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.

Finding balance: lessons from my yoga practice

Smiling businesswoman with exercise mat using mobile phone at of

A fundamental principle of maintaining good work-life balance is finding time for recovery. After a sustained period of hard work we need to switch off and do something that moves our attention elsewhere. For me that something is yoga. I’ve been doing it for the past fifteen years.  Yoga undoubtedly benefits both my physical and mental health; and in addition I’m increasingly finding that lessons I learn ‘on the mat’ can be applied to my life ‘off the mat’.

Today I’m sharing three of those lessons that will support your Balanced Leader journey:

Balance is dynamic. It requires moment by moment adjustments. If you practice yoga balancing poses are inevitable. When we first attempt them we discover that balance is not static. As we stand in tree pose (for example) our body oscillates and our muscles make tiny movements. That’s the way bodies are designed to work. Similarly in our lives balance is never a static ‘one and done’. Life conspires to throw things at us that will push us out of balance; and we must remain vigilant so we can make adjustments. At times these will be minor – such as when we notice more and more work-related texts or emails encroaching on the rest of our lives; and we choose to renegotiate our boundaries. At others a major life event – such as the birth of a child or the sudden illness of a family member – will force us to make bigger adjustments.

Balance calls for dedicated focus. If you’ve ever attempted a balancing pose in class and noticed your neighbours wobble you’ll know how easy it is to lose concentration and find you’re also starting to wobble. To avoid this yoga teachers often recommend we keep our gaze focused towards a ‘drishti point’. As we do our mind quietens, we connect with ourselves and we find it’s easier to remain balanced. When it comes to balancing your life where is your focus? What is your ‘drishti point’? The more we keep our attention on the balance we want in our lives, the more likely we are to find it.

Balance becomes easier the more we practice. Half Moon pose is one of my favourites. You balance on one arm and one leg while raising the other leg and arm high. Despite a perfect demonstration by my teacher, it seemed almost impossible to me when I first attempted it myself. Gradually, as my body has become stronger and I’ve learnt how to make the necessary adjustments, I’m able to hold the pose for longer periods of time. The same approach applies to finding balance in your life: the more you practice, the more skilled you become and the easier it gets.

I’ve experienced yoga as a gentle but powerful way for my body to reach a higher level of well-being. Nowadays many employers offer on-site yoga classes; and if yours is one I would recommend trying it. The healthier your body becomes, the easier it is to maintain a sense of well being and balance. And when the wobbles come and knock you off kilter you will know that simply pausing and breathing can put you in the right frame of mind to make the necessary adjustments.

Coping with complexity

Smiling female student siting front open book and learning

We live in a complex world. Some commentators go further and call it a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Choosing to champion Balanced Working for ourselves and our team can – ironically – add an extra layer of complexity to our working lives. At least at the outset.

How do we help ourselves and our teams to manage these complex environments?

Since the middle of the last century psychologists have come to understand that making decisions when we’re faced with too many choices becomes stressful. And – of course – our #AlwaysOn hyper-connected lifestyles are resulting in an overwhelm of information.

As an antidote, Stanford University Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt recommends setting three simple rules. Three rules are likely to be remembered and more likely to be put into action when people are stressed.

Simplicity is also the recommendation of author and speaker Greg McKeown. According to him becoming a great leader requires:

“the disciplined pursuit of less but better”

McKeown’s research has shown that teams and the people in them thrive with a high level of clarity of purpose. He stresses the importance of carving out the time and space needed to achieve that clarity.

A team that aims to achieve Balanced Working will need two layers of simple rules. The first must be around how to manage their more flexible working practices. The developers of ROWE (the Results-Only Work Environment) offer some guidance here with rules around the acceptable use of time during the day; around communication and around actually doing the work for which we’ve been hired.

Once those rules are in place the team can focus on simplifying work processes: developing the capacity to be more agile in response to the ever changing workplace environment.

Aiming for clarity and simplicity protects us against what Psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann call ‘hypervigilant behaviour’ – often exhibited when we attempt to make complex decisions under duress. The outcome is a never ending search for more information while we try and find the ideal solution.

A further benefit of simplicity – according to Professor Eisenhardt – is that collecting too much data results in using the past to predict the future. Our own experience of the rapid pace of change increasingly tells us this is unlikely to be the case. The future will be different.

Faced with this knowledge we must learn to let go of our desire to control that future. A recent McKinsey article advises leaders to develop:

“a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty”

Psychologists consider organisations to be complex adaptive systems in constant tension between stability and change. Although it’s true we’ve had more and more of the latter in recent years. It’s this emergent change that often fuels our uncertainty. But if we are to adapt and to create better ways of working we must learn to embrace and manage it.

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 way of the Pioneer

Women hiker with backpack checks map to find directions in wilderness areaSince the Industrial Revolution men have been designing workplaces based on masculine paradigms. Over the past sixty years or so the talented women entering these male domains have been pioneering changes that underpin more balanced ways of working.

Our grandmothers, who opted to continue working while raising a family found little support from employment legislation or indeed from employers. The only concession being lower level jobs on part-time hours enabling women to earn  ‘pin money’ to supplement the male breadwinner’s income.

It was these pioneering women who quietly pressed for term time working. And their employers began to understand the business case for offering career breaks so they could take time out to have babies and bring their skills back into the workforce.

Today more than ever the corporate world needs better gender balance and we’re still talking about the same initiatives. The popularity of job share – particularly as a means of progressing women into senior roles – is on the rise. But it’s not a new idea. A colleague of mine was running a job-share register back in the 1970s. Career breaks in the meantime have been resurrected as Returnships. And still the progression of women into senior roles remains painfully slow. As the French say: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

Those early pioneers made great progress in gaining concessions that enabled women’s careers. But their initiatives are no longer enough. We need to re-think arrangements to accommodate 21st century lives and support balanced ways of working. We need a new generation of pioneers ready to finish the workplace revolution by modelling new possibilities.

Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. We need to think differently, to #beboldforchange.

If 2017 is your year to become a Balanced Leader here are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Be very clear not just on where you’re going but on how you want to make the journey. Remain mindful of the ever present distractions that will derail your balance if you don’t manage your boundaries.
  2. Where possible find fellow travellers – role models and champions who support new ways of working and demonstrate the possibilities. Over the past few years the Timewise Foundation’s Power Part Time initiative has been doing a great job of documenting many of these.
  3. Take it one step at a time. Be prepared for delays and detours and don’t beat yourself up when they happen. It’s in the nature of being a pioneer that there’s no route map to follow. And not everyone will like or support what you’re doing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Earlier generations of pioneering women created the trail into the corporate world for us. Let’s create a new trail and bring balance to the boardroom.

Reviewing progress and celebrating victories

We’ve reached that point in the year when even the busiest of us endeavour to carve out some time for reflection. To consider the year that’s finishing and how the New Year might be different. Reflection is generally a good thing and when we choose to carve out our path as a Balanced Leader it becomes essential. We’re slowly creating a new paradigm of 21st Century leadership and recognising that work-life balance is personal and dynamic. As we close 2016 I offer you five questions. Reflecting on your experiences will enable you to find better balance in 2017.

  1. When during this year did you feel your life was in balance? Please think hard and try to identify even the briefest moments. What made you notice that things were balanced? What else did you notice? What were you doing at the time? How could you do more of it in the coming year to make balance a more regular feeling? What were people around you doing to support you? How might you influence them to support you more regularly?
  2. How did your life roles change this year? Did your children grow another year older and less dependent on you? Or did your parents grow another year older and more dependent? How did your work circumstances change? Did you feel compelled to work longer hours? Were you able to find more flexibility – perhaps by working remotely? Did these changes highlight areas where your skills need to be enhanced?
  3. How did technology impact your quest for balance? If you’re a separator to what extent did other people’s expectations and behaviours add to your feelings of imbalance? If you’re an integrator did you spot areas where you need to set better boundaries?
  4. What role models did you come across this year? Who inspired you or opened your eyes to alternative working possibilities? Who encouraged you to strive for better balance? And where were you able to be a role model for others?
  5. When did you show courage? Perhaps in managing your boundaries or renegotiating expectations. When did you experience moments of mindfulness that led you to realise boundaries need to be more clearly defined?

So, as the old year closes we celebrate the small steps that led us in the direction of our vision, acknowledge the journey continues and ask ourselves: what’s the next small step for 2017?