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:
- 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;
- 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!);
- 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;
- 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.
Imposter syndrome is a phrase that’s often bandied about in the media; the suggestion being that it’s a key roadblock to women’s career success. Often conflated with poor self-esteem and one’s ‘inner critic’ true imposter syndrome is rare and affects both men and women equally. To grow into Balanced Leaders it’s important we understand what Imposter syndrome really is: not least because research has shown it can contribute to work-family conflict.
Imposter syndrome – or more accurately impostor phenomenon – was first identified by two American Psychologists back in 1978. It’s defined by six clear characteristics: feelings of intellectual phoniness; a belief that one’s success is attributed to luck or hard work and not ability; a lack of confidence in one’s ability to repeat past achievements; a fear of being evaluated by others and failure; the inability to derive pleasure from past achievements and a fear that one’s incompetence will be discovered by others.
It’s quite possible to feel like an imposter without suffering from imposter syndrome. Doing our best to appear competent in a professional role and also be a good parent can lead to feelings that we’re not achieving either – that we’ll be found out as a fraud. Often that’s a consequence of having little clarity in what’s expected of us in both our workplace and home roles. We take on the expectations of others and try to live up to them. Perhaps it’s time to re-consider and write our own role scripts.
Our feelings of being an imposter can be exacerbated by the complexities inherent in the modern workplace; and which increasingly call on us to navigate circumstances we’ve never before encountered. As women we know we’re likely to be judged harshly should we make a mistake; so it’s important that we connect with our inner power and grow ourselves into the leaders we want to become.
Research has shown that our feelings of being an imposter can lead to emotional exhaustion which in turn can result in work to family conflict. This happens when we feel that playing our family role is made more difficult by the demands of our work role. Psychologists explain this by talking about the Conservation of Resources. Each of us has finite physical and psychological resources and we do our best to guard these. When we feel like an imposter we are likely to expend more of these resources in order to do a good job, leaving us depleted during our family time.
The good news is research has also shown that when we feel supported by our employer we are less likely to suffer the damaging effects of feeling like an imposter. So we can help ourselves by:
- Asking our manager to clearly define the outcomes expected of us;
- Asking for the resources we need to be effective in our work;
- Identifying what gets in the way of us achieving our workplace objectives and doing our best to eliminate those obstacles.
At the heart of the imposter phenomenon lies a deep-seated and flawed self-image constructed over many years. Changing that self-image is likely to require psychological support from someone qualified to help. But feeling like an imposter some of the time is almost inevitable as we navigate life’s challenges and changes. In all likelihood you’re not suffering from a syndrome; you’re simply experiencing the normal doubts and uncertainties that go with undertaking something new. The good news is you’re more than capable of resolving those doubts and uncertainties; and taking the necessary action that will get you to where you want to be.
The days leading up to the start of a new year are traditionally the time to set resolutions that will in some way improve our lives. And in 2019 resolving to improve our work-life balance is more essential than ever before.
Recent research conducted by my colleagues from the Work-Life Balance working group revealed that as the UK battles the inexorable trend towards an #AlwaysOn workplace culture less than half of employers have a work life balance policy or provide any guidelines on switching off from technology. So it seems that if we want better balance we’ll need to take control of it ourselves. My new book – which walks you through the process of developing your own balanced arrangement – will not be published until the spring. In the meantime here are three simple principles that will support you in having a more balanced life in 2019.
- Know where to draw the line. That’s the boundary line between work and the rest of your life. Traditionally work-life balance researchers have grouped people into separators who like to keep work separate from the rest of their lives; and integrators who prefer to combine the two. In reality it’s two ends of a continuum. So while modern life increasingly demands integration a degree of separation can aid recovery from life’s stresses and lead to improved well-being. That might mean deciding to have one ‘non-work’ day at the weekend to devote to family; or perhaps agreeing not to check emails and text messages for a couple of hours around family mealtimes. Uninterrupted time with loved ones enables us to be more fully present so we enjoy their company and connect more deeply.
What would suit you? Choose where you draw the line – and resolve to stick to it in 2019.
- Re-write the rules. I’m talking about the rules which govern the way we play the key roles of parent and worker. Everybody has their own opinion of what makes a good mother or father; of what it means to be a professional; of what makes a dedicated and ambitious employee. You’ll never meet the sum total of those expectations – so set your own instead. What will make you feel you’re doing a good job as a parent? Your children’s needs will change as they grow and mature. And there will come a point when they will fly the nest altogether: which will give you more scope to focus on other aspects of your life such as work. In the meantime what will make you feel you’re keeping control of your career? Do you want to work less hours? Or simply have the flexibility to work around family needs?
Again, the choice is yours. Set your own markers of success and ignore the judgements of others.
- Work intelligently. Whatever your current workload there’s always scope for reducing the amount of time you devote to low value activities. Can you automate or even eliminate these? For example, a coaching client of mine faced a daily mountain of emails from people who saw her as the quickest route to resolving their workplace issues. Then she got involved in a high priority project which meant letting her emailers know she would not be responding for a fortnight. At the end of that period her email load had reduced by almost 80% as people found ways of resolving their dilemmas elsewhere. As a consequence she found she had more time to focus on the high value elements of her job without the constant email interruptions.
So what are the high value tasks in your work? What’s getting in the way of you doing them? And how can you reduce or eliminate those obstacles?
Three simple principles that can be implemented in small steps; and will lead to better balance in 2019.
When it comes to balancing work and other parts of life the world is awash with experts. The ones that insist you need to strive for integration or blend since there’s no such thing as ’work-life balance’. The ones that blog about what works for them confident that it will also work for you. The ones that reduce the whole exercise to (choose a number) of useful tips – often along the lines of “remember to schedule regular me-time”.
I consider myself at the forefront of work-life balance experts – which is why I don’t believe in being so prescriptive.
If you have an initial consultation with me the first thing I will ask you is “how would you know if your life was in balance?” And if we have that same conversation five years later and I ask you the same question, it’s very likely your answer will be very different.
I know that work-life balance is both personal and dynamic; and there’s no “one size fits all”. Consequently both this blog and my coaching simply offer guidelines – based on academic research and practical experience – within which you can find your own route to Balanced Leadership.
So if – like me – you’re become confused by the plethora of often conflicting advice, I want to offer you some very simple guidance:
You know best whether it feels right for you to separate or integrate work and other parts of life. And you know that what feels right now may change in the future as your family circumstances and their demands on you change.
You know best how to play your various life roles. Which ones need more focus at present and where to dial down the intensity. You know you’re doing your best as you juggle through each day. Show yourself compassion and don’t let others judge you harshly.
Eminent Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim pioneered the concept of the ‘good enough parent’; while in the workplace the Pareto Principle essentially urges us to do the same.
So trust yourself to be good enough. Take five minutes of quiet time to connect with your deep inner knowing and identify what you need at this time – recognising that your needs will change as your life circumstances change. Trust that you know what works for you and stick with it. As the saying goes: “done is better than perfect”.
Children are a powerful reminder of the pleasure and potential of play. As we watch them try on ‘pretend’ roles and navigate relationships in team games we know they’re building future skills. Some of my most joyful memories are ones of how my son and I would play together as we walked to his pre-school.
According to play researcher Stuart Brown play not only lifts us out of the mundane but also helps us make new cognitive connections useful for our everyday lives. Through play we can learn new skills without being directly at risk.
Our human need for play is such that Brown asserts the opposite of play is not work but depression. Despite this our need for variety and challenge can get buried under an overwhelming sense of responsibility as we grow to adulthood and take on caring roles.
Women – in particular – can often feel they have little time or energy for play. Life becomes a constant juggle between work and home responsibilities. If that’s you then you may want to treat yourself to a copy of Barbara Brennan’s book ‘The Gift of Play – Why Adult Women Stop Playing And How To Start Again’. In it she describes her own journey back to “heart play” – the kind of play that speaks to your heart and soul.
Play is not only essential to recovery – a critical factor in maintaining good work-life balance – but can also be a powerful tool for reinventing our careers and ourselves.
In her book Act Like A Leader Herminia Ibarra suggests we engage in what she calls identity play as a way of exploring new possible selves and stepping into bigger leadership roles. As she explains: when we work we’re serious but when we play we meander, change course and have less purpose. When we’re playing with who we might become we’re exploring new possibilities without committing to any of them. We hold our future selves lightly and assess our options.
According to Ibarra
“playfulness changes your mind set from a performance focus to a learning orientation”
We become less stressed, more curious and more open.
Brown believes play also has improvisational potential since we’re not locked into rigid ways of doing things. This opens us to serendipity and chance; and can be a powerful asset in navigating life’s uncertainties. He says:
“When people are able to find that sense of play in their work, they become truly powerful figures.”
Will you make a little more time for play in your life? Will you focus on being a little more playful in your approach to daily tasks – both at work and at home?
As Brown says:
“It can be transformative.”
Becoming a Balanced Leader challenges us to hold a vision of living a balanced life as the foundation for our plans and actions. To succeed we need strategies and tools that work for us; together with a map to point us in the right direction. Over the past few months I’ve been pulling my expertise into a structured model which serves to do exactly that. On the eve of National Work Life Week if you’re in the UK and Work Family Month if you’re in the US I’m sharing that model.
I chose the acronym PROPEL as I know that following my model can literally propel your career to new levels.
P is for preferences in the way we choose to manage our work-life balance. While some of us are avid integrators others feel uncomfortable as technology and corporate expectations push us further and further in that direction. These are the separators who prefer to keep firm boundaries between work and the rest of life.
R is for the roles we play and the ways in which we play them. We begin to understand we have choices and that role scripts can become outdated. We can focus on combining roles in ways that enrich our lives and reduce the conflicts we may feel.
When we work through these first two steps we become much clearer on how we want to structure our lives and manage our boundaries. We can then begin to explore possibilities for redesigning our work.
O is for the options open to us within the culture and practices prevalent in our workplace. While some cultures openly embrace working from home others frown on reduced hours at senior levels. Gently pushing the boundaries of what’s currently acceptable is more likely to succeed than proposing radical changes that make people feel uncomfortable.
P is for possibilities. For considering how we can craft our work role to make the most of our key skills. So we become an even more valuable asset to our employers; and more productive and efficient into the bargain.
E is for the essential skills we need to make a success of all this. Many of these skills will already be in our portfolio – we may simply need to upgrade them. A small number – such as job crafting – may need to be learnt. The good news is that these are the same essential skills we’ll need to be successful leaders in both our workplaces and our lives.
L is for the leadership qualities we’re cultivating and the Balanced Leader we’re becoming.
So there it is: the evidence based road map to becoming a Balanced Leader. Straightforward, easy to understand and built on twenty five years expertise!
Four centuries after Shakespeare wrote about the world being a stage and the men and women players, the American psychologist Donald Super proposed “A Life-Span, Life-Space approach to Career Development”. He identified nine roles played by human beings as they progress through life; explaining a role as: A set of expectations – defined both by the individual and the wider society – of a person occupying a position. So, for example, the roles of parent and worker each come with a set of expectations – a script.
Super proposed four main theatres where roles were played: the home; the community; the school (including college and university); and the workplace. At the time he developed his theory it was likely that a specific role would be played out primarily in one theatre. Over the years – however – the goalposts have moved; so that – for example – the role of parent is initially played primarily in the home but may also be played in the school and the workplace as the need arises. Similarly the role of worker is increasingly also being played in theatre of the home or the community Third Space.
Where do these role scripts come from? Consider – for example – how you play your roles as parent and worker and answer the following questions:
- Where did you learn the “script” for the role? Who is judging how successful you are in the role?
- Is the script for the role still current – or have the goalposts moved? How could you change the script to better serve you? (Perhaps just by making some small adjustments?)
- Are there other ways you could play the role which would enable better balance in your life? If so, what are the likely implications for the people around you?
Role Conflict or Role Enrichment?
Most of us play several roles simultaneously which means they impinge on each other. According to work life balance theory we can choose to see this negatively and as depleting our energy – the result of juggling conflicting demands. Or we can view each role as enriching the totality of our life experience. In this earlier post I explained how Separators tend to feel more conflict while Integrators experience more enrichment.
Viewing the two roles as complementing each other can bring about a more positive outlook. But as both roles make demands on our time and our emotions we may need to make adjustments in order to achieve that more positive outlook.
Back to those parent and worker roles then:
- How much of your physical time does each take up? And how much mental or emotional energy?
- Could you change the impact of these roles on your overall work life balance by reducing – even slightly – the amount of time or emotional energy you’re investing in them?
Super said decision points occur before and at the time of taking on a new role, of giving up an old role, and of making significant changes in the nature of an existing role. And that these decisions are often influenced by the other roles we’re playing.
Make this moment your decision point. Take control and choose how you’ll play your roles going forward. Since you first learned the scripts it’s likely the goal posts have moved. And – given the pace of modern life – will continue to move. To be a Balanced Leader you’ll need to shift your scripts accordingly.