Work-life conflict or work-life enrichment?

Week 4 conflict or enrichment

Becoming a parent changes our perceptions of ourselves. A new responsibility has been thrust upon us; and for mothers in particular it often seems that this is at odds with the requirements of their career. In my book I write about ‘man made’ workplaces: cultures and practices established over half a century ago when the ideal worker was a man able to focus solely on work while his non-working wife provided support.

Despite changing social expectations and the fact that the majority of women now also work outside the home this ‘man made’ culture is still prevalent in many workplaces. The result is what researchers have termed ‘work-life conflict’ which happens for a number of reasons. For example, a woman returning from maternity leave may find that cultural expectations of what it means to be professional are at odds with her new role as a mother. We can’t simply drop childcare (or for that matter elder or other family care) at the front door when we enter our workplace.

As we find ourselves living and working in an increasingly #AlwaysOn culture we also find that work is more likely than ever to interrupt our non-work time (and vice versa). Where should our priorities lie? And how do we set them?

The opposite of work-life conflict is work-life enrichment. It’s the upside of being a working parent. Our working life enriches our parental experience and we often find that skills we learn as parents (such as the ability to negotiate or set boundaries) serve us well in the workplace. The secret lies in making small adjustments that increase enrichment and reduce conflict. We can do this by reconsidering how we play our parental and employee roles; by identifying where those old expectations came from and by asking ourselves whether they are helpful to us.

Research has shown that focusing on how the two parts of our life can enrich each other can make us feel better than when we consider work and life to be in conflict. To increase that feeling of enrichment consider taking some of the following actions:

  1. Set and maintain your boundaries. You’ll be more present to the people in your life – both at home and at work – and feel better as a result;
  2. Remind yourself that as a working mother you’re setting an example to your children of what’s possible for women. (We are, after all, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century!);
  3. Talk to your children about the work you do. Share both the upsides and the downsides. You’ll be making a start on preparing them for later life when they begin thinking about careers;
  4. Share your experiences (and best tips) with other parents in your workplace who are at an earlier point on the journey. In my experience most mothers value role models who’ve ‘been there and done that’.

Finding ways to combine the positive aspects of both roles is more likely to leave us feeling that our lives are enriched.

For many people a key factor in finding that balance is working flexibly. This is such an important factor in reducing work-life conflict that I plan to focus on it in upcoming blogs during the month of February. Stay with me on the journey.

Rebalancing – one small step at a time

Asian Toddler Boy Climbs Up The Wooden Stairs

It’s week three of our journey to #rebalance work and life in 2020. So far I’ve covered the reasons why we should #rebalance; and shared the key principle underpinning successful balance.

This week I want to turn the spotlight on our approach to self-change; by suggesting we start small and grow into it. Radical change often proves difficult to sustain. And when that radical change depends on co-operation from those around us (as is often the case when it comes to work-life balance) the challenge increases. At a workshop several years ago I heard one of the wisest pieces of advice ever given to me:

“Change happens best when nobody notices”

The workshop was an introduction to Solutions Focus – an approach to change grounded in positive psychology – and the words were spoken by the workshop leader. Solutions Focus encourages the taking of small steps towards a desired future state. Over time these small steps can lead to big results. In my book I explain how we can apply this approach to #rebalancing our lives.

Stewart Friedman from the Wharton Business School has been pioneering a concept he calls Total Leadership for many years. He recommends we design small experiments to help us find more balance in our lives; and try them out for a set period of time to see what happens. The idea is to look at wins that benefit every area of our lives while considering how the people around us might also benefit from those wins.

Professor Friedman recommends we set an intention to pursue small wins that create big change. Massive shifts often fail because they’re difficult to manage. According to him the best experiments allow us to try something new while minimising the risks associated with change. Our fear of failure is reduced; and as we see results we become inspired to go further – building stakeholder support along the way.

Many of us will have come across a variant of the ‘action priority matrix’ that groups activities into four quadrants: .quick wins, major projects, fill ins and thankless tasks. If you think about the changes that would help #rebalance your life, which ones are quick wins and which are major projects?

I suggest directing your efforts in the first instance to the quick wins. (those having the highest impact for the lowest effort). Pause and consider what you’ve learnt and what progress you’ve made. If you’re ready for a bigger change you can build on your success by taking on a ‘major project’. This will demand more time, effort and planning but will lead you further in the direction of your preferred work-life balance.

For the most part we live our lives in gradual and constant change. Landscapes shift with the seasons, our children grow slowly day by day until we notice they’re no longer the helpless infants we once held but young adults ready to fly the nest; and even our own bodies change as we age.

This week I encourage you to harness the changes going on in your life in ways that will support better balance going forward – both for your own benefit and that of those around you.

Why you need better boundaries

String Of Blue And White Buoys On Calm Lake Waters.  Used As Bou

Last week I set the scene for why #rebalancing work and life is so important. This week we start looking at how to achieve that by considering why we need better boundaries.

When work life balance researchers talk about boundaries they are talking about the interplay between work and other aspects of life. Understanding and managing these boundaries is the linchpin to finding the balance that suits us, so I wanted to tackle the subject early on in our year of #rebalancing work and life.

Fifty years ago work and non-work lives were typically kept separate; and it was generally easy for us to do so. Work was carried out in the workplace and left behind when the working day was finished. Some people still prefer this approach; they are known as Separators.

For the majority of us, however, developments in technology and working practices have resulted in work becoming increasingly integrated with other aspects of our lives. Some people prefer to work this way (unsurprisingly they are known as Integrators).

Our reasons for integrating may be personal: we want to accommodate client needs; or to carve out time in the middle of our work to deal with aspects of our personal life. Alternatively our reasons may be driven by the expectations of others. For example, the long hours culture in our workplace may drive us to continue working once we get home.

As I explain in my book, integration at its extreme is bad for us since:

  • We find we can never switch off from work pressures;
  • Our attention is constantly pulled in several directions. We’re never fully present to the people we’re with or the tasks we’re doing;
  • Research evidence is confirming that ‘multitasking’ is both a myth and an inefficient way of working.

Professor Anna Cox studies human-computer interaction and its impact on work-life balance. She recommends the use of microboundaries.

Microboundaries are strategies we can put in place to limit the negative effects of boundary cross-overs – such as receiving a work email at the weekend – so that we feel more in control.

Professor Cox suggests a range of actions such as separating work and personal emails/apps; consciously deciding when not to carry a smartphone; disabling notifications when socialising or turning on night mode at bedtime.

This week I urge you to spend a few minutes thinking about where you can carve out better boundaries for yourself. It might be resolving to switch your mobile off for the hour you have dinner with your family; or taking time on your commute home to divest yourself of work pressures and prepare to be mentally present at home.

Life will always present us with emergencies but these are – thankfully – rare. For the rest of the time setting and maintaining our boundaries will both make us more effective and enable us to lead a richer life.

If you take no other actions to #rebalance your work and life this year; resolve to set better boundaries and to maintain them.

 

2020: the year to re-balance work and life

Close Up  Rethink Text Written In Torn Paper

It’s the start of 2020 and a twitter meme has just reminded us of the top 5 regrets of the dying. Unsurprisingly these centre around connection: with others and with ourselves, our inner feelings and desires. As someone once said:

Nobody on their deathbed regretted not spending more time at work.

And yet the powerful technologies that drive our smart devices are supporting practices that result in our strongest connections being to our work. We live in an #AlwaysOn culture. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century we need to rethink the way we live and work.

Increasingly we’re finding that 20th century working practices don’t fit 21st century lives.

What we need to do – as I explain in my book– is to #upcycle our jobs. I use the word upcycle deliberately.

When we upcycle something we revamp it to create something of higher quality or value than the original. We do it with much loved clothes and furniture and we can do it with our work and our careers.

Upcycling our jobs will make us:

  • More productive

Upcycling jobs means looking at ways to eliminate the low value tasks that take up a disproportionate amount of our time while making little use of valuable skills. Can these low value tasks be automated? Delegated? Or perhaps eliminated altogether.

  • More balanced

Upcycling allows us to pause and consider our current work life balance needs; and how closely they match our present reality. There’s no formula for the ‘perfect work life balance’. What’s right for us will shift as we progress through life and our circumstances change. When we review our needs and desires we can make the necessary adjustments that enable us to lead a richer life. One with more connection to family and friends; and to ourselves.

  • More visionary

It’s no secret that workplace change over the past half century has often been driven by women, and specifically by working mothers. They were the ones that pressed for employer understanding of childcare needs; and for flexible working arrangements such as term-time and job-share. There’s still more to do – particularly now that changing expectations mean we all want a better balance between work and other parts of our lives. Sacrificing everything at the altar of career and promotion has become unpopular. At the same time we need to redress the balance at senior levels in the corporate world. Research evidence is increasingly revealing that mothers in particular hold themselves back from promotion as they seek solutions to work life balance issues.

As we upcycle jobs we’re creating new possibilities in the workplace. Working arrangements that better suit our 21st century lifestyles. Possibilities that will help us complete the workplace revolution started by our mothers and grandmothers over half a century ago.  That’s a legacy worth leaving for our children.

Over the course of this coming year my blog posts will be all about the small steps we can all take to upcycle our jobs and re-balance work and life.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

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

bigstock--150138758

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.