Colleagues are people too

I had lunch with a friend a couple of days ago and she told me about some weird stuff that had been going on where she works. Gossiping on a level that even school children would balk at. Kind of like when you say someone is acting like a four-year old but also know that a four-year old would know not to act that way.

We ended up having a lot to talk about. I have also experienced some pretty low behavior in places I have worked, and it made me wonder: what is it that makes people lose all sense of what is polite and civilized?

We are taught at an early age to say hello, goodbye, thank you, and sorry. When we are kids we learn that it is bad to be impolite, and that bullying and other unacceptable behavior will be punished. But then when we become adults and are put together in an organization where hierarchy, power, stress, and uncertainty play in, we suddenly somehow forget all these things. Or have we simply forgotten that also colleagues are people who deserve to be treated with respect?

This is obviously not the case in every work community, but I have witnessed more adverse behavior during my years of work than I can count. And to put it bluntly, it’s just plain rude.

Lately, when talking about my research, I’ve been asked what a manager should do to create a sustainable work environment that people won’t want to opt out of. There are a number of things of course that one can do to create places where people can work in ways that work for them. However, the first and most important place to start is simply to get to know the people you work with.

Now I’m not talking about team building exercises, I’m talking about really getting to know them. That means sitting down and having real conversations with the people in your team. Asking them about what is important to them, what they think about and, not to forget, how they are doing. This will help you understand where a person is coming from and why a person acts or reacts in a certain way.

But most importantly, it also builds trust. We tend to trust people we know – really know, not just think we know.

Besides, we all have a lot more going on in our lives than just work. Things that happen to us outside of work invariably affect us when we are at work, but often we aren’t exactly encouraged to bring those other parts of us with us to work. We sort of leave our other selves at the door. But being allowed to come to work as a whole person, and not just a worker, can make a huge difference.

Unfortunately, however, a lot of managers don’t seem to want to have conversations like that. Maybe they don’t want to make the time, or maybe they’re worried it might get difficult or ugly. Isn’t it then just better not to know? That answer is no. We need to also have the difficult conversations in order to be able to see each other for who we really are, and in order to make working environments humane.

But most important of all, we need to treat each other with respect. So, if you are one of those people who has forgotten that your colleagues are people too, dig deep down in your memory. What was that again that your mother (or father or anyone else who brought you up) taught you?

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Four years as a blogger

It’s November, one of the darkest months where I live; the days are short and it tends to rain a lot.  The light seems to get sucked right out of the air down into the wet, black asphalt of the streets and sidewalks, and the lack of light can sometimes really get to me.

But November is also a bright month for me in many ways. It is the birthday month of a person who is very special to me, and it marks the anniversary of my blog. It was in November four years ago that I posted my very first blog post. Can you believe it? This is The Opting Out Blog’s fourth anniversary! Time sure flies, whether or not you’re having fun.

I really feel like I’ve come a long way in four years. When I started blogging, I had just received my PhD, and like now I thought, wow, I really have come a long way. I had learned so much while working on my PhD. Whole new worlds had opened up to me, which, I might add, doesn’t make life easier or less complicated, but it sure makes life interesting. Realizing that issues and situations that have seemed black and white and pretty much straight forward before, in reality are much more complex and problematic with no easy answers, can be troubling. It means that you can no longer shrug your shoulders and comfort yourself by saying that’s just the way things are, because it isn’t that simple. A friend and colleague of mine once likened it to swallowing the red pill, and I have to say, that’s exactly how it feels sometimes.

That’s the thing with knowledge, the more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know. The more you know, the harder it is to find easy answers. Not a comforting thought, I might add, in these times of global upheaval and destructive politics that we’re seeing in many places.

But just like four years ago, I again feel that I have come a long way. I remember the first time I posted a post on my blog. Being quite a private person, the thought of writing a text and making it visible to the world was literally terrifying. I wrote a draft of my first post, showed to my husband, and we both agreed that it needed rewriting. I rewrote it and showed it to him again and this time he liked it so with minor edits I posted it. I almost hyperventilated as I pressed the ‘publish’ button, but it got a lot of positive responses, especially from my own network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, for which I am forever grateful. The following week I wrote the next post and showed it to my husband again. He read it and liked it but carefully said that if I was going to start blogging a lot I needed to be able to write posts without him checking everything first. The following week I posted my third post without anyone checking it and although I broke out in a sweat again, I didn’t die and I started to trust my judgement. What I did though in the very beginning, was imagine my sister – who is no nonsense and whose opinion I really value – reading it and if she (in my mind) bought it I would post it.

So there I was, blogging every week. The response I got was tremendous, but I was no blogger. I just couldn’t identify. Blogging for me was something completely different and what I was doing was rather publishing a weekly column on topics related to my research. I think it must have taken about a year before I finally looked myself in the mirror and admitted that yes, I was a blogger. I think by now I’ve even added it to my Twitter profile, so you can see, I have really come a long way!

Four years later, whether or not I’m a blogger doesn’t take up a lot of mental space anymore. What I do think about, however, is what I want to do with my blog. I’m not a believer in changing things just for the sake of it. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? But I’ve had ups and downs with my blog and have noticed that as I’ve evolved and grown into the person I am today; my blog has evolved with me. For a while I posted less frequently. It coincided with a time when I was trying to figure out what I really wanted, where my opting out and in journey would take me next. Now I’m posting more regularly again, and I’ve noticed that my writing has taken a more personal turn – something that would have terrified and horrified me four years ago!

But I’m just going to go with it and see where it takes me. I don’t want to overanalyze my writing and let this blog continue being an outlet for me where I can write on my own terms and not take into account editors, reviewers, journals or publishers. Also, writing blog posts often helps me figure out where I stand regarding both my own life and happenings on a larger scale.

What I’m trying to say is thank you for being there for me during these past four years. I value all the comments and responses I get – more that you know!

 

Make no mistake

Last week I got to visit the painting studio of a very talented Finnish artist, Fanny Tavastila (check her out on Instagram, I really love her paintings: @fannytavastila). Seeing her space and hearing her talk about her creative process was both interesting and inspirational, but it also gave me food for thought.

One of the things she talked about was how she deals with mistakes. Like when she adds something to a painting and changes her mind, but can’t conceal it completely. Or if something happens and leaves a mark, which can’t be corrected.

What she does is simply let it be a part of the painting. The reason is that any mistakes are part of the creative process and the painting simply wouldn’t be what it is without that process. So she doesn’t worry about it too much. After all, it’s also part of what makes that particular painting unique. It’s part of the story.

This really resonated with me, because isn’t this also true for people? I have made plenty of mistakes in my life – we all have. But when asked what I would do differently if I could do it over again, I’m not sure that I would do anything differently. Even though there are situations I really wouldn’t have minded doing without, without those mistakes I wouldn’t be who I am today. I mean to be honest, the bigger the mistake, the more I learned about me and the world around me.

Besides, I didn’t plan on making mistakes. I was just acting to the best of my knowledge and ability, because that was who I was at the time. Now, luckily, thanks to my mistakes I know better.

But this is actually a problem in society and in many organizational settings today. We aren’t very forgiving of ourselves or of others, and we tend to strive for perfection. We worry about making mistakes at work, even though we are bound to make them if we take risks or develop something new. And we cannot learn new things if we don’t try.

So on the one hand we talk about the learning organization, and on the other hand we don’t really have a lot of patience for mistakes. Although risk taking is seen as a strength, mistakes are seen as a weakness. That, if anything, is a contradiction.

Another thing people often see as a weakness, is asking for help or admitting that they don’t know something. The other night, my husband and I were having another one of our kitchen table discussions, and he was telling me about an article he had read about corporate leaders who struggle when they don’t have all the answers. They often feel alone because they don’t have anyone they can ask for help.

My spontaneous reaction was, well what about their team? That’s why experts are recruited, to solve problems and provide answers to difficult questions so that ‘we’ as an organization can figure out what the way forward is. No one should even expect the leader to have all the answers, but still, apparently, they often don’t feel comfortable asking for help and admitting that they don’t.

Think about it. If you can’t support each other as a team, should it really be called a work community? I mean, to me it doesn’t really sound like a community at all, it sounds more like a random group of people.

But the same goes for others too. It is not only leaders who have trouble admitting they don’t know in the fear of being perceived as weak, or dumb, or just unprepared. What I have found though, is that if you’re wondering about something you should just ask, even if you’re worried it’s a stupid question. If it isn’t clear to you, it probably isn’t clear to others either. And no matter what others may think, the one who actually asks finds out, while the one who doesn’t just continues not to know.

Put your money where your mouth is

Yesterday was the first day of the rest of my life. That’s what it felt like. And Wednesday marked the end of an era. After almost six years with my previous employer, I have changed jobs. Or actually I’m still doing the same job – my research project on men opting out – I’m just doing it at another university.

It feels like a really good move for me. I’m a sociologist and for the first time since I got my PhD, I’m going to be surrounded by sociologists and social psychologists and that feels really exciting. I’ll be meeting new people and finding new opportunities for collaboration. In that way, changing universities before the end of a project is not a bad idea at all, even though it wasn’t originally part of the plan. It will give me the chance to prepare for my next step before I’m actually there.

However, my decision to move was not only based on thoughts of the future. What triggered it all was actually an unfortunate chain of events that made me realize that I simply couldn’t continue working there anymore. The routines (or lack thereof) and practices were so detrimentally against everything I stand for. I make a living researching, writing, and talking about sustainable work solutions, workplace wellbeing, and work environments that are respectful of the individual and their needs. I’ve made it my mission to change organizations for the better, so you can imagine the cognitive dissonance of working in an environment that just didn’t live up to these standards. It felt hypocritical.

Well, I reached a breaking point and decided it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I realized that it was time to expect a sustainable and respectful working environment and culture not only for others but also for myself – for me as an employee.

It hasn’t been easy. Change never is, even if it is good change. In fact, the other day I read something that really resonated with me. It was a post about decision making and how making good decisions can be painful but that you have to push through. And it has been painful, it really has. Especially the limbo I was in before I was able to actually move.

But I know it was the right decision for me. I now look forward to just getting on with it, and to being able to look myself in the mirror and be proud of actually walking the talk.

Shhh… can you hear that? That, my friends, is the sound of me getting back into the driver’s seat!

When you have nothing to do

I find myself sitting here with time to kill. My job right now is just to wait and it’s taking longer than I thought. I decided to come to a nearby café for a cup of coffee while I wait, but I’m kicking myself for not bringing anything with me to do. I have a lot work to do and I’m thinking I should have planned this better and brought my laptop with me. Or a book to read because that would at least have given me something to do.

But as I sit here at the café table, looking out the window, I have absolutely nothing to do. I sigh because I didn’t bring a pen, so I can’t even write a blog post on the napkin that came with my coffee. The thought of writing a blog post makes me start racking my brain, trying to come up with an idea – any idea – for a post. I draw a blank. Not only do I have nothing to do, I have nothing to say either. I feel completely empty. Except for the hot coffee in my belly of course.

So I sit and look out the window. Cars go by. A couple stands together at a railing, looking down at something below them. One of them is wearing a yellow hood, a fleck of sunshine on this otherwise grey day. But now they walk on.

I pull out my cellphone and check my newsfeeds, but get bored with that rather quickly and I feel dumb for having such a hard time not doing anything. Or I realize that it isn’t even that. It’s more that I feel guilty about not using what should be my working day more efficiently. I’m not using my time wisely.

Even though I know how important time for reflection is. Even though we all need down time for our sanity and wellbeing (although we seldom take it). Even though I know this, believe this, advocate this, and it is part of my research.

It’s just that it’s so hard to unlearn what we have learned. Even if we know that it is the right thing to do.

Then I think maybe that is what I should write my blog post about? Maybe I can just write it on my phone?

So that’s what I do and once again I fail miserably at doing nothing. But I did get some reflection done and the coffee was divine.

The unbearable lightness of success

I’ve had a strange past few weeks. As you know, I threw a book launch-art exhibit three weeks ago, and it was a great success. I’m so pleased. But it has also coincided with what I will for the time being just cryptically call ‘workplace turbulence’, which made the whole event a bit unreal to tell you the truth.

But still, people came, I spoke, we had sparkling wine. I received lots of gorgeous flowers, which I have enjoyed immensely. And I’m so grateful for the supportive and positive energy I felt from everyone who came. Thank you.

However, although I loved every second, I am also one of those outgoing introverts who likes being with people but gets my energy from being alone. Therefore, I always feel completely drained after experiences like my event. Plus, as is typical after periods of high stress, I also came down with the flu a couple of days later.

There I was, lying in bed, too sick to work. I was exhausted and frankly just wanted to hide under the covers. At the same time a radio interview and an article about me and my new paperback aired and was published, that I of course shared on social media while pondering life’s contrasts and ironies. While I was sick and just generally miserable, there was my face, smiling out over social media newsfeeds and radiating success.

Well, I’m better now, the post-event exhaustion has worn off, and my job situation is sorting itself out. A few days ago, my daughter and I had a very meaningful conversation about what it means to be successful. I told her about the irony and the mixed feelings of the past few weeks. We agreed that although achievement and success feel great when you have worked hard and get to see the result of that hard work, this type of success can also be very fleeting. Being recognized in the media can be flattering and exciting, but it doesn’t ultimately make you a happy person.

So, what is success then really? Or at least a more lasting feeling of success?

For me it is having a meaningful life. It means doing meaningful and important work, important in that it adds to the greater good. And it means meaningful activities and experiences. This includes relationships, good conversations, and spending time with and being there for the people who are important to me. And I know I share this feeling with many others who opt in to lifestyles where they are able to make more space for relationships.

But this is something we rarely talk about today, especially not in conjunction with the term success. And our hectic lifestyles really don’t enable it either.

This is something to think about. What do you want to see when you look back on your life?

Controlling the uncontrollable and the art of letting go

A feeling of not having control is difficult to deal with. In my research I have found that when people cannot control things they try to compensate for it and create a feeling of control by controlling other, smaller issues. For example, when people feel they have no control over their lives or their time, they tend to be control freaks (pardon the expression) regarding things like organized cupboards, clean homes and excel spreadsheets where they keep track of family members’ whereabouts every moment of the day. I have seen this in my research, and I have also seen how people let go of the small things when they gain a sense of control. People have laughingly told me that after having opted out they became so disorganized because they just didn’t feel the need to control the minutiae anymore.

I have experienced this too.

However, an interesting thing I realized when I started analyzing my passion for silk painting (yes, I know, I am capable of overanalyzing just about anything) was how, when I go between a feeling of control and feeling of not having control, I can actually see it in my painting.

One thing that I really love about silk painting is the way the paints interact with the fabric. It’s almost magical. The paints tend to spread like crazy along the threads of the fabric, and there are different ways of trying to control that, if that is what you want to do. Because there is something so satisfying about letting the colors spread and merge and in a way dance together on the silk and just see it happening before your eyes. You can drop water or alcohol on the colors or use salts to create different effects and the exciting thing is that you never really know what you will end up with. After the paint has dried, you see what you have and then you take it from there.

Sort of like in life. You never really know what you will end up with, but you invariably end up with something and then you have to accept that in order to be able to take it from there. It’s called working with what you have.

Well, during this past year, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of controlling the uncontrollable. I like painting without using gutta, a paste-like material that creates borders over which the colors won’t spread. I like it when the colors spread and I like being able to control this without the help of techniques like gutta.

This past year I have noticed a change in my style of painting. I’ve moved away from big sweeping brush strokes and abstract color schemes to create exact lines through colorful florals or black silhouettes. Only when I have been mad or frustrated have I deviated from this (that’s when I’ve taken my frustration out on the silk, and it works like a charm). But on the most part my painting has been very controlled.

Thinking back, this has coincided with a year of searching and wondering what I should do with my life, where I want to go next. I have been feeling unsure and I have lacked a sense of control, and it suddenly became so clear to me that I, in part, have been compensating for that in my art.

Now, however, I have a plan. I’ve figured things out and once again feel like I am on the track towards my future. I have gained a sense of control and, correspondingly, I see the result of this in my painting. This summer, when the pieces started falling into place, I started yearning for less control in my painting, for larger brushstrokes and more improvisation.

But ironically, even when I try to control my painting, it’s still just an illusion. You can never really have full control, just an illusion of control. With silk paints, as in life, you never really know what will happen and where you will end up. But you have to accept what comes at you because only then can you move on to the next thing, in an informed and sustainable way. It’s just easier to let go when you feel safe.