Asking questions to generate change

Questions And Answers Signpost

In last week’s blog I mentioned that the UK’s Equal Pay Act is fifty this year. While things have improved for women over the past half century there’s still a lot more that needs to be done. Specifically many workplaces continue with deeply embedded practices biased against all but those considered ‘ideal workers’. Outmoded ways of thinking continue to create career barriers. For women in particular the challenge is one of trying to adapt to workplaces designed ‘by men for men’. Across the globe women carry out three times as much unpaid domestic and caring work as men. Organisations, on the other hand, continue to operate on the notion that employees are unencumbered by outside responsibilities; or at least that work is always the priority.

This outmoded thinking manifests itself in a myriad of ways: a lack of access to flexible working truly designed to provide a balance between home and work; the increasing creep of work into non-work time as technology creates an #AlwaysOn culture; the assumption that senior roles can only be carried out successfully by one person working long hours; and so on. In the face of this ‘glass labyrinth’ it’s easy to become frustrated and wonder if things will ever be any different.

In my book I write about the power of Appreciative Inquiry to bring about change. When we use this approach (which is grounded in positive psychology) we start to ask questions about what’s going on in the organisation. It focuses the attention and has the power to initiate a change process.

I’m a great fan of questions as a tool for changing thinking.

When we challenge someone directly they might become defensive. But when we ask a question the mind is drawn towards finding an answer.

For example, a few years back I talked with a new mother who’d returned to work on reduced hours. As a senior manager, she was the only one of her colleagues working a non-standard arrangement. Her biggest challenge was the expectation that she would attend off-site overnight meetings which clashed with her desire to see her young child. She could simply have pointed out that overnight meetings were now inconvenient. But that would go against cultural expectations and stereotype her as a woman more concerned with family than career. Asking questions such as: how could we organise this meeting so none of us need be away overnight? And: what would be the benefit to people of not having to spend that much time away from home? on the other hand, is likely to elicit a different response from colleagues.

Asking questions allows us to assert ourselves in a non-threatening way while shining a spotlight on outmoded working practices. We’re able to bring about more gradual change, often without anyone noticing. And the barriers getting in the way of women’s progress become slowly eroded.

This week, as we continue our #rebalance journey, what outmoded corporate practices or ways of thinking are getting in the way of you having both a career and good work-life balance? What question can you ask that will begin to shift the thinking of your workplace colleagues? What are you waiting for?

From Reactor to Creator

Close Up Of Old English Dictionary Page With Word Creator

The global response to the pandemic has been swift. The resulting lockdown – as I wrote last week – created a nightmare situation for many working parents. It’s just as well women have always excelled at fixing things behind the scenes: isn’t that what the mental load is all about?

And yet again women – working mums in particular – have stepped up. The evidence is compelling: news and research articles describing how women continue to shoulder much of the burden of care and household work in the ‘new normal’. And social media posts from women asking for tips on how to work and home school; how to negotiate with partners also working at home; and how to fit it all into 24 hours when sleep is a necessity.

In a crisis women respond. And in that same crisis they often find creative opportunities.

Now the talk is turning to what happens as restrictions are lifted. It’s time to turn our attention towards the future; and to creating a ‘new normal’ that suits us and our families better. Drawing on the experiences of the past few weeks here are a few small steps to take:

  • Reflect on whether your business case for flexible working has strengthened. The consensus is that the enforced move to home working demonstrated to employers that more jobs can be worked flexibly than they were ever willing to acknowledge.
  • Use this opportunity to negotiate the reduced hours arrangement you need. Given speculation that employers may need to cut jobs, this is an ideal way for yours to retain key skills. If you’re in a managerial or other senior role then job-share could be the way to proceed. It’s an easy one for employers to understand. And as they say: two heads are better than one. With planning the impact on employers is minimal and there are many intermediaries out there who can help set it up.
  • Ask your HR department whether the organisation has a stated Work Life Balance Policy; and whether guidelines exist on how to switch off from work. Research has shown only half of employers provide any formal advice on how to manage the information and communications technologies that increasingly push us to be always connected to work. Research has also shown this takes its toll on mothers who often work a triple shift and end up exhausted.
  • If your workplace has a Parents or Women’s network put improving work life balance on the agenda for the next meeting. Encourage people to share their recent experiences and reflect on how things can be improved to accommodate women’s unpaid (and often invisible) caring responsibilities.
  • Use this time to normalise conversations around work life balance. Most of us are currently in the same boat: juggling home and work in unprecedented ways. We’re being encouraged to acknowledge the challenges when interacting with colleagues. But the risk remains that once schools open and grandparents come out of lockdown those challenges will again fall off the radar of managers and employers. It’s essential we ensure that doesn’t happen or women will continue to be underrepresented at senior levels in the workplace.

The creative part of our brains has been given a boost as we’ve engaged in play with our children or reconnected with our cookery skills. Let’s harness that new found creativity to establish new ways to lean in on our own terms.

ReBalancing the chaos #2

Wooden Dice With Letters In Disarray And The Word Chaos

Last week’s blog shared two key strategies to help you regain a semblance of balance as we adjust to new ways of living and working. This week I consider two more things that can support better balance: avoiding role confusion and using positive psychology to get what you need.

How to avoid ‘role confusion’

Let’s start with an explanation. Social scientists often talk about the multiple roles we all play and the expectations (scripts) that surround them. Two key roles for many of us are parent and employee (or worker). In the normal course of events those roles remain relatively separate. We do our work at work; or within designated work hours if we opt to work remotely. And we carry out our parenting role mostly when we our children are with us.

Of course there is some overlap. Many parents struggle during school holidays and virtually everyone has navigated working while tending to a sick child. The problem is the expectations surrounding both roles often come into conflict. It’s hard to be a model (work focused) employee if you’re also trying to sort out your child’s schooling or worrying about their health. Conversely it can be challenging to feel you’re a good parent when work expects long hours or business calls in the evening. All of this is not ideal; but in more normal circumstances it’s often possible to put boundaries around the two roles and focus on one at a time.

Keeping roles separate in the new order is much more challenging. As they bleed into each other we can end up confused and feel we’re performing both roles poorly.. Which can have a negative impact on our self-esteem. Once you understand this is happening it becomes easier to reduce the mental conflict and manage the circumstances. It’s often possible to negotiate with work colleagues: explaining there are times when you need to be in parent mode and therefore unavailable for work calls or online meetings. It’s also OK to say: “we may be interrupted if my child suddenly needs me. If that happens I’ll reschedule this call/online meeting as quickly as possible.” We need to redefine what ‘professional’ looks like.

How to use positive psychology to get what you need

Navigating the new circumstances involves adapting our own behaviour and encouraging those around us to do the same. Harnessing positive psychology improves our chances of getting what we need. A positive approach to change identifies what might be possible and encourages more of it when it occurs. As the saying goes: the behaviour that’s rewarded is the behaviour that continues.

To get what we need we must first of all have clarity on what that looks like; and how we will know when we have it. It sounds pretty obvious, but what exactly does “I need more help with the children” or “I need some quiet time to write this report” look like in practice? For instance, does help with the children mean keeping them amused for an hour? Feeding them? Getting them to bed? The more specific you are in what your needs look like, the easier it becomes for others to help. Getting help may also mean relinquishing some of the expectations you have around the role of parent.

You can use positive psychology to reinforce the behaviour you want from those around you by asking yourself:

When do I already see the behaviour I want happening and how can I encourage more of it?

Above all else be gentle with yourself and ohters. The current situation is challenging our mental models around how we expect to integrate work into our lives: which is both disorientating and tiring. We will emerge from this with a ‘new normal’ but it’s too early to say what that will look like. Personally I’m holding onto the vision that it will lead more people to put in structures for a more balanced life.

See the funny side

Happy Diverse Office Workers Team Laughing Together At Group Mee

This week I’m turning my attention to humour and how it generates the positive emotions that can support us through the chaos of the current global pandemic.

In the midst of stress, uncertainty and overwhelm it’s essential for our wellbeing that we focus on the positive. According to Shawn Achor:

“Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative or neutral.”

He calls this the happiness advantage.

Increasing our happiness improves our intelligence, creativity and energy levels. And since our external circumstances only account for 10 per cent of our happiness levels; to become happier we must consciously retrain our brains to scan the world for the positive. Achor suggests we can do this in just 21 days with a range of approaches such as keeping a gratitude journal, exercising and mediating.

One of the quickest ways to generate a positive state is to ask a question that focuses on the positive. And one of the simplest to ask – according to Robyn Stratton-Berkessel – is:

What’s the best thing that happened to you today?

Her TEDx talk demonstrates how focusing on this question elicits a range of positive emotions.

Having fun at work has its advantages. It builds trust, diffuses tension and helps people be more efficient. It can also fuel innovation since both humour and creativity are about making non-obvious connections.

According to Paul Osincup humour can even make us better leaders, although I recommend that women treat this one with caution. It’s been shown to be easier for men to navigate the tricky balance between gravitas and approachability (but that’s a topic for another blog). Even if you’re not currently a leader 75% of your job success can be predicted by your levels of happiness and positivity according to Achor.

Laugh a little

Seeing the funny side of a situation – and being able to laugh about it – is a strategy that’s helped me navigate various stressful circumstances thrown at me by life. And one of my favourite talks on the subject of managing stress with humour is this TEDx talk by Loretta Laroche.

According to researchers laughter is good for us both physiologically and psychologically. It relaxes our bodies and makes us breathe more deeply. According to Sohpie Scott it’s also an essential bonding mechanism that helps us connect with others. Apparently we’re thirty times more likely to laugh in company than when we are on our own.

Women have always instinctively known this. Our natural response to stress is to ‘tend and befriend’. That means we cope by reaching out to others (often our female friends) to talk through our challenges. Very often we find ourselves laughing at the situation as a result.

In these challenging times it can be hard to maintain our sense of humour. When we lose it we risk also losing our power; and feeling like victims rather than creators. If you’re struggling why not join Ida Abdalkhani in a session of Laughter Yoga. For, as she says: we deserve to laugh.



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.

Telling better stories

Funny Baby Girl In Glasses Reading A Book In A Library

Many parents look forward to story time with their children at the end of the day. More than simply an opportunity to connect, storytelling is deeply embedded in the human psyche. It offers us a way to join together, empathise and make meaning in our lives.

In the workplace – too – leaders are often encouraged to tell inspiring, visionary stories that will motivate their people. And, as Brené Brown says in her most recent book – Rising Strong – we’re all very good at making up stories. Unfortunately they often hook us into the negative meaning we’re making about events and circumstances in our lives.

As we walk the Balanced Leader journey we’re likely to face three types of stories.

First are the stories that define our employer’s corporate culture. The ones that talk about “the way we do things around here” and the organisational heroes. About what will bring rewards, what’s needed to succeed and what’s not possible here. Stories like: “the best managers are the ones that work long hours – that’s how they show commitment.” These stories are often so deeply embedded in the corporate psyche they become the water in which we swim. We need to remain alert to our stories of limitation. In an earlier blog I wrote about Appreciative Inquiry which is a powerful tool for delving into stories.

Secondly, there are the stories we make up about the people around us. Stories like: “my manager is unsympathetic to my need for a flexible arrangement so there’s no point in asking.” “My employer doesn’t value my skills and won’t accommodate me – I either put up with the pressure or leave” and “if I work flexibly my co-workers will resent me”.

Finally there are the stories we make up about ourselves. “I’m happy to take a demotion to work flexibly while my kids are small. It keeps me on the career ladder and I want to be a good mother.” “I’m powerless to negotiate a more flexible arrangement in my current job.” “I don’t want others to judge me as a typical working mother – not committed to her job and struggling to manage her childcare.”

Many of the stories we buy into disempower us. They’re often based on untested assumptions, fear and outmoded thinking. The thing is: until we take a bold step we cannot be sure which of these stories are true. And just as the stories we read to our children grow and develop with them so our corporate stories need to do the same. Sometimes it comes down to us as Balanced Leaders to rewrite the story.

For our own benefit and that of our children let’s own our stories, recognising them for what they are. Let’s explore new possibilities for living more balanced lives. And let’s turn our existing stories of limitation into what Brené Brown calls:

“a story of great possibility, of what could be if our best selves showed up”.

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?