Finding balance: lessons from my yoga practice

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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.

Navigating “No”

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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.

Trust yourself

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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:

Trust yourself.

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”.

Just Ask

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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:

Just Ask

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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

Just Listen

You may end up agreeing something that’s to your advantage.

Staying positive

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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!

Being more playful

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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.”

Tuning your radar

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Living and working in balanced ways often requires us to navigate restrictive corporate cultures that tell us “it won’t work here”. Overcoming these barriers can feel challenging – particularly if we believe we’re pioneering something new. However, in many cases perception differs from reality.

Working with corporate clients I’ve come to learn there’s often more going on under the radar than is at first apparent. When it comes to flexible working, HR policies may offer limited options; while the corporate culture insists these are only appropriate for junior roles. Rather than becoming frustrated we need to re-tune our radar so we can tease out valuable information that will support us. Specifically we must focus on three questions:

Where can I find suitable role models?

Not all flexible working happens in plain sight. People will often agree an informal arrangement with their boss on the proviso they keep it to themselves. If they work in other parts of the organisation we may never know that the off-site meeting this afternoon is actually attendance at a child’s sports day; or that a key member of another department always works at home on Mondays.

In an ideal world every employer would publicise their flexible working Role Models and make life easier for everyone. But we know this doesn’t always happen so we need to ask around. Internal networks that support women and parents are a good place to start.

Who has the expertise to help me shape my working pattern?

When I begin a corporate assignment one of my first tasks is often to identify what managers already know about flexible working. Typically I’ll ask them to share their experience – both within the current organisation and with previous employers.

I’m always surprised by the breadth of knowledge that emerges. This then becomes a key resource for developing innovative flexible working arrangements that suit the business.

What behaviour does this organisation reward?

Psychologists will tell you

“the behaviour that’s rewarded is the behaviour that continues”

So we need to understand what’s currently being rewarded and in most cases to change it. Far too many workplaces continue to reward presenteeism and long working hours.

Over the years I’ve come across employees passed over for lucrative assignments because they were working at home. Truly a case of ‘out of sight and out of mind’. Equally at risk are those who work less than full-time. There’s often a perception that stretch assignments require an individual to ‘put in the hours’.

If that’s common practice in your workplace what strategy can you develop to ensure you’re not penalised? One simple step is to ensure you’re clear about the outputs expected of you and broadcast your achievements. Such behaviour may feel uncomfortable for many women who see it as boasting. But maintaining a firm focus on outputs and achievements can change conversations. And conversations in turn can slowly change expectations and behaviours.

The more we know about what’s already working under the radar in our organisation the more powerful we can be in progressing our own balanced working. We can refute the “it won’t work here” claims and explore new possibilities with colleagues who’ve ‘been there: done that’.