“Mastery” vs. Collaboration – Your assumptions about “being successful” contribute to work/life conflicts

Every Eve has the opportunity to create her picture of “good leadership” and what “success” looks like, but we are also influenced by the expectations of others.  I thought you might be interested in this blog by my colleague, Joan Kofodimos. Joan goes beyond “work-life” and talks about the fundamental assumptions that significantly contribute to the “having it all” issue. 

“Having it All” Part 1, by Joan Kofodimos: 

The recent Atlantic article by Anne-Marie Slaughter has ignited a debate. Slaughter argues that organizations still force women to choose between life balance and career success, and that it’s time to stop telling women that, if they simply are committed or ambitious enough, they can “have it all.” She calls for organizations to change the norms and rewards that force these trade-offs.

In my years of researching, writing about, and trying to help organizations change the pressures towards work-life imbalance, I have become convinced of one thing.
This is more than a women’s issue or a balance issue – and, if we keep defining it at that level, leaders will never summon up the political will to make change. Underlying the pressure towards work-life imbalance is a world view that also drives some common assumptions about what it means to be effective and successful at work. I call this world view the “mastery orientation,” and it has costs not just for life balance but also for organizational performance. Here are some of the mastery orientation’s assumptions:

Work success is more satisfying, achievable, and tangible than personal life success. Many “successful” leaders enjoy focusing their time and energy at work, even as problems brew in marriage, children, or health – and when personal life is stressful, work becomes an even more satisfying place to focus.

Those who work long hours are “rock stars.” Organizations reinforce the focus on work as productive and virtuous, rewarding those who work excessive hours and defining them as the most committed and capable.

“Winning, “being “right”, “smart”, and “in control” leads to success. The valuing of these traditionally male qualities disadvantages women (though many senior women leaders also demonstrate these behaviors). And bringing this style home is not generally conducive to a positive personal life.

A “strong” image is leaderly. Competitive approaches to conflict, power-over approaches to influence, and “thinking alone” instead of “thinking together”, are consistent with the image that many leaders and aspiring leaders consider “leaderly.” Managers have told me in workshops that to ask for help, or to say “I don’t know,” would appear weak.

Moving up through the hierarchy is a measure of one’s value. Managers often seek validation by working long hours and seeking higher position – regardless of whether higher position is consistent with their talents or interests. Organizations reinforce this idealization of moving “up.” Often, career systems and performance evaluations focus on judgments rather than substance – such as classifying employees as “A,” “B,” and “C” (high, medium, and low performers). Career discussions typically equate hierarchical progress with career success.

But different ways of working are possible – ways which are not only more consistent with women’s leadership and work-personal life balance, but which also support broader commitment, empowerment, and performance. What concrete interventions might organizations pursue, to realize this vision of a different way?

  • Teach skills in areas such as collaborative performance management, consensus decision making, influence based on “power-with” instead of “power-over”
  • Create structured opportunities for women and men to use these skills to advocate for themselves constructively – negotiate for balanced commitments and clarify role expectations
  • Help individuals (women and men alike) to define their own “success”
    • design non-hierarchical career systems based upon clarity of individual purpose and interests
    • create “organic” structures that define individual roles linking goals and talents to organizational purpose
  • Focus on outcomes, not on face time – assign high potential women to visible work on initiatives of strategic importance
  • Embrace re-design initiatives that allow employees to streamline work processes
  • Include dimensions of emotional competence in leadership profiles and competency models
    • acknowledge explicitly the capabilities gained through personal life involvement
  • Challenge behavioral norms and values consistent with mastery
  • Educate senior leaders on their role in supporting the existing and desired culture
    • unintended impact of their actions
    • behaviors they currently reinforce

The potential impact for an organization that chooses this path is game-changing — getting the most out of all your female (and male) talent, becoming a magnet for new talent that won’t settle for anything less than having it all, creating the space for less-stressed employees to work more creatively and innovatively. What is there to fear?

**Our Women’s Leadership Initiative takes an integrative approach to these elements. An organization identifies a group of high-potential women and charters them with a high-visibility “strategic initiative.” We teach the team collaborative leadership skills and change management models and tools that they use to work through the initiative. And we coach them as they implement these skills in the context of the project. Senior leaders remain engaged as “sponsors” who meet with the team regularly to review progress and negotiate needed support.** Teleos Consulting


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