Staying positive

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Most of us will have come across the idea – perhaps as part of advice around managing stress – that the human brain is hard wired to focus on the negative. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Basic survival was often a challenge for our prehistoric ancestors so they had to fine tune their senses to danger. And when it appeared – perhaps in the form of a wild animal looking for its dinner – they had to take immediate action. Positive thinking at that moment would not have served them well. Fight or flight – fuelled by fear – would have been the better course of action.

Once the threat was over – however – psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has suggested that positive emotions may have helped them develop new, more effective future strategies. Fredrickson was one of the earliest pioneers of Positive Psychology when in 1998 she asked ‘What good are positive emotions?

I’m a great fan of Positive Psychology. I use it in my work. It was the topic of last month’s blog as well as earlier ones. (This one for example.)

This month I’d like to explain why I believe it’s a powerful component of the Balanced Leader’s toolkit. But before I do I want to clarify one thing: Positive Psychology is not the same as ‘positive thinking’. Nor does it ask us to ignore the negative aspects of life. There are times when we must acknowledge our more pessimistic emotions before we can move forward. What Positive Psychology offers us is a way to shift our focus. We no longer remain mired in the problem but move to a more generative state where we can develop new solutions.

When we perceive ourselves to be under threat our attention narrows and our body prepares for immediate action. In our complex, modern world this may not be the most productive response. Positive emotions – according to Fredrickson – ‘broaden and build’. They expand our attentional focus and enhance creative thinking. In this way we find new solutions and add to our skills repertoire.

Research has revealed that simply putting ourselves into a positive state before we begin a task will improve our performance. So, for example, when I facilitate workplace groups charged with developing more balance working practices I always begin by asking them to identify and list the benefits such practices will bring. Identifying the positive impact on their own lives makes it more likely they will focus on solutions rather than objections.

Positive emotions also have what Fredrickson calls an ‘undoing effect’ that is beneficial to our wellbeing. She maintains they:

 “loosen the hold that (no-longer-relevant) negative emotions gain on an individual’s mind and body”

To prove the point: think about how often you return home from a challenging day at work to the excited joy of your children or the loving attention of a pet. Suddenly you find workplace cares receding. This is what work-life balance researchers call ‘recovery time’.

We live in a complex world where multiple challenges vie for our attention every day. Tackling life with a positive focus will support our physical and mental well-being expand our personal resources and help us strengthen social bonds. As you choose to be a Balanced Leader do your best to stay positive!

Preparing to play a bigger game

Making a commitment to becoming a Balanced Leader can feel daunting. Doubts and fears arise. In a frantic world do I have the necessary skills and capacity? What behaviours will I need to develop and how can I model these for others?

Getting it right is a concern for many women. We’re brought up to be ‘good girls’ who play by the rules. We worry about making mistakes and know we’re likely to be judged harshly when we do.

In an earlier blog I wrote about Herminia Ibarra’s assertion that in order to think like a leader we must first act our way into leadership. When we’re pioneering a new concept like Balanced Leadership that can be easier said than done. One solution is to work with a coach to define future behaviours in line with our values; and to draw up a plan that enables us to grow into them. Coaching theory even suggests we connect with our future self who already has this covered and let her pull us forward.

But how do we best connect with that future self – one of many possible selves we could become – so that we become clear on which skills and qualities are essential for our focus and success?

The solution lies in feeling into new behaviours rather than trying to solve everything with our minds. And Appreciative Inquiry offers us a powerful process for doing this.

Becoming curious about what makes a Balanced Leader – and putting that curiosity at the heart of our thinking – we’re ready to work through the four stages of Discovery, Dreaming, Design and Delivery.

Key to the process is asking ourselves positive and generative questions that focus clearly on possibilities. So in the Discovery phase we begin by considering what’s already out there in our organisation that looks like Balanced Leadership. Can we think of tangible role models or even small instances of appropriate behaviour? When do we see it happening and in what context?

We begin to Dream about the possibilities for demonstrating Balanced Leadership ourselves. What skills will we need to enhance? What do we need to commit to in terms of new behaviours?

As the possibilities begin to take shape in our minds we’re ready to Design a new way of being. We consider what we’ll do differently and identify the support we’ll need to stay on track – both at work and at home.

Finally we’re ready to Deliver – or as the AI practitioners would say – we’re moving into our Destiny.

The power of focus

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We live in a distracted world. We check our mobiles phone countless times during the day while FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) keeps us addicted to social media. Even while working we experience countless email distractions and our #AlwaysOn technology means we’re accessible to others 24/7.

The upside of this technology is that it’s made parenting and caring easier. We can be connected to our teenage children in ways that were not available to our parents – so we can stay at work longer knowing they’re safe. In recent months I’ve even been introduced to the idea of a family WhatsApp group as a way of keeping in touch.

The downside is that it limits our attention spans and makes it difficult to do what Professor Cal Newport calls the “deep work” of creativity. It’s becoming increasingly clear that multi-tasking doesn’t work – it simply pulls our energy in too many directions and leaves us exhausted. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to focus. As the saying goes:

Energy flows where attention goes.

Before we can focus we need clarity. What do we want to accomplish? As our children grow and our parents age our own role within the family will change. And as we progress our career we find the nature of our work also changes. So as we approach the end of another year let me ask you:

  • Who do you want to be in 2018?

  • What do you want to achieve in the coming year?

You may want to start – as many of us do – by reviewing how 2017 went. If so you’ll find this blog entry from the end of last year helpful.

Clarity requires us to review and adapt our behaviours. We may need to be more mindful. And separators are likely to find focus more easily than integrators.

Cal Newport maintains a novice is only able to do deep work for one hour at a time: to work for longer requires training. Attention is a skill that can be cultivated; and you will get distracted.

When you do take five minutes to refocus with this short visualisation adapted from the work of Piero Ferrucci:

Take a slow deep breath and bring to mind your main focus for 2018 – whether at work or home. Close your eyes and imagine a long straight clear path reaching directly to the top of a hill where the object of your focus lies.

On both sides of the path are beings who will try and divert you from the path and prevent you reaching the top. They can do whatever they want except one thing: they cannot directly obstruct your path.

These entities represent the various people and situations in your life that divert you from your focus. Experience yourself having the clarity to keep walking your path. When you reach the top enjoy the positive emotions you experience at having reached your goal. Think about what this goal means to you – how achieving it makes your life better.

Open your eyes and make any notes you need to remind you about the distractions you’re likely to face during the day and how you will overcome them. Notice how doing this impacts your energy.

To quote Cal Newport:

It’s surprising how much you can do in an eight hour day when you’re not distracted.

Wishing you a more focused and better balanced 2018.

Being more playful

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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

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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

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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

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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.