Fostering a Balanced Working Culture

Appreciative Inquiry is a change process developed by David Cooperrider towards the end of the last century. Generally included in the broad category of ‘Positive Psychology’ it’s an approach likely to appeal to women for three reasons.

  1. It’s conversation based – playing to women’s interpersonal skills. It recognises our human tendency to make meaning through dialogue: the “social construction of reality”. And it’s inclusive: extending the conversation to as many people as possible.
  2. The questions asked are the “tools for change”. Not just any questions but well constructed ones that sow the potential for change by directing our attention. For women in the workplace it offers a way to take the lead without being judged as controlling.
  3. The focus is on building the future – the new and emergent – not on fixing the old. It’s a perspective likely to resonate with parents. When we bring up our children our focus is generally on future potential.

Cooperrider has outlined five key principles of Appreciative Inquiry which we can put to use in fostering change towards a more balanced working culture.

  1. Organisations are living human constructions not mechanical systems that exist independently of the people within them. In many cases they are literally man-made with cultures established in the last century to support male ways of working. What this means is that we can reconstruct our organisations to better meet changing social expectations. Our mothers and grandmothers started this process when they asked for arrangements such as part-time, term-time and job-share. It’s down to us to continue the process by re-shaping work at more senior levels so that organisations become more truly inclusive for women.
  2. Inquiry is intervention. When we ask the right questions and ensure the right focus we begin the process of change. So rather than believing flexible working is impossible at senior levels we ask “where and when have we seen someone in a senior role successfully work flexibly – in this organisation or this industry?” One of the most powerful questions I ask when beginning a consulting assignment is “who in this organisation has experience of flexible working arrangements at senior levels?” It’s always surprising to learn how much knowledge already exists under the radar. And these people become the organisation’s ‘database of experts’ – a key resource able to provide insights into how specific arrangements can succeed.
  3. Human organisations are more like open books – constantly being re-written – than closed systems. So Appreciative Inquiry uses storytelling to identify our ‘cultural artefacts’. What do our current role models for success look like? What behaviour is rewarded? What stories do we tell ourselves about the organisation and its culture? We then begin to re-write these stories looking for new heroes and new achievements. Rather than talking about the manager who works long hours and drives her people hard we begin to talk about the one who manages to work a flexible arrangement successfully and the many benefits this has brought to her staff and clients.
  4. Our collective imagination is an infinite resource for changing organisations. Rather than tying up our energy in analysing what’s going wrong we ask ourselves how it will look when things go well. The “miracle question” I talk about in this post is a great place to start.
  5. The momentum for change is more effective when positive energy is harnessed. We know this is true. When we become excited about the potential benefits gained by achieving a positive goal we’re likely to put more energy into the process.

A short blog post like this cannot do justice to a complex process like Appreciative Inquiry. But – in the spirit of the process – it can begin to draw attention to what’s important and to ask the right question. So: where are you focusing your energy – in overcoming objections to flexible working or in creating a shared vision of how it could work for everyone?

Having a “sense of entitlement”

Many professional women believe a flexible working arrangement is a concession granted by an employer in the face of inconvenient consequences. This makes them reluctant to ask – fearing they will be labelled as less committed to their career if they do. And they’re often disproportionately grateful for the chance to work flexibly.

When it comes to work life balance the research has shown that having a sense of entitlement makes us more likely to ask. Of course when I talk about a sense of entitlement, I’m not talking about making demands and being unwilling to negotiate. I’m talking of having a feeling of confidence that managing our work life balance is a good thing. Good for us and good for our employer.

What promotes a sense of entitlement? Two key factors are social attitudes and legislation. In the majority of counties (Sweden being an obvious exception) social attitudes are primarily focussed on supporting mothers to combine work with caring for their families. Something which is frequently enshrined in “family friendly” legislation.

When it comes to prevailing corporate cultures however, the message tends to be that while mothers are entitled to work flexibly they must be willing to sacrifice career progression in return. The answer to this is to change the culture – and I’ll be writing about that in my next post. But first I wanted you to understand why you should feel entitled to a balanced working life.

I’m a member of the British Psychological Society’s work life balance working group. In 2010 we commissioned research to evaluate the evidence for the benefits of good work life balance. The results were conclusive.

A healthy work life balance is correlated with more positive physical and mental health and higher marital satisfaction – essential prerequisites if we’re caring for others. What’s more we find meaning in our relationships as much as we do in our work. As the saying goes: nobody on their deathbed regretted not spending more time in the office. And we cannot maintain satisfying relationships or rise fully to our caring responsibilities when we ourselves are feeling depleted.

Better balance is likely to improve our decision making.- of high importance in workplaces where managers and leaders are navigating an increasingly VUCA world. It also correlates with higher employee engagement, improved work performance and lower rates of turnover. Plus there’s evidence the effects of poor work life balance are contagious – particularly in team environments.

The biggest losses occur when you feel your balance is so far out of kilter that your only option is to resign. The career you’ve spent years developing may never recover and your employer loses a skilled and experienced member of staff. That’s not what I want for you. I want you to be able to make your fullest contribution in the corporate world where your skills are badly needed; and to feel you’re living a balanced life. With the support of this blog and my Balanced Leader Programme – should you choose to join me – I believe that’s possible.

So when you feel entitled to a balanced life and step up to champion balance for yourself and your team it becomes an act of leadership with a positive impact on everyone around you.

The two key skills you must cultivate


Businesspeople Quarreling In Front Of Businessman Meditating

To succeed on the Balanced Leader journey there are two key skills you must cultivate: mindfulness and self-responsibility.

Despite the current preponderance of books on the topic, interest in mindfulness is not a new phenomenon. As an Eastern concept and practice it’s been around for centuries. One of the earliest pioneers to bring it to the West was Jon Kabat Zinn who defines mindfulness as:

“The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

Many people consider mindfulness a spiritual or religious practice but Kabat Zinn’s definition implies this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, I came to mindfulness many years ago while taking lessons in the Alexander Technique. The point was to notice what I was doing with my body moment by moment. To catch myself when I tensed my neck and shoulders leading to stress headaches; and when I was slumping in my chair restricting my breathing leading to feelings of tiredness.

I first chose to apply mindfulness to my work while interviewing others. I realised that in many cases my interviewee’s future was directly in my hands. I would make a decision about whether to take the process further based on our discussions; and I must be present to the other person in order to make the right decision. Being present in the moment – moment by moment as Kabat Zinn says – was a challenge then and is an even bigger one now that we’re surrounded by so many technologically based distractions.

So mindfulness is something we make the commitment to cultivate and it’s like anything else. The more we practice the better we get. I’m not an avid reader of mindfulness books but one I have come across recently that I rather liked is ‘This is Happening’ by Rohan Gunatillake who also developed the buddhify app.

Mindfulness is an essential tool in our armoury since without it we can easily lose sight of our boundaries and our vision of how we want our balanced life to work.

Self-responsibility on the other hand is the attitude we adopt when we choose to be one hundred per cent responsible for everything that happens to us. Yes, of course there are other players and outside circumstances going on. And we always have a choice of coming from a place of being the victim of these or one of self-empowerment.

Let’s say – for instance – that your workplace culture doesn’t currently support flexible working at managerial levels. You have a choice. You can either tell yourself “it’s not going to be possible here – I may as well leave” or you take a deep breath and ask “how could I change this situation?” You prepare a short TED talk style presentation summarising the way your new arrangement would work and the benefits to everyone.

Or let’s say one of your clients is a little miffed because he couldn’t reach you yesterday – even though you made it clear from the outset that you work flexibly. Rather than being annoyed he’s forgotten you look at how you can improve your client management skills so there’s no repeat of the situation.

Accepting radical self-responsibility requires us to constantly step up to the leadership role in any situation. To be clear on the balance we want in our lives. To identify where our power lies to change things; and which of our skills we need to enhance to achieve the results we’re looking for.

A commitment to cultivating mindfulness and self-responsibility is the essential foundation we need to support us on the Balanced Leader journey.

Who’s writing your scripts?

Young Woman Signing A Document

Four centuries after Shakespeare wrote about the world being a stage and the men and women players, the American psychologist Donald Super proposed “A Life-Span, Life-Space approach to Career Development”. He identified nine roles played by human beings as they progress through life; explaining a role as: A set of expectations – defined both by the individual and the wider society – of a person occupying a position. So, for example, the roles of parent and worker each come with a set of expectations – a script.

Super proposed four main theatres where roles were played: the home; the community; the school (including college and university); and the workplace. At the time he developed his theory it was likely that a specific role would be played out primarily in one theatre. Over the years – however – the goalposts have moved; so that – for example – the role of parent is initially played primarily in the home but may also be played in the school and the workplace as the need arises. Similarly the role of worker is increasingly also being played in theatre of the home or the community Third Space.

Where do these role scripts come from? Consider – for example – how you play your roles as parent and worker and answer the following questions:

  • Where did you learn the “script” for the role? Who is judging how successful you are in the role?
  • Is the script for the role still current – or have the goalposts moved? How could you change the script to better serve you? (Perhaps just by making some small adjustments?)
  • Are there other ways you could play the role which would enable better balance in your life? If so, what are the likely implications for the people around you?

Role Conflict or Role Enrichment?

Most of us play several roles simultaneously which means they impinge on each other. According to work life balance theory we can choose to see this negatively and as depleting our energy – the result of juggling conflicting demands. Or we can view each role as enriching the totality of our life experience. In this earlier post I explained how Separators tend to feel more conflict while Integrators experience more enrichment.

Viewing the two roles as complementing each other can bring about a more positive outlook. But as both roles make demands on our time and our emotions we may need to make adjustments in order to achieve that more positive outlook.

Back to those parent and worker roles then:

  • How much of your physical time does each take up? And how much mental or emotional energy?
  • Could you change the impact of these roles on your overall work life balance by reducing – even slightly – the amount of time or emotional energy you’re investing in them?

Super said decision points occur before and at the time of taking on a new role, of giving up an old role, and of making significant changes in the nature of an existing role. And that these decisions are often influenced by the other roles we’re playing.

Make this moment your decision point. Take control and choose how you’ll play your roles going forward. Since you first learned the scripts it’s likely the goal posts have moved. And – given the pace of modern life – will continue to move. To be a Balanced Leader you’ll need to shift your scripts accordingly.

How to grow your leadership muscle

Becoming a parent is a major life transition. As our identity shifts our new circumstances often prompt us to review how we work and what we want from life. Sadly, for many women it’s a time when they feel forced to make uncomfortable compromises. You’re ambitious, you’ve worked hard to establish your career and now you find yourself confronted by an organisational culture that insists you must continue to put in long hours and make work your primary commitment if you want to progress. It’s no wonder this is the point where the corporate world loses so many smart and talented women.

Professor Herminia Ibarra has built her career studying how people navigate important transitions at work. Her most recent book ‘Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader’ explains why most of what she’s learned about transition goes against conventional wisdom. She contends that people become leaders by doing leadership work; by growing into leaders. This activity sparks two important interrelated processes.

The first is an external process of developing a reputation for leadership potential – which can dramatically change how we see ourselves. And the second is an internal process of evolving our motivations and self-definition – which occurs in the context of our relationships with others. Professor Ibarra says:

“When we act like a leader by proposing new ideas, making contributions outside our area of expertise, or connecting people and resources to a worthwhile goal…people see us behaving as leaders and confirm as much. The social recognition and the reputation that develop over time with repeated demonstrations of leadership create conditions for what psychologists call internalizing a leadership identity – coming to see oneself as a leader and seizing more and more opportunities to behave accordingly.”

In the past a promotion or new job assignment was the prompt to adjust or reinvent our leadership behaviour. Nowadays – according to Professor Ibarra – major transitions are rarely so clearly labelled. We may find ourselves experiencing the need to step up to leadership without specific outside recognition or guidance – ‘the do-it-yourself transition’.

Does this thinking resonate with you? If so, I’d like to invite you to see your desire for more balance and your intention to make it work as an act of leadership. You’re pioneering new ways of working that more closely match 21st century expectations. You’re challenging outmoded corporate practices that limit possibilities and have a negative impact on wellbeing. And you’re becoming a role model for other working parents in your organisation and your industry.

You don’t have to do it alone. There are many resources – including this blog and my Balanced Leader Programme – to support you. What you do need is both courage and commitment to living your best life; to making the most of career and family. And that means taking charge. Acting like a leader. Growing your leadership muscle. For, as Professor Ibarra concludes:

 “If you don’t create new opportunities within the confines of your “day job” they may never come your way.”