us “it won’t work here”. Overcoming these barriers can feel challenging – particularly if we believe we’re pioneering something new. However, in many cases perception differs from reality.

Working with corporate clients I’ve come to learn there’s often more going on under the radar than is at first apparent. When it comes to flexible working, HR policies may offer limited options; while the corporate culture insists these are only appropriate for junior roles. Rather than becoming frustrated we need to re-tune our radar so we can tease out valuable information that will support us. Specifically we must focus on three questions:

Where can I find suitable role models?

Not all flexible working happens in plain sight. People will often agree an informal arrangement with their boss on the proviso they keep it to themselves. If they work in other parts of the organisation we may never know that the off-site meeting this afternoon is actually attendance at a child’s sports day; or that a key member of another department always works at home on Mondays.

In an ideal world every employer would publicise their flexible working Role Models and make life easier for everyone. But we know this doesn’t always happen so we need to ask around. Internal networks that support women and parents are a good place to start.

Who has the expertise to help me shape my working pattern?

When I begin a corporate assignment one of my first tasks is often to identify what managers already know about flexible working. Typically I’ll ask them to share their experience – both within the current organisation and with previous employers.

I’m always surprised by the breadth of knowledge that emerges. This then becomes a key resource for developing innovative flexible working arrangements that suit the business.

What behaviour does this organisation reward?

Psychologists will tell you

“the behaviour that’s rewarded is the behaviour that continues”

So we need to understand what’s currently being rewarded and in most cases to change it. Far too many workplaces continue to reward presenteeism and long working hours.

Over the years I’ve come across employees passed over for lucrative assignments because they were working at home. Truly a case of ‘out of sight and out of mind’. Equally at risk are those who work less than full-time. There’s often a perception that stretch assignments require an individual to ‘put in the hours’.

If that’s common practice in your workplace what strategy can you develop to ensure you’re not penalised? One simple step is to ensure you’re clear about the outputs expected of you and broadcast your achievements. Such behaviour may feel uncomfortable for many women who see it as boasting. But maintaining a firm focus on outputs and achievements can change conversations. And conversations in turn can slowly change expectations and behaviours.

The more we know about what’s already working under the radar in our organisation the more powerful we can be in progressing our own balanced working. We can refute the “it won’t work here” claims and explore new possibilities with colleagues who’ve ‘been there: done that’.

 

Propel yourself to Balanced Leadership

Businesswoman Walking On Stairway

Becoming a Balanced Leader challenges us to hold a vision of living a balanced life as the foundation for our plans and actions. To succeed we need strategies and tools that work for us; together with a map to point us in the right direction. Over the past few months I’ve been pulling my expertise into a structured model which serves to do exactly that. On the eve of National Work Life Week if you’re in the UK and Work Family Month if you’re in the US I’m sharing that model.

I chose the acronym PROPEL as I know that following my model can literally propel your career to new levels.

P is for preferences in the way we choose to manage our work-life balance. While some of us are avid integrators others feel uncomfortable as technology and corporate expectations push us further and further in that direction. These are the separators who prefer to keep firm boundaries between work and the rest of life.

R is for the roles we play and the ways in which we play them. We begin to understand we have choices and that role scripts can become outdated. We can focus on combining roles in ways that enrich our lives and reduce the conflicts we may feel.

When we work through these first two steps we become much clearer on how we want to structure our lives and manage our boundaries. We can then begin to explore possibilities for redesigning our work.

O is for the options open to us within the culture and practices prevalent in our workplace. While some cultures openly embrace working from home others frown on reduced hours at senior levels. Gently pushing the boundaries of what’s currently acceptable is more likely to succeed than proposing radical changes that make people feel uncomfortable.

P is for possibilities. For considering how we can craft our work role to make the most of our key skills. So we become an even more valuable asset to our employers; and more productive and efficient into the bargain.

E is for the essential skills we need to make a success of all this. Many of these skills will already be in our portfolio – we may simply need to upgrade them. A small number – such as job crafting – may need to be learnt. The good news is that these are the same essential skills we’ll need to be successful leaders in both our workplaces and our lives.

L is for the leadership qualities we’re cultivating and the Balanced Leader we’re becoming.

So there it is: the evidence based road map to becoming a Balanced Leader. Straightforward, easy to understand and built on twenty five years expertise!

Men as Balanced Leaders

Father With Baby Working In Office At Home

I started this blog for two reasons: Firstly my passion for and belief that work-life balance should be universally accessible. When we lead balanced lives we benefit and those around us benefit.

Secondly – and as importantly – because the enduring lack of balanced working options at senior levels continues to block the progression of many women.

Social attitudes towards parenting have been shifting rapidly but the belief that taking care of children – and elderly relatives – is still primarily a woman’s responsibility continues. As long as corporate cultures refuse to acknowledge the challenges this poses women continue to be forced to make choices between career and caring.

Until now most of my posts have been written with working mothers in mind. So I felt it was time to acknowledge the increasing challenges faced by working fathers.

Last month the American Psychological Association published research findings showing that men and women around the world experience similar levels of work-family conflicts. The struggles of men are – however – largely unreported.

The role of fathers has shifted dramatically in one or two generations. Younger men generally want more day to day involvement in their children’s lives. Professor Caroline Gatrell of Lancaster University calls this ‘involved fathering’.

And legislation is increasingly supporting them. For example, the UK recently introduced Shared Parental Leave.

When they opt to become Balanced Leaders men face many of the same challenges faced by women. Men are also worried about how a desire for work-life balance will penalise career progression. And those entrenched social expectations make it difficult for them to talk openly about the issue.

At the Wharton Business School Professor Stew Friedman has been running the Total Leadership Programme since the early 1990s. The programme guides and supports both men and women to balanced leadership in every area of their lives.

Programmes like Stew’s are rare. Senior male role models are rare – although high profile men are beginning to step up as visible champions of balanced working. Men are being challenged to both redefine masculinity and the status quo of outdated corporate cultures. In many ways they are as much pioneers as the women I’ve written about in earlier posts.

When we support men to be Balanced Leaders we support their wellbeing and we provide new role models for the next generation. And as Balanced Leadership slowly becomes the norm it will also positively benefit women’s career progression.

Connecting with our power

Superheroes Kids Brother Friends Powerful Concept

Faced with archaic corporate cultures that demand we choose between a senior role and a balanced life it’s easy to feel dis-empowered. Many of us are juggling life to the max and balk at taking on the additional challenge of operating as a Balanced Leader. In our frustration it’s easy to give in to our limiting beliefs and lose sight of how much power we really have to change things. So let me remind you of the truth.

We have the power to set our own boundaries.

Healthy boundaries are essential for our own well-being and a precursor to good working relationships with others. I’ve written about boundaries before and make no apologies for doing so again – because this is where we begin to build our foundation for a balanced life. It’s not simply about ‘finding me time’ or ‘learning to say no’. It’s about understanding our preferences for managing the work/non-work interface and where our current priorities lie. And about negotiating to get our needs met in respectful, adult ways.

We have the power to negotiate an acceptable flexible working arrangement

and we do this by first recognising our value to our employer. For far too long flexible working has been seen as a favour granted by the organisation; and one for which we should be grateful. But let’s be clear about this. If the alternative to working flexibly is that you’ll have no option but to leave then your employer will suffer financially. Recruiting your replacement requires time and money. You have the power to identify the unique value you bring to your work and to develop a flexible working schedule that benefits both you and the people with whom you interact.

We have the power to redefine what ‘Professional’ looks like

and overcome our fears that asking for flexibility will be read as putting our families first so we appear ‘unprofessional’. (That’s called stereotype threat by the way.) Within a flexible and more balanced arrangement it’s still possible to be professional. Think about Accountants, Lawyers, Bankers and Doctors for example. These are all professions that have redefined themselves over the past fifty years. For the most part they’ve become more approachable and more human; and chatting about families with them doesn’t reduce their professional standing in our eyes.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of experiencing our workplace structures as disempowering when we seek power outside ourselves. But when we dive deep into our inner qualities we discover we already have the power we need to rebalance our lives. And as we become more comfortable with accessing that power we also become the authentic leaders the world is looking for.

We find the power to literally re-write our story: from one of undervalued skills and frustrated careers to one of pioneers with the courage to become Balanced Leaders.

And we become role models that empower successive generations.

Two secrets to a successful flexible working arrangement

Thinking businesswoman looking at clouds of shining puzzle piece

Access to a flexible – and balanced – working arrangement is one of the important fundamentals for supporting the progress of women in the workplace. At managerial levels the two most viable options tend to be job-share or a bespoke flexible arrangement.

In recent years support for job share has been gaining ground. It’s a relatively easy option to implement: it requires little change to a job’s structure, content or working arrangements; and it helps perpetuate the notion that a senior role must be covered full time.

Agreeing a bespoke flexible arrangement is often more challenging. It necessitates a review of the job description and the essential skills required of the post holder. Good HR practice recommends this should be routine every time a post becomes vacant. In fast moving workplaces the job you’ve been doing may only partly resemble the one your successor will undertake. And yet corporate cultures often continue to deny the creative possibilities inherent in many jobs.

It is of course perfectly possible to craft your own quality flexible job – but this requires time and thoughtful analysis. Something which seems to be in short supply in today’s pressurised environments. Two fundamental secrets underpin success. These are: firstly – absolute clarity and secondly – firm boundary management.

Let’s consider the example of the manager who asks to work three or four days a week to carve out some family time. Very quickly she’ll begin to feel exhausted as she tries to cram five days’ work into fewer hours. And she’s likely to end up feeling guilty that she’s not coping and letting her colleagues down. The fundamental reason for this is that she lacks absolute clarity: around her value to her employer and around the key outputs she’s been hired to deliver.

For a flexible working arrangement to succeed we must spend become very clear about the key skills we offer our employer. The ones that make us difficult to replace and that enable our contribution to the achievement of our employer’s objectives. When we identify these we’ll find it easier to craft a win-win flexible arrangement.

We must also become very skilled at managing our boundaries – particularly when it comes to our interactions with what Dr Lorenzo Bizzi terms our network contacts. These are the colleagues with whom we work and the clients for whom we provide a service. It’s not simply about learning to say no assertively; it’s also about understanding how their expectations of our role will have subtle impacts on our task activities. It’s about stakeholder management. We need to stop and ask ourselves “is this really part of my role? Do I need to do it in this way? Do I need to do it at this time?”

Many people boast of being productive by organising themselves with lists. But if you lack clarity about your job’s key purpose or you lack the skills to maintain a focus on that purpose how will you know whether you’re being productive or simply busy?

Don’t let bias derail you

Bias

Psychologists explain cognitive bias as the result of “subjective social reality”. If we’re human that’s something we can’t avoid. As we make our way in the world we’re likely experience three types of bias that can derail us – particularly when we lack the skills to navigate around it.

Limiting beliefs are the biases we hold about ourselves and the situations we face. Over the years we’ve crafted our stories of things we cannot do and the circumstances we are powerless to change. In a self help book some years ago I came across the sentence: “We believe we are limited and so we act in accordance with our limitations”. A good coach will help us challenge our limiting beliefs – but that’s not to say we’re always wrong.

Sometimes we’re limited because we lack the skills to make the change. This was the situation with a recent coaching client. She was holding herself back from promotion as she felt that work-life balance would be impossible in a more senior job. She’s a skilled and capable woman and her employer thinks highly of her. And she wants to be there for her children as they change schools, navigate their teenage years and make career choices. She’d tried working part-time several years earlier and had fallen into the trap of cramming five days’ work into three.

When we looked at how she might craft a more flexible job and manage her boundaries more effectively she suddenly began to see new possibilities. Yes, she had been limiting herself but not because of a lack of confidence or ambition. She simply lacked the right skills.

Unconscious bias has become a popular ingredient in corporate Diversity initiatives recently. The idea is that where women’s careers are concerned male managers make biased assumptions and act accordingly. So – for example – a woman with children may not be offered the challenging projects or time limited pieces of work. The underlying conjecture is that her priority lies with her children and she would be better placed with less demanding work.

European research has confirmed this may well be what’s going on. The problem is that the maanger is making assumptions without full knowledge of the circumstances. And women become annoyed to find they’re suddenly being treated differently. The key is better communication that starts from a win-win assumption. If you’re the woman in question it’s likely to fall to you to open the dialogue; and explore how you can craft a working arrangement that suits both you and your manager.

Perhaps most challenging of all is the third type of bias – stereotype threat. First discussed by psychologists in the mid 1990s stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s social group. It can be a concern that one’s negative performance will taint the image of the group or that one will be seen stereotypically. And when it comes to working mother there are a lot of stereotypes around.

Even if they’ve never heard the term it seems to me that many mothers succumb to stereotype threat. They don’t ask for flexibility – afraid they will be judged negatively and that this judgement will be extended to other working mothers. Or they worry their desire for better balance will result in others thinking of them negatively – as a “typical mother”. So they struggle on.

When we step up to balanced leadership we open ourselves to the possibility of negative judgement. Bias exists. But as I’ve said before: if we have a plan it’s easier to navigate the concerns of others and to win them over to our way of thinking.