Many of us can feel uncomfortable both hearing and saying the word no. It can close down a discussion and runs the risk of generating ill-feeling. It’s also a word we must embrace if we are to be Balanced Leaders.
There are of course two sides to no. The first is when it comes as a response to a request we’ve made. The second is when we find ourselves needing to use it.
When it comes to asking for a flexible working arrangement many women start with the assumption the response will be ‘no’. This is disempowering and closes down creative thinking. Instead begin with the assumption that what you want is possible – even if it takes some negotiating; and you start with a better mind set. No can be the start rather than the end of a conversation. As negotiation expert Natalie Reynolds points out:
When a door closes open it again. It’s a door – that’s how they work.
To reopen the door requires preparation. That means getting very clear on what it is you actually want. Rather than falling into the trap of all or nothing thinking consider whether there may be several suitable alternatives. For example: if you want flexibility to spend more time with the family you may realise a range of working options could suit you. The more flexible you are the more likely you will achieve your desired outcome.
Rather than focusing on a specific working arrangement from the start; ask yourself what a workable solution would look like. Do some research to discover what may already be happening under the radar inside your organisation. And who might have the flexible working experience that will reassure your manager.
Be willing to explore your manager’s concerns. Ask what s/he thinks a workable solution would look like. Ask open questions and listen – these are two excellent skills to cultivate for every area of your life.
Mind-set is as important as preparation. Remind yourself that flexible working is not an inconvenient concession your employer might grudgingly make. A well structured arrangement will not only improve your own well-being – and may be the difference between you staying or choosing to leave your job – but will also impact your productivity and engagement. So feel entitled to ask.
The reciprocal side of no comes when we find ourselves needing to use it – often to safeguard the boundaries that support our work-life balance.
Our desire to be liked will tempt us to say yes. Or we may fear a backlash in terms of a lost friendship. If that’s you then this advice from Holly Weeks – writing for the Harvard Business Review – will help you strengthen your resolve:
- Keep it neutral. Make it clear you’re saying no to the request and not the person.
- Be clear and decisive to avoid giving the false impression you may change your mind.
- Be honest about your compelling reason for refusal. Don’t dilute your no with lightweight excuses.
- Be prepared for pushback; and be realistic. Hearing no is likely to disappoint, or even generate anger.
When all’s said and done those of us who are parents know that our children can be our best teachers in how to navigate no. The skills we develop in dealing with toddler or teenage tantrums will prove invaluable in the workplace. As will the understanding that saying no is all part of the journey; and rarely final.
I’ve recently joined a number of Facebook groups established to support working mothers in their search for flexible jobs. It breaks my heart every time I read another post from a skilled professional woman who’s about to downshift her career because she’s unable to work her current job around her family commitments.
It doesn’t have to be like this. It’s the twenty first century and technology has progressed far enough to enable us to integrate work and caring responsibilities in better ways. It’s the key reason why I’m writing my book. Employers are missing out on the skills working mothers have spent so long developing; while the women themselves are likely to miss out on thousands of pounds in lost income. If you’re thinking of discarding your corporate career then I want to urge you – before you do:
The traditional wisdom has been that women don’t ask – at least where salary is concerned. Research has recently blown that theory out of the water. It seems women do ask, but do not receive as often than men do. Since women understand that, it’s likely to make them reticent in asking. But if we don’t ask then nothing will change.
Stereotype threat can make us reluctant to ask. We try to fit in. We pretend we can manage our caring responsibilities while we work hours that were established half a century ago for men with stay at home wives. We struggle to juggle and to find balance. The thing is: if we’re to become Balanced Leaders we need to stand out, make waves, pioneer what we want.
So how can we ask in a way that’s more likely to get us the flexible working arrangement we need?
- First of all, feel entitled to ask. If you’re a manager then flexible working is not an inconvenient concession on the part of your employer. It’s a smart business strategy to keep you and women like you in the talent pipeline – and to redress the gender balance in the organisation.
- Get very clear on your business case for asking. Identify the knowledge and skills your employer will lose if you leave. Not just the ones that can be replaced by recruiting an external candidate, but all the internal learning that means you know ‘how to get things done around here’; and that makes you so efficient at your job.
- Ask with curiosity. If you were to work your preferred arrangement what would be the impact – both positive and negative – on the stakeholders around you? What are your manager’s key concerns and how would your working relationship look if they were eliminated?
- Ask who else in the organisation has experience of flexible working at manager levels. Who might act as a source of information or an intermediary in your discussions?
- Finally remember that asking is just the start of the negotiation. It may not be resolved immediately. You may need to ask more questions so that you can come up with better solutions.
And if you’re an employer or manager with an employee who is asking please
You may end up agreeing something that’s to your advantage.
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.