Whose reality, whose truth?

After the US presidential elections, Brexit and all the other worrisome developments we have seen around Europe, this is a question that comes to the fore as people all over the world struggle to understand what’s going on. Whose reality is more real? Whose truth is more true? Because one thing has become painfully clear, we live in a time when we are finding it very difficult, to not only understand each other, but also to see each other for who we are. Thanks to preference-driven media (you get more of the types of things you click on) we read what we like, see what we want, and communicate and socialize mostly with those who are like-minded and of similar opinions. This makes life very comfortable and convenient, but it doesn’t make us aware nor prepare us for any other opinions or realities that may be out there.

This is kind of ironic considering all the talk of celebrating diversity that we hear in the organizational context. With markets becoming more global, organizations have to have a workforce that can meet the diversity and multiplicity of wants and needs among customers. Diversity has quickly become a strategic issue, something that every self-respecting company today needs to pay attention to.

However, on the most part companies, unfortunately, don’t really live up to their own rhetoric. Managers still tend to hire like-minded people, and although there may be some awareness of cultural diversity, organizations don’t generally recognize all the other types of differences concerning lifestyle choices, preferences, and needs among their employees, and they certainly don’t seem to embrace them. Although research has shown that diversity does provide real advantages. As I once heard Mellody Hobson say, if everyone in a management team is in agreement, run because that is definitely not good!

But back to the media bubbles we create for ourselves. Media providers increasingly provide us with what we think we want. But the thing is, what we want and what we need is not the same thing. We need to acknowledge that our reality is not the only reality, nor is it the most important reality. To quote one of my favorite authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, there is a danger of a single story.

I have a friend and colleague who I admire very much. One reason is that she doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable; she doesn’t only talk to like-minded people. She is an academic and an activist, and she actively engages in public debates. I was there when she defended her doctoral thesis a couple of months ago, and I have to say, it was one of the most inspirational and thought provoking events I have ever attended. In her thesis, one of the things she argues for is to replace the idea of the universe with what she calls the pluriverse in order to both acknowledge and embrace the diversity and difference between peoples, realities, perspectives, and truths that make up this world in which we live. Maria recently published her lectio (the talk she gave at her defense) on her blog Sustaining Roots. Go check it out; it’s a great read.

Only by seeing, acknowledging and accepting the multitude of stories, realities, and truths that make up our pluriverse, can we create a world for all of us. A world where we can all thrive, not just some of us, and where we can do so in a sustainable way, without destroying this planet we call home.

Harmony, not balance

The other day when I was meeting with a student about her thesis, I was introduced to the career website glassdoor.com, which had just released a list over the best jobs for work-life balance. I had honestly never heard of this site before, and my student was telling me about how she and others in her year spend a lot of time talking about what kinds of jobs they are going to apply for once they graduate from business school. It turns out that they look to Glassdoor for advice and that they base their career decisions on questions like balance and quality of life. Now, it’s not that they aren’t ambitious or don’t have what it takes, these student are high-achieving and have a good chance of landing great jobs when they graduate. To them, there is more to life than work, and they want to have more than ‘just’ a career. Rightfully so, if you ask me.

I like talking to students. It gives me a glimpse of what our future holds. They are after all the ones, who are going to be our future leaders. This conversation about work-life balance and Glassdoor was intriguing to me, but it also gave me hope. These students are going into working life with their eyes wide open, and they know what they are looking for in potential employers.

Work-life balance is a funny thing though. I say funny because it seems to be on people’s lips everywhere, but at the same time I myself find the concept quite problematic (see for example my post Who wants balance anyway?). As a concept, work-life balance came about as a critique of the idea of an ideal worker, of someone who dedicates his or her life to a job. But that isn’t really what has been achieved. Work-life balance has rather become something that concerns mostly women, which at the same time is problematic especially for women, because it strengthens the idea that the valuable, masculine domain of paid work is separate and best kept separate from the less valued, private domain of non-paid (care) work, where mostly women reside. And to be honest, this separation of work from life is one of the things that I find most problematic about the whole idea of work-life balance. My work is such an important and integrated part of my life, which is also exactly the way I want it.

A colleague and I have been working with concepts of balance for the past couple of months and one thing we have found among many women who opt out to adopt new lifestyles, is that this is exactly what they do. They stop seeing their work as separate from their lives, and they stop looking for balance between artificially separated entities. Instead of keeping one from the other and finding balance between the two, they look for harmony and somewhat seamlessly interlace and move between work and other parts of life. This, in turn, provides them with a sense of coherence and authenticity, which is important.

I have a quote tacked to the wall above my desk:

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Mahatma Gandhi

To me this is true on so many levels. I think harmony is the answer, rather than balance.

Changing the world one blog post at a time

I have been asked a lot lately about crisis as a catalyst for change. In my research on opting out, this is something I have seen across the board. Everyone I have interviewed or talked to who has opted out and adopted a new lifestyle has experienced some sort of crisis that pushed them to make a change. It could be anything from an identity crisis or something at work that went against their values, to sickness or even a death in the family. The nature of the crisis varies, but all of them experienced something that made them realize that they just couldn’t go on the way they had; something that provided them with a sense of urgency.

As I talk about this idea of crisis as a catalyst for change, a question I sometimes get is, if people experience a crisis that pushes them to opt out, is their lifestyle change really an active choice or did they have no choice but to opt out? Well, choice is complicated and there are always both push and pull factors. Just because one is pushed to make a choice, or a choice is made from a number of less that optimal alternatives, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a choice.

What we’re looking at is actually just the nature of change. Whether we’re talking about individual lives or implementing change on an organizational level, a sense of urgency is what is needed. Change can be daunting. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone and into the unknown is uncomfortable, which is why people don’t usually change their behavior until they’ve had that light bulb moment that provides them with the sense that something just has to be done, now.

This is what my colleagues and I used to do when I worked as a consultant. We would help our clients implement organizational change by providing everyone in the organization with the opportunity to have a light bulb moment of their own, and it worked like a charm. Only after having this light bulb moment, did they also feel that sense of urgency and understand that change is necessary. And only if they changed their own behavior was change on an organizational level possible, because an organization is made up of its employees and their actions.

So the fact that people who opt out experience a crisis before making a lifestyle change is only natural. It provides them with the sense of urgency. But opting out and adopting a new lifestyle can be quite a radical. Changes can also be made on a smaller scale, and sometimes it is only a small change that is needed in order to greatly improve one’s sense of wellbeing.

This is what a good friend of mine did a while ago. Those of you who regularly read my blog will know just how much I love working from home. I often write about the advantages of having real flexibility and more control over when, where, and how you work. However, my friend is employed by an organization where working offsite is unheard of, and she often mentions how she wishes she could too. Well, get this. One day she decided she would ask anyway if she could work from home for one day, and grudgingly she was given permission. It just made me so happy. It made me feel that my research is really making a difference. Maybe, just maybe, my friend is the start of something new in that particular organization. Maybe more of her colleagues will now start asking for more flexibility and maybe it will even lead to changes in company policy. Who knows?

But one thing I do know is that if you want to do something differently at work, the first step is to ask. If you never ask, the answer will always be no. And asking may just make all the difference.