Be yourself

When I was at my first job out of business school and applying for my second, a very supportive senior manager who I had worked with gave me a piece of friendly advice. She said, “Try not to be so ‘nice’.”

Now, you have to understand where she was coming from. She was a woman who had probably learned the hard way to not be too nice or too feminine in order to get to where she was, and she was trying being helpful. Maybe she was wishing someone had given her the same advice when she was starting out in her career. And I did appreciate her taking an interest in me and wanting to help.

Well, my job search led to an interview. Behind the interviewer there was a huge mirror and about half way through the interview I noticed my reflection. I was scowling and for a second I didn’t even recognize myself. I was shocked by how unfriendly I looked and tried to relax my face. A couple of weeks later I was offered the job and I’m not sure if it was because I succeeded in not coming across as ‘too nice’ or if it was because I decided to stop pretending to be someone I wasn’t about half way through the interview. All I know is that in that moment I decided that I couldn’t and I wouldn’t rearrange my face or my attitude according to someone else’s definition of what it takes to succeed. I decided that if I’m not hired because I seem too nice or too friendly for some organization, then it’s not the right organization for me.

But that senior manager is by no means alone in her experiences. What I have found in my research is that many people – both men and women, but especially women – feel like they can’t really be themselves in their corporate jobs. It’s one of the main issues that hits me in so many of the narratives of opting out and in that I have collected. After having created a way of working on their own terms, many report finally being able to be who they really are and not having to hide different aspects of their lives and personalities. This, in turn, provides them with a sense of authenticity, which has a great positive impact on their wellbeing.

So imagine my surprise when I was attending the Work Goes Happy event in Helsinki last week. I walked past a stand with a poster displaying necessary, strategic elements for a successful and productive career, and in one of the big circles it said, “be yourself”. I stopped in my tracks and asked the person at the stand to tell me more about that, because in my experience this is something that people don’t necessarily feel that they can do.

Well, it might be a generational issue. Are the people currently starting out in their career better at being themselves and making sure they are allowed to do so than older generations? Or maybe it’s a hierarchical issue? Is it harder to be yourself the higher up you get in corporate hierarchies? Maybe it’s a bit of both?

But one thing I do know is that being yourself is a good thing. I’m with that consultant I met at the event on this. It’s good for you, but it’s also good for your organization. We already know that diversity is a strength, but allowing for diversity also means letting people be who they are and not trying to force them into a mold. It increases their sense of authenticity and acceptance, their wellbeing, and as a result also their productivity. Letting them be themselves will simply make them happier at work.

So, let’s do it. Let’s all be ourselves. Besides, it’ll make your organization a much more interesting place to be.

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Employee wellbeing is profitable

The other day I had the pleasure of attending a presentation held by Professor Guy Ahonen. Guy is an expert on workplace wellbeing and I had really been looking forward to his presentation since his research is so closely related to my research on opting out and in. One of the things I have found in my research is that opting out and in can have an immense positive effect on wellbeing. And what I want to do with this knowledge is help organizations create sustainable working models and cultures where individuals won’t feel the need to opt out to achieve this sense of wellbeing that so many seem to be missing today.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The presentation was great; Guy’s research is pretty mind-blowing.

Through his research, Guy has managed to show that not only is employee wellbeing important in order for a company to do well, but it is so important that it should be considered strategic. The thing that makes this research so amazing is that not only does he show that wellbeing has a direct effect on performance and productivity, he does so in real numbers, in actual money. In other words, he has an ability to translate his research into a language that organizations really can understand, and to show them exactly how much money they would actually save if they work on increasing employee wellbeing. And let me tell you, we’re talking about a lot of money.

The research is based on data from companies in the Nordic countries, but they can be translated to other companies as well. What Guy and his team have done is collect data from companies on costs directly related to illness in the workplace. These include things like cost of injury, sick leave, and early retirement (and opting out I might add). It turns out that during the past couple of decades the cost of mental illness has skyrocketed, which may be due to mental illness thankfully becoming less of a taboo in society, but also, no doubt, due to things like constant restructuring and job insecurity. In fact, the Kelly Global Workforce Index shows that over 50% of all workers in the world are unhappy mostly due to these very reasons.

Well, the cost of illness in society is huge. In Finland it was about half of the state budget in 2012, which is mind-boggling. All costs aren’t work related, naturally, but the effect this has on individuals’ ability to work productively is substantial.

So what Guy and his team did was study companies that strategically and specifically targeted employee illness in order not to just minimize costs but also to get to the bottom of what the problem actually was and fix it. The savings these companies made was six times the savings made by companies that didn’t treat wellbeing as a strategic issue. You’ll have to read his book and report for exact numbers, but the implications are tremendous. Companies can save huge amounts by focusing on their employees’ wellbeing.

This is all fine and dandy and all companies in their right minds should obviously jump at this opportunity right away. But there is one thing that bothers me, one nagging thing at the back of my mind.

The thing that bothers me is the very argument that companies should care about their employees’ wellbeing because it is profitable. We argue this way because companies’ raison d´être is to constantly increase productivity and profit, and by speaking to this we (hopefully) get them on board. This is also true for gender equality or diversity initiatives. By showing companies that it is good for productivity and profit (which it is) we hope they will work at becoming more gender equal and inclusive.

But what happens if it stops being profitable? What happens if companies realize that it isn’t as profitable as promised, or that they are doing well enough as it is and the cost of turning their corporate culture around just isn’t worth it?

That is not okay. Caring about wellbeing, and making sure that employees don’t suffer, is a moral and ethical issue that cannot be reduced only to questions of productivity and profit. Making sure that half the population (women that is) have the same rights and possibilities to advance in their careers, not to mention people of different cultures, races, and sexual orientations, is not something we can do only if we feel like it or if it is worth our while. It is absolutely essential and anything else is immoral, unethical, and just wrong. Regardless of whether or not it is profitable.

How can we get organizations to understand that?

Give yourself a break

I’ve been very busy during the past couple of weeks. I’ve been preoccupied on several different fronts; some things work related, some things not, some things positive and fun, some things not so much, and some things just plain exhausting. And, to tell you the truth, I was shocked to notice that it’s been two weeks since I last posted on my blog. These two weeks have gone so fast!

Last night when I noticed how long it’s been, I thought I should quickly put a post together to publish first thing in the morning. After all, I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than two weeks between posts. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was tired, I wanted to spend my Sunday evening with my family, and to be honest, my mind was completely blank anyway. Despite all the things I have experienced lately, all the eye-opening events, and all the meaningful discussions I’ve had with people, I couldn’t think of anything to write about. I didn’t have a single idea, and had I had one, I don’t think I would have had the energy to write about it anyway.

So I didn’t. I did nothing even remotely work related last night and it felt great.

The thing is though, I like writing blog posts. I like engaging in discussions and I’ve really had some interesting ones since I started blogging. It feels meaningful and it gives me energy. At the same time, since I have readers, I don’t want to let them – you – down. I want to keep my end of the deal and post regularly just as I’ve promised. I tend to be hard on myself though; I tend to push myself, regarding anything that I have promised myself or others that I will do. Sometimes it becomes too much, but a promise is a promise, right?

You will be happy to hear that I have actually gotten better at being kind to myself. As the years go by I’ve realized if I can’t count on myself to be forgiving then who can I count on? I think this is especially important today in our hectic work cultures but also in society at large where even free time has become so streamlined and professionalized. And I think this is especially important for women. Women are taught from a very young age to be good girls and that they have to do their very best, or rather even better than that, to succeed.

But as I said, the older I get the more forgiving of myself I get, and strange as it may sound, I have started to realize that I am only human. I still do my best to keep my promises. Sometimes, however, things happen and that’s just life, and if that is the case, I ironically find that others are usually more forgiving and understanding of my situation than I am.

So with these thoughts, triggered by my need to live up to my own sometimes unrealistic standards, what I’m trying to say is be kind to yourselves. If you aren’t nobody will be, and you can probably really use a break.

Time well wasted

I have a weakness for signs. Not the cosmic type, I don’t believe in those. I think when people look for signs, what they’re really doing is looking for confirmation for things they have already decided or already know to be true in their hearts. They see what they want to see and attribute meaning so that they get the confirmation they need.

No, the signs I’m talking about are physical signs, words written on a slab of wood or a sheet of metal. I have two hanging on the wall over my desk in my office. One says, “Wake up. Kick ass. Repeat.” and was a gift from a dear friend. Looking at it makes me feel strong and, if not fearless, then at least less afraid. The other one was a birthday present from my family and it says, “Of course I talk to myself. Sometimes I need expert advice.” It makes me laugh, and the truth be told, I do talk to myself a lot.

Not too long ago I saw a sign in a shop that said, “Every day without laughter is a day wasted.” I was drawn to this sign because I truly believe in laughter. Laughter is so important. It’s healing, it’s therapeutic, it’s the glue that keeps families together, and it’s fun. But there was something about this sign that just didn’t feel right. I realized it was the part about days wasted.

Let me set one thing straight. No day is ever a waste of time, regardless of whether it’s filled with joy, sadness, stress, or just boredom. Every day is important, a piece of the puzzle that makes up your life and who you are. We can’t go through life always laughing. Some days I, at least, definitely don’t feel like laughing and those days are important too. A day without laughter may not be a fun day, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad day, and definitely not a wasted day.

This whole concept of wasting time gets to me. Ever since industrialization, productivity has become a mantra; it’s become something to strive for in everything we do. Organizations are supposed to be productive, individuals are supposed to be productive, and we streamline to the point of maximizing productivity at all times. We are led to believe that anything less is a failure to live to our maximum potential. This, however, is not a truth, it’s not a law of nature; it is just the way we are conditioned to think in society. We constantly seem to weigh everything’s worth instead of letting things be for the sake of being.

As I write this, I’m lying on the couch, nursing a cold, and thinking about how I should be using my time. I’m definitely not feeling very productive. Instead of just focusing on getting better, a part of me feels pressured to at least make an effort and answer emails – even though I’m feeling too tired to work – because aren’t we sort of expected to work anyway, even when we’re sick? Even though resting will make us better faster? Productivity is so ingrained also in my consciousness that even I, who research these things, get filled with self-doubt if I don’t feel I live up to social expectations.

Well, I’ve been relatively successful at resisting the temptation to work. I have taken a well-deserved rest, and let me tell you what happened: As I lay here on the couch doing nothing, I got bored. My mind started to wander and I started thinking about that book proposal I’m supposed to be working on but just haven’t had the peace of mind to get my head around. I started to see how I want to structure the book and jotted down a preliminary table of contents. This gave me such an energy boost that it inspired me also to write a blog post. Hooray for so-called wasted time!

P.S. And yes, I’m going to write another book! I’ll keep you posted, so stayed tuned!

Young people are lonely. Is this our doing?

Being the mother of a teenage girl, a comment I heard the other day at a conference really caught my attention. It was a person in the audience, and the comment was that 25% of young Norwegian girls are reported to be lonely. Well, I haven’t been able to verify this number, but I did some digging and it turns out that this is not only a Norwegian phenomenon. It turns out, that studies have shown that teenagers and young adults in other places too, like the UK for example where a study has recently been conducted, are reported to feeling very lonely; lonelier than many elderly feel and we already know that is a problem. In one article the term ‘generation lonely’ had even been used.

The main argument – which has also been contested – is that the Internet and social media are the reason. Apparently, people in this age group rely more on social media to interact with friends than actually seeing them in person. And by now we know that the way we interact over social media is quite different from how we communicate with each other when we see each other face-to-face.

If you ask Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, this is a major problem. One thing is the flat and one-sided personas we present to the world through social media. They affect both our own identities but also the identities of those reading our updates due to the way we compare our own messy realities with the edited lives presented by our social media friends. Another problem is that we lose the ability to really be on our own with ourselves and our thoughts, which is a good thing to be able to do for emotional and mental well-being.

Well, that’s one aspect. Another is unemployment among young adults that many countries struggle with. In another presentation I heard, young people today are also known as the ‘Net generation’. People apparently associate them with things like flexibility and precarious work, arguing that this is the way they want it. Apparently they are supposed to lead us into the future where meanings of work are going to be completely different than today. But in a study conducted in Sweden, it is young people who are most negatively affected by insecure and flexible job markets. And when asked, these young people say that all they really want is a good and secure job so that they can earn a living. Not having a job can be a very lonely experience.

Both of these aspects are definitely relevant, but I’m struck by a thought. What also comes to mind is the way we organize our children’s lives, before they become lonely young adults. Due to the false perception that the world has become a more dangerous place (despite terrorist threats and the media going wild on this topic, studies have shown that the world is actually a safer place now than it has been previously), parents limit how far they allow their kids to roam. In my neighborhood I don’t ever see kids playing in the street, like I did with my friends when I was a kid. So if kids are to see each other, play dates need to be organized first. This, in addition to the professionalization of all things that should be fun (i.e. kids’ hobbies), seem to fill up our children’s schedules to the point where it becomes difficult for them to hang out with friends after school because everyone is constantly somewhere at some sort of training, club or class that just can’t be missed.

Hmm… it kind of makes you wonder: is social media really at fault? Or are we active participants in creating lifestyles for our kids where they don’t have much choice but to limit their interactions to Internet solutions? After all, as parents we set the standards.

Having a successful life

“The changing nature of work has made subjective success measures more important.”

This is something I jotted down in my notebook last week at the WORK2017 conference, as I was listening to a presentation on the ‘net generation’ and work in the digital age. The presenter said something along those lines and my immediate reaction was ‘YES!’

In research we differentiate between objective and subjective definitions of success. For a long time, success has been measured in things like salary, promotions, and fringe benefits (like a company car) – so called objective measures. In other words, the more you make, the more often you get promoted, the more powerful and higher up you are in the organizational hierarchy, and the more access you have to things like business class travel and other perks, the more successful you must be.

Okay, but that is a very narrow and one-sided definition of success. People who have opted out of objectively successful careers sometimes report that yes, they may have had a successful career before opting out, but not necessarily a successful life. Objective definitions of success didn’t always make them feel successful, not to mention happy or fulfilled or any of the other things that are considered important in a well-rounded life.

For them things like feeling that their work was meaningful and being excited about what they were doing, feeling healthy and rested, and having the time and the possibility to pursue other interests and spend time with the people they care about were more important. These are examples of subjective measures of success.

What this means in practical terms is that more money and power doesn’t necessarily attract potential employees anymore, or at least it isn’t enough. But don’t think that means you can offer people a meaningful job without paying them what they deserve. Getting paid is a hygiene factor and should be a given. It’s also an important form of validation and needs to be taken seriously.

But as always I feel pleased when my research results and ideas are confirmed. Employers need to recognize that there is more to life than work and objective definitions of success. But they need not worry, just because people value subjective success doesn’t mean they aren’t ambitious or don’t want to work hard. They just realize that a successful job isn’t enough; they want a successful life too!

A touch of humanity

A dear friend of mine is just about to embark on a new exciting journey. She is going to retrain as a nurse and I am so excited for her. She is following her heart and her dream.

She is doing this after having left a career in business, and what I find so interesting is that she isn’t the first person I know who has decided to become a nurse after having opted out of a corporate career. Not too long ago I interviewed a man who had done the same. And he apparently knew of a whole bunch of people who had opted out of different careers to become nurses. I quote:

“When I started [studying to become a nurse] I was 45 years old, but surprisingly I wasn’t the oldest in the group. As a matter of fact, just in my course, there was a small group of older men like me who wanted to change careers. So I’m not really a unique case.”

He’s right; he isn’t a unique case. Come to think of it, although everyone didn’t choose nursing, most of the people I have interviewed for my research – both men and women – have left corporate careers to do something that involves caring for and helping people. Two became life coaches. A few became teachers, teaching everything from preschool to college. One started working with immigrants, giving legal advice. One became a nutritionist and works with schools to make sure kids are provided with healthy food. A few started working pro bono and many are involved in charities of different kinds. I could go on.

All of a sudden I realize that I see a pattern here. A common denominator seems to be opting in to work where they can help others. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. I do, however, think it says something about the corporate environments they chose to leave.

We focus so hard on productivity and profit, and organizations are streamlined to the point where we seem to forget that they are made up of people; people with human needs. When people finally have enough, when whatever happens that pushes them to take the step and leave a career behind, they choose a road that provides them with the coherence and meaning that they didn’t get in their previous jobs. And apparently also one that provides a touch of humanity.

Not only that, all of them, every single one of my interviewees, talk about the people in their lives. They talk about family and friends, and about having a job and a lifestyle that allows them to be there for those who are important to them.

And that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to take some well-deserved time off to spend with my loved ones. Because to be honest, as clichéd as it may sound, it really is the people in my life that make life worth living.

I’ll be back in August with more blog posts. See you then!