Integrator or Separator – what’s your style?

work life balance
rendering of a compass with a work life balance icon

How do you prefer to manage the interface between work and other aspects of your life? Psychologists place us all on a continuum with Separation at one end – which means a preference for keeping work and non-work separate – and Integration at the other.

Separators prefer not to socialise with work colleagues in their own time. They neither discuss work matters at home nor personal issues at work. Clear physical, psychological and temporal boundaries are maintained between work and home activities. This is the traditional “male” model embedded in workplace cultures during the early part of the last century and still seen as the epitome of professional behaviour in some organisations.

The upside of being a Separator is less pressure on mental resources. When at work you’re focused on work and when at home focused on home rather than constantly switching between the two – which requires considerable mental effort. We’re increasingly recognising that multi-tasking is an ineffective approach to life!  On the downside, these people are more likely to experience conflict between their work and non-work roles – particularly if they are caring for others. For example, it can be hard to focus on work when a loved one is unwell.

Integrators on the other hand prefer to blur the boundaries between work and non-work. Many working mothers will fall into this category and it does have a big upside in that they see the two roles enriching each other. Thus we’re often reminded the same self-organisation skills developed as a parent can be useful at work; while high quality negotiation skills are almost essential for navigating toddler tantrums. On the downside Integrators incur mental costs in switching and have less of a buffer if something goes wrong in one role. They can find it harder to “switch off”.

As technology becomes increasingly more intrusive we too are increasingly expected to behave as Integrators. If that’s your natural style you’ll be fine with this. And it’s undeniable that the advent of mobile phones in particular made it much easier for many mothers to combine work and home roles in ways they could control. On the downside commentators are increasingly saying technology is getting out of control. We’re developing an “always on” culture that poses challenges to our wellbeing. I’m planning on writing more about this in a future post.

For now let me ask: Are you an Integrator or a Separator? Are you happier combining the work and non-work parts of your life? Or do you prefer to keep them separate? And how do your preferences resonate with the people around you?

Professor Ellen Ernst Kossek is a leading work life balance expert whose book ‘CEO of Me considers these preferences and their impact on wellbeing. She has identified a number of “flexstyles”; concedes that compromise is often part of the equation and concludes the important thing is to feel happy and in control rather than unhappy and out of control.

So: does your working style suit you or are you feeling you make too many compromises? If you’re looking for better flexible working strategies you’ll find lots in Ellen’s book.

How to tell if you’re leading a balanced life

We spend so much time reading and talking about work life balance and yet most of us conclude our life is not in balance. Why is that?

Put simply: most of us don’t know what good balance means to us. And if we don’t know where we’re going how will we know when we get there?

At a conference a few years back a higly qualified coach – on hearing I was a member of the British Psychological Society’s working group on Work-Life Balance – asked “So what’s the formula for balance?” I shared with him – and now share with you – the conclusion I’ve gathered from trawling the research evidence.

There is no single formula for balance – because one size doesn’t fit all. Balance is a personal thing and how it looks for you will change throughout your life. Even the question “what is work life balance?” can be hard to answer. The best working definition I’ve come across is one developed by two Australian academics – Thomas Kalliath and Paula Brough:

“Work-Life Balance is the individual perception that work and non-work activities are compatible and promote growth in accordance with an individual’s current life priorities”.

I think it’s a good definition – but how do we translate it into something that helps us in practical terms? How do we identify what works for us? I favour a simple approach based on Solutions Focus (a branch of Positive Psychology):

Set aside some time when you won’t be disturbed. At least ten minutes – you can always return to this exercise later – but up to half an hour if possible.

Relax. Take a deep breath. Consider the following question:

Imagine you went to sleep this evening and overnight a “miracle happened”. When you wake in the morning you have your ideal work-life balance.

How would you know? What would tell you?

How would you feel? What would you be thinking? What would you be doing? What would you be seeing? Hearing? What else would tell you this “miracle” has happened?

Write down your answers as fully as you can.

The idea is that rather than trying to find the solution from inside the problem, we look at it from a place where it’s been solved and then identify how to get there. It’s loosely based on the famous quote by Albert Einstein “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them”.

With this approach you gain a clearer idea of what would work for you – what you need at this time. And with that clearer roadmap you’re more likely to get there!

The Three C’s of Balanced Leadership

Everything I’ve learned about becoming a Balanced Leader can be summarised in the three essential qualities needed. I call these the three Cs:

Clarity

You must be clear about what work life balance looks like for you; and how a more balanced life will serve you. You must also be aware this is likely to change with your life circumstances.

You must be clear on how you prefer to manage your work-life boundaries and priorities. And you need to understand the implications for those around you whose preferences may differ.

You must be clear on the value you bring to your employer – the essential skills you offer that ensure you deliver on the outcomes for which you were hired. And on the internal expertise you’ve developed to expedite the process.

You must be clear on what support you need to become a Balanced Leader and to continue leading a balanced life. And you need to be clear how that will impact people around you – both at work and in your private life.

Control

I’m not talking about outdated notions of “command and control” still prevalent in many workplaces. I’m talking about self-control and managing your environment. The latter isn’t always within your control but preparation and clarity provide choices.

Self-control in a work life balance context is all about managing your boundaries. Being very clear on where they lie and taking steps to ensure you’re maintaining them to the best of your ability.

Managing your environment is about recognising that flexible working at Executive levels is still a rarity. Understand you’re a pioneer; and likely to bump up against outdated corporate thinking and outdated processes. Make sure you have the skills to navigate these and succeed.

Confidence

As a pioneer you’ll be doing things differently. People will be watching you and some will expect you to fail. You must develop the confidence that your skills and strategies will be successful.

You must be confident in the value you bring to your employer. This will underpin your interactions with the people around you.

And have the confidence to be a Role Model. Show others – particularly more junior women in your organisation and industry – that being a Balanced Leader is possible.

I’ll be expanding on this in future posts. In the meantime – how well do you score on the three C’s of Balanced Leadership?