Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Tackling perfectionism: Is ‘good-enough’ not good enough for you?


“I can’t be happy with being ‘good-enough’ as a mother and at work.  It feels like failure to me”

Many of the women returners I talk to hit a barrier when we start to discuss the compromises they will have to make when going back to work. 

Emma* had a high-achieving accounting career before having children. Describing herself as a perfectionist, she told me how in her 20s she had worked long hours and “given 100%”. Soon after returning to work after her second child, she became overwhelmed and exhausted: “I felt like a poor mother and was frustrated that I could not give as much to work as I used to”. After one particularly stressful month, she decided to give up work and become a full-time mother. Six years later Emma is discussing her options with me. She wants to return to work now the children are at school as she wants to 'use her brain more'. However she is finding it hard to compromise on her family life.

Like many previously high-achieving mothers, Emma’s perfectionist focus had switched to "Supermum": being the best mother, finding the best schools & classes for her children and creating a perfect home. All her time and energy had been put into bringing up her family and she could not see how to cut back.

Perfectionism can be a major barrier to returning to work - the reality is that we have to make trade-offs.  If we set impossibly high standards for ourselves, looking to be both the perfect employee and the perfect mother/partner/daughter, we are at risk of continually feeling inadequate. Do we want to always feel like a failure? We can make this worse by the classic perfectionist's reluctance to delegate - we have to do everything as no-one can do things as well as us.

If you find yourself falling into this trap, spend some time thinking about your priorities and what is most important to you. Is it necessary to dedicate yourself totally to your children to meet your own view of what a good parent is? Are you spending too much time and energy on things which really don’t matter that much? If you are really motivated to work, how can you free up the necessary time and energy? For example, does the house need to be tidy all the time? Will your children really suffer if they don't have homemade food at every meal or homemade cakes for their school cake sale? What can you give up? What can you delegate to your partner, a child-minder, a cleaner, etc.? Exploring your job options, consider whether you are making life harder for yourself by looking for the ‘perfect job’. Work out your key motivations for wanting to return to work, what is essential for you in a job and what you can compromise on.

Aim towards viewing compromising as a good thing - it means we’re making positive choices.  As Rosabeth Moss Kanter said in a recent Harvard Business Review blog: “You can have it all. It just won’t all be perfect.”

Try out a new perspective on success. Success is typically seen as high achievement in one activity, feeding the myth of the perfect mother or the perfect lawyer/doctor/teacher/manager. Consider instead that personal success can be about creating a full, rich and satisfying life by doing just enough and being ‘good-enough’ in a variety of roles rather than outstanding in just one. We don’t have to give up our high aspirations, just to redirect them towards a more reachable objective.

*names and some details have been altered for confidentiality

Posted by Julianne

Friday, 25 January 2013

Where's my confidence gone?

Surveys carried out by www.workingmums.co.uk highlight loss of confidence as one of the top three issues inhibiting women from returning to work after a career break.  Often, we express this loss of confidence in different ways such as ‘I’m too old’ or ‘My work can’t be done flexibly’ or ‘There aren’t any jobs in my field ‘: this blog will be addressing these specific potential barriers in other posts.
It is natural for confidence to disappear after a break from an activity which formed a large part of our identity previously and also provided status, goals, income and positive feedback from colleagues, customers and suppliers.  Without anything to replace these key aspects of a working life it is hard work to maintain confidence levels.  Moreover, in the absence of regular positive messages from those around us, it is easy to create a negative picture of ourselves and be overly self-critical.  This harsh internal voice has the most damaging effect on our confidence.  Despite all this, it is possible to regain our confidence: there is a list of suggestions later.
My HBS classmate, Claire Perry MP, a former investment banker and McKinsey consultant, expressed the experience of many in a Sunday Times interview (The Sunday Times, March 25 2012)
‘I was basically unemployed for seven years [at home with my children] and going back, even voluntarily, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  Once you’re out of the workplace you lose your confidence’
Claire’s return to work began with offering to do work experience as a volunteer for a few months, on a Government economic committee.  And this route is a model that works well for many women.  Working as a volunteer whether for a charity, a school board or a community group gives us an opportunity to be reminded of our skills and value without the time commitment and pressures of employment.  We remember the things we used to do before and realise that all we need is some practice.
Other activities which also help us to regain confidence include:
o   Finding activities that express us as an individual, rather than as a carer or partner
o   Enhancing our knowledge and skills.  It is possible to find out about interesting and useful courses through the internet, a local library and adult education colleges.  Talking to previous work colleagues can be reassuring: they can suggest relevant literature to read
o   Becoming more familiar with new technology.  Computer shops, community centres and colleges all run courses or a young, tech-savvy neighbour might offer tutorials for a small fee
o   Asking for feedback, on our strengths and things we are good at, from the people who care about us.  It is easy for them to assume that we don’t need feedback because we appear to be managing everything very well
o   Acting confident.  Sometimes, our thoughts and feelings can follow from our actions, so by acting confident we start to feel it
o   Spending time with people who support us and help us to feel good about ourselves
o   Ignoring that critical voice.  This can be easier to say than to do, but it is important to recognise how unkind this voice can be.  Would we allow a friend talk to us this way?  If they did, would they remain a friend?  Learn to be kinder.
However we go about rebuilding our confidence it is essential to remember that it can be a slow process, but every small step that we take will accumulate over time until we are ready – and eager – to return to work.

Posted by Katerina