Don’t let bias derail you

Bias

Psychologists explain cognitive bias as the result of “subjective social reality”. If we’re human that’s something we can’t avoid. As we make our way in the world we’re likely experience three types of bias that can derail us – particularly when we lack the skills to navigate around it.

Limiting beliefs are the biases we hold about ourselves and the situations we face. Over the years we’ve crafted our stories of things we cannot do and the circumstances we are powerless to change. In a self help book some years ago I came across the sentence: “We believe we are limited and so we act in accordance with our limitations”. A good coach will help us challenge our limiting beliefs – but that’s not to say we’re always wrong.

Sometimes we’re limited because we lack the skills to make the change. This was the situation with a recent coaching client. She was holding herself back from promotion as she felt that work-life balance would be impossible in a more senior job. She’s a skilled and capable woman and her employer thinks highly of her. And she wants to be there for her children as they change schools, navigate their teenage years and make career choices. She’d tried working part-time several years earlier and had fallen into the trap of cramming five days’ work into three.

When we looked at how she might craft a more flexible job and manage her boundaries more effectively she suddenly began to see new possibilities. Yes, she had been limiting herself but not because of a lack of confidence or ambition. She simply lacked the right skills.

Unconscious bias has become a popular ingredient in corporate Diversity initiatives recently. The idea is that where women’s careers are concerned male managers make biased assumptions and act accordingly. So – for example – a woman with children may not be offered the challenging projects or time limited pieces of work. The underlying conjecture is that her priority lies with her children and she would be better placed with less demanding work.

European research has confirmed this may well be what’s going on. The problem is that the maanger is making assumptions without full knowledge of the circumstances. And women become annoyed to find they’re suddenly being treated differently. The key is better communication that starts from a win-win assumption. If you’re the woman in question it’s likely to fall to you to open the dialogue; and explore how you can craft a working arrangement that suits both you and your manager.

Perhaps most challenging of all is the third type of bias – stereotype threat. First discussed by psychologists in the mid 1990s stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s social group. It can be a concern that one’s negative performance will taint the image of the group or that one will be seen stereotypically. And when it comes to working mother there are a lot of stereotypes around.

Even if they’ve never heard the term it seems to me that many mothers succumb to stereotype threat. They don’t ask for flexibility – afraid they will be judged negatively and that this judgement will be extended to other working mothers. Or they worry their desire for better balance will result in others thinking of them negatively – as a “typical mother”. So they struggle on.

When we step up to balanced leadership we open ourselves to the possibility of negative judgement. Bias exists. But as I’ve said before: if we have a plan it’s easier to navigate the concerns of others and to win them over to our way of thinking.

Feeling inauthentic is OK

Authentic adj. genuine, known to be true

From the 1970s onwards as women began entering professional and managerial occupations in increasing numbers they opened up discussions around authenticity at work.

Why – they asked – do we need to pretend we’re not mothers; that our children don’t matter? Why do we need to adopt masculine behaviours in order to succeed? In two to three generations women made phenomenal progress while discussions around authenticity at work have escalated.

Indeed, some commentators extol the benefits of authenticity to such a degree that we’re now led to believe it holds the key to charismatic leadership. Somehow we know that when we embrace our authenticity and live our lives accordingly we can make the world a better place.

Not everyone feels comfortable being authentic – nor does every workplace necessarily encourage authenticity. We may struggle to be authentic while embracing what we believe to be the correct professional persona. The dark side of this inauthenticity is what has been termed emotional labour – the way our work requires us to behave regardless of our inner feelings.

Experiencing the Imposter Syndrome is another way we may question the authenticity of our behaviour. This is where we feel we’re not good enough, we’ve arrived at our role by accident and sooner or later we’ll be found out. Apparently women are highly likely to fall prey to the Imposter Syndrome – perhaps because we’re still trying to figure out those masculine scripts as we climb the corporate ladder.

What should we do? Suggesting we “fake it till we make it” can leave us feeling uncomfortable and (yes) inauthentic. The alternative is to listen to the wisdom of Herminia Ibarra – leadership expert and researcher into working identity.

A transition to a new role demands new skills, behaviours and attitudes and is likely to trigger changes to our professional identity. Professor Ibarra suggests we take ourselves lightly at this time, experiment with provisional selves and remain flexible about who we are becoming.

Clients working with me during the transition to becoming a Balanced Leader gain the benefits of tools, resources and a roadmap that I’ve been developing for the past twenty years. But as I’ve said in previous blog posts there is no well-trodden path down which to guide them. Balanced Leaders are pioneers.

Choosing to act as a Balanced Leader may initially feel inauthentic. But if you’re undertaking the journey for the right reasons (and why else would you choose this more challenging path?) you will grow into your authenticity.

The reality is we create our futures by our actions in the present. In an increasingly unpredictable world we often find ourselves doing this without an external compass to guide us. There are few role models and no well-worn paths. We must embrace the shifts to our identity and remind ourselves we’ve chosen to make them happen – not just for our own wellbeing but for that of the people around us.

Developing a winning strategy

Indonesian woman playing chess setting figure

When I recently registered a new coaching client she told me she knew she was holding herself back. Her bosses think highly of her and she’s been encouraged to go for promotion. But she was reluctant – because she couldn’t see how to retain any semblance of work-life balance if she progressed into middle management.

After three sessions with me – and only seven weeks later – she’s a changed woman. She’s now firmly committed to renegotiating her current role for more flexibility. And to progressing her career on a more flexible basis. Naturally I’m delighted to have provided her with tools and strategies that opened more options than she’d previously imagined.

I’d like to say: “result, job done” but she and I both know that’s not the case. We know she’s at the start of her journey. She’s joined the army of female pioneers setting a new workplace agenda. And she’s consciously undertaking that role in what is an aggressively traditional workplace culture. She understands that she’s laying herself open to scrutiny and criticism. However, we’re both confident she’s not opening herself to failure.

Together we’re developing a winning strategy:

  • Before she begins renegotiating her working arrangements we’ve spent time identifying her value to her employer; and the high potential cost of losing her.
  • We’ve identified the key stakeholders she needs to influence. And as she comes from a project management background managing stakeholders is a key strength for her.
  • We’ve evaluated various flexible working options – including reduced hours, job-share and job-split – and considered both the benefits and downsides of each.
  • We’ve pinpointed her key strengths and identified areas where she needs to upskill.

So far we’ve already spent six hours talking about how she might craft a Quality Flexible Job for herself. One that supports balance while making the best use of her skills on her employer’s behalf. It’s a considerable investment in time given the busy pace at which many of us work these days. We’re certain it’s time well spent.

We’re not finished yet. When we meet again we’ll be planning how to mitigate any potential risks. Identifying small gradual steps that make up the journey to Balanced Leadership. As they say: “forewarned is forearmed”.

I mentioned last year that one of my favourite maxims is “the unit within the system with the most responses controls the system”. With my support she’s developing a range of responses, identifying small changes and making course corrections as she goes along. And that’s our winning strategy.

The “genius, power and magic” of boldness

IWD 17 Twitter

It’s International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is #BeBoldForChange.

My dictionary defines bold as meaning both (1) confident and courageous; and (2) without feelings of shame, impudent. I suspect I’m not alone believing that bold actions in women are more often seen as the latter than the former.

For example: in their book “Why Women Don’t Ask” Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever point out that women are much less likely to use negotiation to get what they want than are men. They tend to view it as a masculine and competitive strategy. They prefer not to rock the boat. And in my experience, when faced with the work-life balance challenges of being a working mother they prefer to simply “fix” the problem by moving themselves onto the “mommy track”. They don’t want to be seen as asking for concessions because they’re not coping.

The thing is – as I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts – if we don’t ask nothing will change. Our mothers and grandmothers asked. For part-time and term-time work. And women made progress in the corporate world. Then things stalled.

By not asking we become complicit in covering up the fact that existing corporate cultures clash with women’s lives. We give our employers a “get out of jail free” card that allows them to suggest it’s something lacking in women. And the consequence – as revealed by recent Chartered Management Institute research – is half a million women missing from management.

Coaching a junior manager recently she concluded that she lacked the confidence to apply for a middle manager role. It’s a widely held assumption that poor confidence holds women back. But in her case she had a very real concern about being able to spend time with her family if she took on any more work responsibilities. And that’s what’s really holding her back.

With the right tools we’re crafting a job she feels confident she can do: and that makes best use of her skills while enabling a balanced life. It has required her to #BeBoldForChange and in her case this has paid off. Her manager is supportive – recognising and valuing her talents.

Most of us are willing to be bold on behalf of others – particularly family members. But when it comes to working practices we often shy away from asking for what we want. Because it’s not been done before. Because we’re worried about being seen in a negative light; our commitment being questioned. And we worry we’ll be seen as impudent rather than courageous.

So this International Women’s Day consider being bold not just for yourself – but also on behalf of the people around you. In negotiating better balanced working arrangements you’ll be opening up new possibilities for them as well.

I recently heard a working mother say: “I hope things are better for my daughter when she goes out to work”. But hope alone will not change anything.

We must #BeBoldForChange. In the words of Goethe:

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it

The Art of Influence

Becoming a Balanced Leader is a journey. It begins with the decision to reclaim balance in our lives supported by the clarity to know why we want it. Those of us on the journey are pioneers and we’ll be questioned at every turn. That’s human nature. In order to get where we want to be we must become skilled at influencing others.

Women in particular often feel powerless when faced with apparently inflexible corporate cultures and overwhelming social expectations. It’s essential that we remain confident we can exert influence over the way we live our own lives – and in doing so become role models for those around us.

If you’re committed to the Balanced Leader journey I offer some advice – based on things I’ve learnt along the way.

  • First of all, clarity is key. Be clear about what you want, where you’re willing to make concessions and what’s not negotiable. Keep in mind these priorities will shift and change as you navigate your life course. Prepare a robust case for your choices and sell the benefits to those you wish to influence.
  • Speak confidently. Women face a wealth of advice on how to cultivate the necessary gravitas. Don’t let concerns about that tie you up in knots. Aim to be brief but cover all the essentials. The more confidence you have in your new working arrangement, the more likely your colleagues will have confidence you can pull it off.
  • Engage with those you’re aiming to influence. Ask questions rather than giving opinions. Asking questions gets your listener’s brain involved as it seeks answers so it’s a powerful way of engaging others. Wherever possible aim for positive questions such as: “How would my colleagues and clients benefit if I was more refreshed, energised or creative?”
  • Expect to be heard and to get a positive response. Women often fear their voices go unheard in predominantly masculine corporate cultures. My own experience has been that most men do listen – but are less likely to offer confirmatory visual clues than are women. And if you’re asking for better balance you may well be voicing a desire they share.
  • If you find yourself faced with someone who really doesn’t listen – or who may be inclined to argue back – I’ve discovered that putting your case in writing as a precursor to meeting can be very effective. Some people simply hate being surprised or caught on the hop. Your written request will help them feel better prepared for a discussion.

Once you start the journey make yourself visible and be a role model. Then you’ll be influencing by example – and that’s the most powerful influence of all.

Change happens best when nobody notices

Mother And Daughter Looking Up

As human beings we live with gradual 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 flee the nest; and we’re invariably aware of our own bodies changing as we age. The corporate world tends to be obsessed with a bigger, bolder paradigm of change. We’re told we must keep up to speed with it, learn how to embrace it and manage those of our colleagues who fear or resist it.

I first heard the phrase “change happens best when nobody notices” at a training seminar several years ago and it resonated with me. So often when we decide to live more balanced lives we feel we must make radical and sweeping changes. The problem here is that our actions can make others uncomfortable and we ourselves can end up feeling overwhelmed. When we implement those same changes as a series of tiny steps we feel more in control, a little less vulnerable. It’s impossible to predict the responses of people around us and small actions enable us to make course corrections when things don’t work out as we expected.

The first law of cybernetics is a favourite maxim of mine. It states that: “the unit within the system with the most behavioural responses available to it controls the system”. When we go slowly we allow ourselves more behavioural responses. We give ourselves more space to overcome the obstacles we meet on our path.

Having a clear vision for our balanced life remains essential. And we need to reconnect with that vision regularly as we find ourselves distracted and swayed off our course. We still need to guard our boundaries and manage the expectations of others. But making small adjustments gradually over a period of time is a more manageable approach to behaviour change – and likely to be less intrusive for those around us. Step by step we find those small changes add up.

Once my coaching clients have identified their ideal work-life balance I ask them “on a scale of one to ten where are you now in relation to this ideal vision?” When they make their (subjective) response my next question is always: “so what small step would move you half a point nearer your ideal?” It’s less daunting than asking them to make radical changes. It enables quick wins that tell them better balance is possible. And they begin to make small changes – often under the radar – as they proceed towards an ever shifting goal.

Crafting Balanced Jobs

Business People Support Teamwork Meeting Organizing Concept

The skill of job design has always been part of the Occupational Psychologist’s portfolio but in recent years it’s been taken a step further with the notion of job crafting. In an article in the June 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review Professor Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues describe how job crafting enables people to re-energise and re-imagine their work life and provides them with a greater feeling of control at work.

At senior levels job crafting makes a great deal of sense. When we devote many years to developing our career we also develop a unique portfolio that’s the sum total of our skills, interests, experiences and workplace encounters. It’s that unique combination that makes us valuable in our jobs and literally irreplaceable to our employers.

Think about it. If you quit your job how long will it take to find someone else with your experience? I’m not talking simply about the academic qualifications you have and the professional training you’ve undertaken. I’m also thinking of the specialist knowledge you’ve developed at your workplace and your understanding of how to make things happen in your organisation. So, rather than lose talented women struggling with work life balance job crafting offers employers a way to retain them.

The HBR article focuses on assessing and altering three core aspects of work: the tasks, the relationships and our own perceptions of our work. On the Balanced Leader Programme we follow this outline to craft jobs that better support our needs while meeting our employers’ expectations.

We begin with the tasks – by clarifying the key things you’ve been hired to do; and the outcomes best suited to your skills. We then consider which tasks can be discarded so that you find the time and space to operate more strategically. In our VUCA business environments the nature of jobs can change pretty quickly. How often do we stop to ask ourselves: “what’s the best use of my time and skills? Where does my best value to my employer lie?” Once we’ve identified working priorities we can assess the potential for time and location flexibility within them. And so we create opportunities to combine work and caring responsibilities in more balanced ways.

Then we turn our focus to relationships and identify those stakeholders – both at work and at home – key to our success. And we develop strategies for managing those relationships effectively.

As we do this so our perceptions change. We no longer see ourselves as ambitious women constrained by corporate glass ceilings. Like our mothers and grandmothers before us we’ve become pioneers remodelling the workplace for our own benefit and that of future generations.