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.



Work-life balance, flexible working and men

Portrait of a Hispanic middle-aged business man smiling and look

My plan had been to finish off the topic of flexible working last week and turn my attention to other issues we need to consider as we #rebalance2020. Then I found myself thinking about International Women’s Day which is coming up next weekend. This year’s theme is #EachForEqual – a call to every one of us to strive for a gender equal world.

In the workplace flexible working is a key factor in achieving gender equality at all levels of seniority. And the relationship of men to flexible working is a complex one.

Many younger men are keen to embrace flexibility, both to suit their own life interests and to help them balance work and family when the time comes. Unsurprisingly those who do are finding themselves experiencing the same prejudices that women have. Namely: the unspoken assumption that wishing to work flexibly shows lack of career commitment; and is certainly not something that can be accommodated at senior levels. Men too are experiencing the challenges created by inflexible and outmoded corporate cultures.

There is however, another group of men that has the power to change these inflexible and outmoded practices. That’s the male managers who often find themselves faced with flexible working requests.

I’ve no wish to imply men deliberately get in the way. It’s simply that as hard-pressed managers who may have very little (if any) training in how to manage flexible workers the temptation is to refuse a request without discussion. If you’re faced with this potential scenario I’d like to offer some advice.

1 Start with the right question

That’s not “can I work flexibly” but “tell me about your experiences of flexible working”. Find out if your manager has ever worked flexibly himself; and whether he’s previously managed flexible arrangements. Follow up by asking who he knows within the organisation or in the industry that is a good manager of flexible workers, These questions will help you understand your manager’s concerns; and identify who might be able to lend you a supportive hand.

2 Think about what’s in it for him

I’m assuming you’ve figured out your business case; so how does that benefit him? Is it a simple case of he gets to keep you as an employee so his time is not tied up in recruiting a replacement? Or does it go further in that switching your hours will – for example – make you more productive or more available to a currently under-served segment of your customer base?

3 Create a compelling vision of a better future

Rather than focusing on allaying concerns raised as a result of your initial questions; use positive psychology to co-create a vivid picture of how the new arrangements might look when working well; and the benefits this will create.

Evidence suggests that in the workplace the majority of men ‘want to do the right thing’ but are not always clear on what it is. Rather than assume it would be pointless, I encourage you to start a conversation and see where it leads. You might not only re-balance your own life; but also find yourself contributing to establishing a more gender balanced corporate world.

Ten tips for negotiating a flexible schedule

Funny Baby Girl In Glasses Reading A Book In A Library

Throughout February I’ve been focusing on various aspects of flexible working since it’s a key tool for many in their search for better balance. One of the most complex aspects seems to be negotiating a flexible schedule that suits both you and your employer. In this post as the month closes I’m sharing ten tips for success.

  1. Be very clear on your business case from the outset. Spend some time thinking about the tangible (i.e. costs and time) benefits and the less tangible ones (e.g. improved productivity when you’re living a more balanced life).
  2. Identify the flexible arrangement that’s most suitable for your needs and the type of job you have. If you need help to do this you can download my free workbook. Aim for some flexibility in your thinking rather than being rigid in your requirements from the outset (I recognise this can be difficult if external childcare arrangements are involved). This will give you some ‘wiggle room’ if your manager rejects your initial request as unworkable.
  3. But don’t fall into the trap of being too flexible in your efforts to show how grateful you are that your request has been granted. Without boundaries around your flexible working agreement you risk finding yourself always available for work while your new arrangement slowly erodes beneath you.
  4. Do some research before you start negotiating. In most organisations there’s plenty going on under the radar. Identifying allies who can support you in your quest for flexibility and role models who are pioneering change will make you confident you have a strong case.
  5. Focus on the positive. Your initial request may be met with a negative response. It’s easy to get defensive and the situation quickly spirals downwards. Instead ask positive questions that help you and your manager explore possibilities. What would balanced working look like? Not just for you but also for your entire team and your manager. What would need to happen for that to become a reality?
  6. Keep in mind that any negotiation is a series of small steps. Gradual change with minimal impact on the lives of those around you is easier to implement. Small steps stop you feeling overwhelmed; and mean you can make adjustments as you go along – so you’re always course correcting towards success.
  7. Recognise it’s down to you. The combination of your job role and your life circumstances makes your situation unique. So you’ll have to take charge, figure out what you need, connect with your power and find the confidence to go for it.
  8. Recognise you’re likely to be a pioneer – which may bring up challenges for you. If you’ve lined up those role models and champions; and if you’re clear on your business case you’ll find more confidence to step into this leadership role.
  9. Trust yourself. You’ve got this. You’re a better negotiator than you think you are. Relax, be more playfuland explore the options open to you. Finding balance is a journey not a destination.
  10. Good luck – you’re ready to go. And if you find you need further support from me check out my new VIP day coaching offer.

I trust you’ll find these steps a useful summary. I’ll be writing more on some of these topics in the coming months as we continue our journey to #rebalance 2020.

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.

Staying positive

1Watercolor Copy 10

Most of us will have come across the idea – perhaps as part of advice around managing stress – that the human brain is hard wired to focus on the negative. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Basic survival was often a challenge for our prehistoric ancestors so they had to fine tune their senses to danger. And when it appeared – perhaps in the form of a wild animal looking for its dinner – they had to take immediate action. Positive thinking at that moment would not have served them well. Fight or flight – fuelled by fear – would have been the better course of action.

Once the threat was over – however – psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has suggested that positive emotions may have helped them develop new, more effective future strategies. Fredrickson was one of the earliest pioneers of Positive Psychology when in 1998 she asked ‘What good are positive emotions?

I’m a great fan of Positive Psychology. I use it in my work. It was the topic of last month’s blog as well as earlier ones. (This one for example.)

This month I’d like to explain why I believe it’s a powerful component of the Balanced Leader’s toolkit. But before I do I want to clarify one thing: Positive Psychology is not the same as ‘positive thinking’. Nor does it ask us to ignore the negative aspects of life. There are times when we must acknowledge our more pessimistic emotions before we can move forward. What Positive Psychology offers us is a way to shift our focus. We no longer remain mired in the problem but move to a more generative state where we can develop new solutions.

When we perceive ourselves to be under threat our attention narrows and our body prepares for immediate action. In our complex, modern world this may not be the most productive response. Positive emotions – according to Fredrickson – ‘broaden and build’. They expand our attentional focus and enhance creative thinking. In this way we find new solutions and add to our skills repertoire.

Research has revealed that simply putting ourselves into a positive state before we begin a task will improve our performance. So, for example, when I facilitate workplace groups charged with developing more balance working practices I always begin by asking them to identify and list the benefits such practices will bring. Identifying the positive impact on their own lives makes it more likely they will focus on solutions rather than objections.

Positive emotions also have what Fredrickson calls an ‘undoing effect’ that is beneficial to our wellbeing. She maintains they:

 “loosen the hold that (no-longer-relevant) negative emotions gain on an individual’s mind and body”

To prove the point: think about how often you return home from a challenging day at work to the excited joy of your children or the loving attention of a pet. Suddenly you find workplace cares receding. This is what work-life balance researchers call ‘recovery time’.

We live in a complex world where multiple challenges vie for our attention every day. Tackling life with a positive focus will support our physical and mental well-being expand our personal resources and help us strengthen social bonds. As you choose to be a Balanced Leader do your best to stay positive!