A world where there is room for everybody

I am lucky to be married to a man with whom I have a lot in common, and who shares many of my interests and values. We get along well and sometimes we mistakenly think we know everything there is to know about each other after being married for as long as we have. I say mistakenly because every once in a while one of us will surprise the other with an unexpected opinion that is just hard relate to. When that happens, we argue and debate, neither really willing to budge, until one of us finally laughs and says “How is it possible that you aren’t of the same opinion as me?” It diffuses the situation and we finally end up agreeing to disagree.

One thing that strikes me though when we have these disagreements is how difficult it can be to accept that someone you know so well can think so differently about something. This is actually not that unusual. In fact, there is something known as ‘assumed similarity bias’, which is an unconscious assumption that other people invariably think the same way we do and share the same values and beliefs. We don’t stop to consider that their worldview might be drastically different and when we see evidence of this it is just hard to grasp.

The truth is that we are all different, even those of us who have a lot in common. And we cannot even begin to understand what goes through another person’s mind unless we stop and really listen.

One thing I wonder, however, is whether we are getting worse at dialogue and debate in society. This is an important question because the ability to discuss and debate and reach an agreement, if not a common understanding, is one of the pillars of democracy.

We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people, all the more so on social media. Algorithms make sure that we see what we want to see, although, to be honest, even without these algorithms we wouldn’t see all there is to see anyway as we tend to portray only our best selves, or the selves we wish to be.

On the other hand, the discussion and debates that do happen are often rude or just filled with misunderstandings. Rude because when on social media people tend to say things they would never say to someone’s face (you can read more about that here) or misunderstandings because a hastily written comment might not be entirely thought through. Or even if it is, in can be misinterpreted in a myriad of ways by the reader. Have you ever heard about not discussing important issues over email or text message because it is a recipe for misunderstanding? Well, I’m wondering if the same goes for social media debates. Something has just got to be said about face-to-face conversations.

My worry is that if debate is often either nonexistent because of the glossy façades we create in our posts, or unreasonably harsh because of bad social media manners, how does this affect our common understanding as a democratic society? We need to try to understand what other people really think and feel in order to be able to create a world where there is room for everybody (and which won’t self-destruct, which seems to be a real risk at the moment). But if it’s hard to relate to one’s friends’ and family members’ different opinions and views, how hard is it not to relate to people who have completely different values than our own?

I don’t really know what the solution is. All I know is that this needs to be said again and again. Dialogue and debate need to be constructive and we need to be better at listening. We need to stand behind what we say, in every situation, whether online or in person. If we can’t, we simply shouldn’t say it. And we need to be kind.

If we’re open to constructive and friendly debate and discussion, a common understanding can be reached, even if, like with my husband and me, it’s an agreement to disagree. At least it creates an understanding of where the other person stands and why.

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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.

No offence but… 3 rules of thumb for constructive communication

It never ceases to amaze me how two people who speak the same language can have such trouble understanding each other. I often seem to witness this and find myself translating from one language to the same language. The problem is that people don’t always come across as they intend and the other person doesn’t always hear what’s really being said. It’s a recipe for misunderstanding.

Sometimes we need to raise difficult issues with others, but how do we do this without offending the other person? How can we enable a constructive dialogue? Here are three things that are good to remember:

  1. You’ve probably already learned about sandwiching constructive criticism. This is something that is taught in schools, workplaces, leadership training programs and a number of other places. What you do is sandwich your criticism between positive feedback. By doing so you start by making the other person feel good about him or herself, you then talk about what could be improved, and finally you end with something good, reminding the person that they are appreciated and good at whatever it is they are doing. It’s effective and it’s also just a nice way of going about it.

This is pretty basic, however there are also a couple of other things that are good to remember but that people don’t usually think of:

  1. Pointing fingers really doesn’t help. If somebody’s behavior is irritating or just not desired, you won’t get them to change their behavior by starting your sentence with things like “You always…” or “Why do you always have to…” This feels like an attack and it will most likely end the conversation before it even started. A better strategy is to turn it around and start with yourself. Explain how the behavior makes you feel. For example, try starting your sentence with “I feel uncomfortable when you…”or “”It hurts my feelings when…” or “I get confused if…” or, more for something more work related, “Our business partners don’t understand when…” Talking about your own experience instead of issuing blame is a much better strategy and might even lead to a discussion and a solution to the problem.

 

  1. And finally, one of of my pet peeves. I get frustrated when people say things like “No offense, but…” or “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” or like what I recently heard, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but…” It’s amazing how often I hear this and it is a completely disastrous way to start a sentence. When you start with “No offense, but” it makes absolutely no difference what you say after that because offence will already have been taken. When hearing that, what a person really hears is “WARNING! WARNING! What I am about to say is actually going to be very offensive and hurtful and probably also an attack, but I’m trying to be nice about it and I don’t want you to react negatively.” You see the problem here? And ironically, most of the time what follows really isn’t that offensive at all but it comes across as such just by the way it is presented. So if you, for example, don’t love the music that your friend is playing, don’t say “No offense, but this isn’t my favorite music”. Try instead to just say “You know, this isn’t my favorite type of music”. It sounds much less offensive. Because you’re not insulting your friend’s taste in music, your just having a conversation about what kind of music you do and don’t normally listen to. Or instead of saying, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but could it have been a misunderstanding?” try just saying, “Could it have been a misunderstanding?” Trust me, much less offensive.

So this is something for you to think about and to try. Let’s all do each other a favor and offend each other less so we can start communicating more effectively.

Dads caring for children: is it natural?

A friend asked me the other day if I think it’s natural for dads to share care responsibilities. She was frustrated because her husband just didn’t seem to be attuned to their child’s needs and was concerned that he (the child) simply wasn’t getting cared for the way she felt he needed when he was with his dad.

The timing of her question was actually quite perfect because I am, coincidentally, just now working on a chapter on stay-at-home dads for my book on men opting out. I have mostly interviewed men who have opted out to opt in to other forms or approaches to work, but my data does also contain a few stay-at-home dads whose narratives are so interesting that I’m dedicating a whole chapter to them. It’s a very timely issue, what with initiatives to get men to share the care load and to take more parental leave when their children are young.

So the question is, is it natural for a man to be a caregiver, or even the main caregiver, of his children? One argument I sometimes hear (in addition to the one above that men just aren’t sensitive enough to children’s needs) as to why it isn’t is that in the animal kingdom it is often the female that cares for the young while the male goes off and does something else, whatever that may be, so shouldn’t it be the same with people. (Yes this is true, this is an argument I hear, although there are species where the male also cares for the offspring to different degrees. I’m no zoologist, but you can look this up.)

Let’s deal with this point first, and get one thing straight. We humans are our own species with our own social structures, rules and needs, so comparing us to other animals is not always helpful. In fact, according to Finnish child psychiatrist Jukka Mäkelä, one of the things that sets us apart form other species is that human infancy lasts much longer than it does for other species. This means that it takes much more physical, emotional and mental effort as well as time to care for human infants until they are big enough to feed themselves, actually walk, look out for themselves etc. than it does for other species’ offspring.

What this means in practice is that this is a lot to do for one person (i.e. the mother) and the work and responsibility should, in fact, be shared. Unfortunately our individualistic society with ideals like the nuclear family and mothers struggling alone to raise their children does not support this. However, our individualist ideals are not a natural human condition, they are social structures so deeply embedded in our consciousness that most of us have trouble seeing alternative ways of life. But parenting has historically not always been organized or idealized the way it is today; caring has, for example, not always been done primarily by the mother.

So just because other animals organize their family life and care responsibilities in a certain way, it doesn’t mean humans should too.

Well then what about that first point, the one about men not being attentive enough and therefore being incompetent to properly care for children and their needs? Being attuned to a child’s needs is an acquired skill. Those of you women out there who have children probably remember that when your first baby was born the learning curve was quite steep. However, after spending a lot time with your child around clock you learned to both understand and anticipate your child’s needs, it became second nature. But still, it was a skill you acquired after becoming a mother.

Now, since women do the brunt of childcare and are the ones who take most or all of the available parental leave, this usually means that the father ends up not spending as much time with the child and therefore not acquiring the same skills. Hence we have the situation where moms feel that dads really aren’t very attentive, which they often aren’t because they haven’t had the chance to learn. Also, it needs to be noted that, growing up, girls are socially conditioned and taught to be attentive towards others’ needs and feelings, which is not something we as a society generally expect of boys.

However, research has shown – and I have seen this in my data too – that when a father gets a chance to spend a lot of time with his child, especially alone without the mother around (like being on parental leave), he learns to become attentive to the child’s needs and just like the mother learns to anticipate things before they even happen. This comes automatically from spending time with the child, but it doesn’t happen over night. Time is needed, and just like mothers learn to mother over time, fathers need a chance to learn to be the nurturing fathers they are very capable of being.

The upside to this newly acquired skill to be attentive and attuned to needs, is that fathers who gain this skill are not only more attentive towards their children (and develop very warm and close relationships with them), they also become more attentive towards other people, like their partners, which has a great positive effect on their relationships. In other words, this is really very good for the whole family.

And finally, I know of no father who has taken responsibility for the care of his children, either in my data set or elsewhere, who has regretted the close relationship and bond with his children that this caring has entailed. Children who have parents who share the load typically become very close to both (or all, depending on what kind of a family we’re talking about) parents.

So the answer to the question whether it is natural for fathers to take on responsibility for their children’s day-to-day care is yes! It is completely natural and it is desirable. Fathers should be around their children more and share the care load with their partners.

But, having said that, we mothers, who are concerned about the quality of care that our children get, also have to accept that everyone will not do things exactly the same way, nor should they. Everyone is bound to have their own ways of going about caring. The point is, however, that fathers need to be given a chance. And to the fathers out there I want to say, go for it, you won’t regret it!

Providing employees with control over where, when, and how they work can have a positive effect on both productivity and culture. Here is what you need to think about.

The one thing that all people who opt out and in seem to have in common is the issue of control. Control over their lives and their time is what they lack before opting out, and control is what they look for in their new lifestyles and solutions for work. Control over where, when, and how they work.

This can mean different things to different people. Some people like to work in an office, others don’t. Some people like to work for long stretches at a time and others can’t. Some people fare better when they can work in small bursts and intertwine different areas of life in a more seamless way. I think it’s safe to say that we are gradually becoming more aware of the fact that individuals’ needs vary, but many may not know that individualized solutions could potentially increase productivity. After all, if you are allowed to work in a way that works for you, it tends to increase the quality of your output. In fact, according to the co-founders of the job-search platform Werk, flexibility should be a business imperative and not just a lifestyle perk. But most organizations still seem to be at a loss as to how to go about this.

If only I had a penny for every time I’ve heard, ‘how do you know that a person is working if they aren’t in the office’ or ‘if everybody was allowed to do as they please we would have anarchy’.

Well first off, let me set one thing straight: a person isn’t necessarily working just because he or she is in the office, and no one said anything about having people randomly do anything they want anyway. We’re still talking about work that is managed and structured and measured to make sure we meet our targets. And it’s doable, it’s just a question of changing attitudes and management routines.

Although most companies still subscribe to the importance of face time (i.e. coming into the office and showing your face), there are companies out there doing new and exciting things. The other day I stumbled across an article about a Baltimore based company that realized it couldn’t rely on geography to find the right people for the company and they ended up recruiting from all over the country, in addition to having people employed in their local office. They found this to be a really good solution; what they call the hybrid model (having people work on and off site) was apparently good for both their productivity and their organizational culture.

One reason was that the remote workers displayed high self-motivation and responsibility, which apparently rubbed off on other employees making the whole company more productive as a whole. But they also changed some management routines to make working with a hybrid model possible. The main thing they worked on was communication, and getting the right communication technology and using it in the right way. Giving employees a chance to get to know each other face-to-face also makes remote communication easier.

But there are other things to consider as well. Another article emphasizes the importance of emotionally intelligent managers (although also here what we’re talking about is communication) and boils it down to four points:

  • Don’t create two classes of employees: One way of doing this is to have everyone participate in meetings on the same terms. If a few have to be online, have everyone be online from their desks, even the ones located in the office building.
  • Lead with trust, not control: If you don’t trust the people you recruit then you have a problem. Still, many managers have a hard time trusting, but as I said before, having people in the office creates a false sense of security because physical presence doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing their jobs or doing them well. If you have people working remotely you’re going to have to get over that hurdle, and you’re going to have to communicate with them better and more regularly. Get to know them and try empathizing with their situations; you’ll find the trust issue much easier to deal with.
  • Ask more questions and learn to listen: Again, this is about communication. If you have people working remotely you won’t automatically find things out about them and their lives by just seeing them around, you have to make an effort to get to know them. Ask questions about them and about what’s important to them. You’ll not only get to know them better, they will also feel more understood and valued, which may lead to greater motivation and commitment. This goes hand in hand with the previous point.
  • Talk about the difficult things: This is always true, but especially when you have people working remotely. You need to be able to embrace and raise uncomfortable issues and frictions; no beating around the bush here, you need to be upfront. Your employees will thank you for it because they will have a better idea of what is expected and working with you will just be easier.

And then, of course, you have to follow up on targets and results. But hand on heart, isn’t this what a good manager should be doing anyway? What we’re talking about really isn’t rocket science. It’s not that dramatic a change, we just need to get past this old-fashioned idea of having to be in a certain place at a certain time in order to do a job properly. We have the technology, now all we need is the will. After all, as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way.

Sarcasm will kill any hope of constructive dialogue, and it certainly won’t make the world a better place

I got a comment on my blog a while back that was just impossible to respond to. The reason is, it was dripping with sarcasm. The person commenting was obviously not impressed with my post and let me know this fact by congratulating me on doing, as I understand it, such a terrible, or rather offensive, job. Now the reason I say offensive is that it seemed like this person might have been offended by my post, which, in turn, triggered the sarcastic remarks.

Don’t get me wrong; I am the first to encourage different opinions and perspectives. I understand that not everyone will like or agree with what I write. My blog represents my own perspectives and opinions, based on research, however, and not just plucked out of thin air mind you, but still my personal perspectives and opinions. I know there are a zillion other perspectives and opinions out there, and that is the beauty of it. “Vive la difference!” as my sister likes to say. Anything else would be boring.

After all, it is only through dialogue and debate with people of different perspectives and opinions that we, together, can create more knowledge and make the world a better place.

But when someone is sarcastic, the debate dies right there. Because how can you respond to that? When you are sarcastic, you are not inviting the other party to a discussion. You are signaling ill will, which will only make the other person defensive and want to retaliate. And trust me on this: that is not a good recipe for dialogue, collaboration, and creating a common understanding.

That is the whole problem. That is why social media to date has not been a huge success when it comes to connecting people who represent different perspectives and points of view. That is why social media has in many ways, opposite to what perhaps was originally envisioned, made the potential for constructive debate and dialogue smaller in so many ways.

According to Stanford Professor Robert Sutton, technology has, in fact, created what he calls an “asshole problem”, because when people don’t make eye contact (which we don’t on social media), they are much more likely to be mean. And not only that, after someone has been a so-called “asshole” (which you have to admit is not unusual in online discussions), nasty behavior spreads much faster than nice behavior. I guess this knee-jerk instinct to retaliate is just very hard to resist. If you’re interested in this contemporary problem of ‘assholism’, you can read more in Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, or in his more recent book The Asshole Survival Guide.

So if the person who posted that sarcastic comment on my blog is reading this, I just want to say, yes I saw your comment but unfortunately I just couldn’t think of a single constructive thing to say in response that I think you would have been open to. While I appreciate that you didn’t like my post and I would love to have an open discussion about it so that I can understand your point of view, the way your comment was phrased unfortunately just killed any hope of a constructive conversation. And alas, no common understanding was reached.

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?