It’s personal

One thing I often hear when interviewing people about opting out, is that they didn’t really feel like they could be themselves in their previous jobs. There were aspects of their personalities and their lives that they felt they had to keep hidden. Children, care responsibilities, health issues, personality traits… just to name a few. This is one of the reasons they generally feel so good about the work solutions they opt in to instead. Many of them choose or create workplaces where they don’t have to keep these things hidden, which is one of the reasons they finally feel like they are exactly where they are meant to be. Why they experience such a profound feeling of authenticity.

I mean, how many times have we not heard, ‘it’s not personal, it’s just business’?

That seems to be some sort of a mantra in the business world; that and the idea that that which is personal needs to be kept separate from work. Well, I beg to differ. Work – like all aspects of our lives – is highly personal.

The reason it is personal is that we are people. Businesses are made up of people and we a come to work carrying our selves and our lives with us. Granted, we are often encouraged to leave all that at the door, which I think is actually part of the problem.

It is problematic on many levels. First, whatever is going on in our lives affects us and our performance, even when are encouraged not to talk about it at work. Of course it does. If we can talk about whatever is going on, whether it is positive or negative, if we can share that with colleagues (who we, by the way, spend most of our waking hours with), then we can also support each other at work. Not surprisingly, research has shown that this has a positive impact on performance.

But not only that, if we share whatever is going on with us at work, people will also know where we are coming from when we react in certain ways, which just makes it easier to communicate, collaborate and be understood. Knowing where the other one is coming from is key.

However, there is yet another aspect. I often talk about how I time and time again hear about how organizations are reluctant to give their employees control over where and how they work, because if they can’t see them, how do they know they are working? (Yes, this is true, I hear this all the time.) The problem is trust. If people say that, they simply don’t trust their employees enough. However, the better you know someone, the easier it is to trust them. So if we really get to know an employee, we can also feel confident knowing that they are working when they say they are, even though they aren’t in our line of sight. Communicating about work issues and about how it’s going also becomes easier, which again, makes it even easier to work together and to trust each other.

We have to get to know each other better at work, and when we do, it will change working life as we know it.

We have to be allowed to be whole human beings, not just employees. We have to want to know more about each other. We have to really talk to each other without being worried about opening a can of worms. If really getting to know someone means also hearing about the hard stuff, then so be it. As compassionate human beings we will know how to react. Besides, often it doesn’t even involve reacting, just listening, and we can all do that.

Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, the authors of Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations, argue that compassion, which has always been considered a “soft” value, is anything but. It’s a strategic value, which organizations need to focus on to become truly successful:

”Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities…  Without compassion, workplaces can become powerful amplifiers of human suffering.”

All this is on my mind as I set up my Art Place. I want the place to be personal. I want it to look nothing like conference rooms business professionals are used to spending time in. I want it to look like me, and I want people to be struck by this when they walk through my door.

Since talking about work is highly personal, I want to invite people to talk about work in a space that is just that, personal. We are people, and people are personal, and once we can see that we can create more compassionate workplaces. We can create places where people don’t have to worry about not being able to be themselves, where personal isn’t considered the opposite of professional, and where people can thrive.

So let’s do it!

Following my heart, but taking my brain with me

I own 48 champagne glasses. You may wonder why. The reason is that after getting my PhD (in Australia) in 2014, I organized a seminar in Finland where I spoke about my research and served sparkling wine to toast my hard-earned degree. The department, where I worked at the time, wasn’t in the university main building and having the catering company in charge of the cafeteria bring champagne glasses over to the next building was surprisingly expensive. Way more expensive than just buying glasses from IKEA. And, having spent the past four and a half years applying for grants to cover tuition, living costs etc., the more affordable version seemed like the way to go.

So here I am, the proud owner of 48 champagne flutes. They have been put to good use. I have used them myself when organizing events, and friends and family have borrowed them on occasion. This spring alone they have been at a wedding and a high-school graduation party. And I tell people not to worry if any should break. God knows I have more than enough, and as you already know, they really weren’t very expensive.

But still, they are special to me. They are symbolic of good things to come.

After I graduated, a friend and I fantasized about what the perfect work place for us would be. I mean, I had just written a PhD on opting out, and I was spending a lot of time thinking about work places, sustainable working cultures, toxic environments, good work routines, and basically just what does and doesn’t work for me personally. My friend and I fantasized about one day having an office together where we would do everything on our own terms. We hadn’t quite figured out what our business would be, but we did know what we wanted and we didn’t want, what practices we did and didn’t appreciate. We dreamed about this fantasy place and I jokingly told her that I already had the champagne glasses for office celebrations.

And so, these 48 glasses, became symbolic of my future – my future office, my future business – a place where I would work with what I love, in a way that I love. I didn’t really know if that was ever realistically going to happen, but the glasses have been a reminder that it could. You never know, right?

Well, let me tell you something. On August 1st, I am moving the 48 glasses into my new place. Take that in for a second, I can hardly believe it myself.

You see, I have a vision. I want to be involved in changing working life as we know it, and I want to bring people into a space that doesn’t look like an office to talk about work. I think we have to be taken out of our usual environments and see alternatives to more effectively challenge our mental models, and that is what I plan to do.

I have three legs that I stand on: research, consulting and painting. I’ve been doing research for the past ten years, but I also have a background in consulting and I want to take my research back to the business world where my findings belong. And then I have my painting. My painting is my passion and it has snowballed into a second job during the past couple of years. It has expanded to the point that I simply need a bigger place to paint, and I figured I could combine my three legs in one space. Not only that, after looking for a place for some time, I have finally found my perfect space and I signed the lease just a couple of weeks ago!

I call it ‘The Art Place’ – a place to paint but also a space for reflection and dialogue. A place to talk about and practice the art of change, of leadership and of reinvention. A place to think about alternative solutions for work and different ways of understanding work in a space that doesn’t look anything like an office. It will look like me and all three parts of me. I will be my space.

When I try to describe to people what it is I’m doing, it’s hard to do in just a few words. Yesterday, on Instagram, I saw a quote that said it all:

“Follow your heart, but take your brain with you.”

That, my friends, is precisely what I’m trying to do. So please stay tuned – more soon as I start setting things up!

When it hits you in the gut: what the pay gap really feels like

When we hear about phenomena in the world, we can usually understand what it is we are talking about intellectually, but still it is often just statistics. It doesn’t have a face, it doesn’t feel like it’s happening to real people – real people with real feelings. Take the gender pay gap for example. Yes, I think many of us agree that it must be wrong to pay people less just because of their gender. Or their race for that matter. But it’s still just numbers. Pay should be fair, but looking at the statistics, it doesn’t really affect us. It doesn’t create a sense of urgency.

And one thing I know, is that without a sense of urgency, it is very hard to create change.

So, when I saw an article about how a woman reacted when she realized she was being paid less than her colleagues because of her gender, I though yes, things like this give these issues a face. They give them a feeling, one that helps us understand that this is not just a statistic, this is something that really affects Anne, Elisabeth, Sofia, Andrea… It affects how they feel about themselves. It affects their sense of worth. It affects their motivation. It affects what they can and cannot buy for themselves or for their children. It affects them. They feel the pay gap, it is something that can be felt.

In this article you see a woman who realizes she is holding her colleague’s pay check and you see how her face changes from confused to horrified to defeated. It describes so clearly that this isn’t just a statistic to her; it is a real, lived, physical experience.

Incidentally, the day after I read the article, I was looking through some papers in my office and I stumbled across a piece of memory work I once did. A few years ago, I participated in a workshop to learn about a method called memory work. What we were supposed to do was to write on a theme from our memory for a few minutes without stopping and just let it flow. Afterwards we read what we had written to each other.

The subject we were asked to write about was “A time when I was conscious of my gender.” As I sat down with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, I spontaneously started writing about an experience I hadn’t thought about for years. The words tumbled out of me faster than I could write them down. It was a story about the gender pay gap.

As I later read what I had written to the group, I got strangely emotional. This memory that I had buried deep inside my mind and not thought about in years, was surprisingly painful to read out loud. It was like ripping open old wounds. It was almost an out of body experience, because although it was about me, it was about a much younger version of me. Yet, it still felt surprisingly raw and painful. Maybe because I had never told anyone about it. I mean, it was embarrassing. I wasn’t being paid what I was worth.

Well, I’ve decided to share it here, my real experience of the gender pay gap. I’ve anonymized it because I don’t want to name any names, but otherwise it’s pretty much exactly as I wrote it in that workshop:

 

A time when I was conscious of my gender

I was about 25 or 26 years old. I was at my second job after graduating from business school, but I was only at my first job for a year or so, so I didn’t have a lot of experience or a lot of self confidence in my professional role. There is one thing I remember specifically that made me very aware of my gender. It was when I saw my colleague’s contract. We more or less did the same job, and we had been working for about the same amount of time – I may have worked a bit longer (since I graduated) – but I realized when I saw his contract that he had a higher salary than I did.

This was the situation: In the office I kept a lot of paperwork that concerned the team. I was the coordinator as well as having [other (the same as my colleague)] responsibilities. In the corner of my office there was a large, locked cupboard with double doors. I was kneeling on the floor in front of the cupboard, flipping through the folders that were kept in there. I was looking for something specific. I can’t remember what it was, but as I was flipping through some papers, I stumbled across his contract. It was in a plastic “pocket” and it had his name on it and I knew right away what it was. I saw his monthly salary, the one he started out with, because for all I knew he may have negotiated a raise already.

I felt the blood drain from my face and a knot develop in my stomach. I felt enraged because they had told me when I was hired and tried to negotiate my salary that there was no way they could possibly pay me more than what they offered. I had felt pretty good about it until now. I felt cheated, and I felt that it was because I was a woman. I had heard about women being discriminated like this, but I never thought it would happen to me. And it just had.

I remember sitting there, on the floor by the cupboard, with the binder in my lap, feeling just horrible. I think that was the beginning of the end for me at that company. I lost faith in the organization and in my superior. I realized that it was just business for him, that he was going to pay me as little as he could get away with. And even worse, I felt disappointed in myself because worse than feeling cheated is the feeling that you let yourself be cheated. I felt I was a stupid girl who let people discriminate me and pay me less than I was worth just because of my gender.

What is important to you and when do you draw the line?

I had great plans for this blog post. I had a really good idea and I’ve been meaning to write it down for the past week and a half. It’s been almost two and a half weeks since my last post and for a blog where my intention has been to post weekly, that is a pretty long break. Especially since a person I met about half a year ago, whose opinion I really value, said to me after she checked out my blog, “I just have one criticism, I wish you would post more often.” That was a huge compliment, it meant that she really liked my blog. But it also made me feel pressured to actually try and be more active.

So that has been going through my head too, that and this idea that I have been meaning to write. I have just had too much to do, but have still also felt guilty about not getting my act together. Which is ironic, because this is my blog, which I write on my terms, about whatever it is that I want. No one tells what to write, or when or how to write it. This pressure I feel is all me.

Does that sound familiar?

It’s like when my son went from being a baby to being a toddler. One night, I was sitting on the edge of his bed at bedtime, looking at his window thinking that I really need to get him new curtains. He had baby curtains and I somehow had the notion that he needed kid curtains instead. I was sleep deprived, overworked and just overwhelmed in general, but still couldn’t stop thinking about how I really needed to get my act together regarding his curtains. It was eating away at me until I one day realized that the boy doesn’t even know he has curtains. His curtains were not hampering his development or cramping his style in any way, so why was I worrying about this? So I instantly stopped.

This example might seem ridiculous to you, but it is illustrative of how much of the pressure we have we actually inflict on ourselves.

Even at work. Yes, I know that corporate cultures can be very inflexible and stifling and there are certainly pressures that others put on us. But there are also things that we think we have to do or can or cannot do which actually aren’t things anyone has actually expressively said or taken a stand on.

Like the woman I met about a year ago who was working at a male dominated IT company when she went on maternity leave. They wanted her to come back to work earlier than she had planned and participate in meetings, and she wanted to do it too but was worried about how she was going to be able to do so with such a young child. I mean, she couldn’t take the baby with her to work. None of her colleagues had children and they were all male so that was just out of the question. Or was it? She finally realized that no one had actually said she couldn’t bring her baby to work, so she asked if it was okay, and it turned out that it was. She brought the baby with her to the meetings and nobody even blinked.

What she thought was impossible wasn’t.

But back to my blog. As I sat down to finally write it, I realized that I just didn’t have the energy. Writing about what I had planned to write about would have craved pulling out a few books and checking some facts and I have neither the time nor the energy for that right now. And since no one even knows about these plans of mine, much less expects me to write them down, why on Earth am I stressing about this?

When you have too much to do, you need to focus on what’s important. We’re not very good at that in today’s society, but sometimes you just have to draw the line.

We all need down time and the amount of work or pressure we can or should handle is very individual. You can’t compare yourself with other people; just because they can do something in a certain way, doesn’t mean that it works for you.

We have to remember to also take the down time that we need, regardless of what other people are doing, and not feel guilty about it. Because if you don’t take care of you, how are you ever going to be able to accomplish all the things you want to? If you become too exhausted or overwhelmed to carry on, it really isn’t going to help anyone anywhere in any way.

So, take care of yourselves and don’t think you have to do it all. Think about what is really important to you and focus on that instead.

Michelle opted out too

I’m reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. It was a Christmas gift and I really love the book. I love her story and her storytelling. And she writes in a way that is so accessible that I feel like she’s writing to me. I feel like I know her, or rather wish that I did.

What I realize though, now that I am about half way through the book, is that Michelle Obama is a fellow opter outer! She doesn’t call it opting out though. Besides, she did it before the term was even coined (in 2003 by New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin). She calls it swerving; swerving from your path. But nevertheless, opting out (and in) is what she did. She was on a straight path towards becoming a partner in a law firm when she realized that she just didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. She just didn’t want to continue doing what she had been trying so hard to achieve for years of education, training and hard work. It wasn’t an easy process, as opting out processes rarely (if ever) are, but she felt that her job and lifestyle didn’t provided her with meaning, nor did they allow her any time for anything else. Her work schedule meant she wasn’t able to be there for people who were important to her when they needed her. It didn’t feel right and it didn’t feel worth it.

Everywhere I turn, there are stories of opting out and in. Everywhere I go, I’m met with people who long to do it themselves, in case they haven’t already. It happens when I go to the doctor, to the bank, to meetings. People ask me what I do and when I tell them about my research, they, in turn, tell me about their journeys, what their terms have been (my doctor) or stories of how they long for change and are thinking about what their next step should be (the bank).

People sometimes wonder if it doesn’t worry me that someone like my doctor who is supposed to be taking care of my health longs to opt out, but it doesn’t. The reason is that I know that it is human to want and need a coherent life story and I know how hard doctors work. And just because you long to opt out, or you maybe already have on some level, it doesn’t make you any worse at what you do or any less professional.

If anything, I feel honored that they feel comfortable sharing their stories with me and pleased that I seem to be on to something. And also somewhat amused that it happened again, that I yet again met a person with whom my research resonates.

Those who doubt that opting out is something we will see more of in the future, simply don’t understand what it is really about. It’s not about dropping out. It’s not about not wanting to work. It’s not about not wanting or being able to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg argued in her book. It’s about doing it on your own terms in a sustainable way that is meaningful. I think in the case of Michelle Obama it becomes quite clear, don’t you? She opted out and just look at her now!

What to do when you’re stuck

Anyone who has sat in front of a computer, staring at a blank document, knows what it feels like to be stuck. It can be quite paralyzing, and the longer you sit there knowing that you have to get whatever it is you’re doing done, the harder it is to even get started. Why does it have to be so hard? I don’t actually know, although I’m sure there is research on that, but what I have learned is how to deal with it.

Here is what I do when I realize that I just can’t seem to get what I’m supposed to do done. I stop trying to force it. I simply do something else. Some people might call this procrastination, but for some tasks – especially creative ones like writing or other forms of creation – forcing doesn’t necessarily work. But activity does.

Activity leads to more activity, and if you get going with something – anything really – then moving on to the task at hand becomes more doable. Sometimes taking your mind off it will even lead you to think about it again and consequently actually inspire you to get started.

Let’s not underestimate the power of the wandering mind. Also, your mind keeps at it even if you don’t, sometimes it just needs time to digest things. Besides, procrastination can be good for creativity as well as for reflection.

The fabulous Finnish artist, Fanny Tavastila, who I’ve written about before, once told me that when she comes to her studio and finds it difficult to start painting, she simply does something else first, like stretching canvases. She does this to activate herself and working with canvases doesn’t feel so hard. And once she’s activated it’s easier to start painting.

That’s exactly what it’s like for me. I start by doing something else that doesn’t feel as hard and then it’s easier to move on to actually writing and producing texts. One thing that always works for me is reading and being inspired by others’ ideas. But I also have to make sure to leave time and space for thinking, so often a walk will work too. When I walk I think and I might even formulate sentences in my head, which I then just write down when I get back to my computer.

When I’m walking it might look like I’m procrastinating or not working, but working is actually exactly what my mind is doing. I find that I’m much more productive if I actually walk away from my computer and do something else rather than force myself to sit there and stare at the screen and get nothing done.

This is one of the reasons I like working in the privacy of my home. No one questions my commitment or methods when it looks like I’m not working.

But today is Friday and soon it will be Christmas for those of us who celebrate that. I will be taking some days off and a break from thoughts about efficiency and productivity. Let’s all be a little less productive for a change during the holiday season. We’re worth it! Happy Holidays!

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?