Modern workplaces can seem quite touchy-feely. With their breakout spaces, mini-fridges stocked with free beer (available between the hours of 4pm-6pm only, obviously) and motivational phrases (the office equivalent of ‘live, laugh, love’) stencilled on the walls, it’s clear that we’ve moved on from the black-and-white era of identical typists sitting at identical desks, or assembly lines of regimented workers clocking in and out.
But how much have we moved on? Though the décor is different, a lot of the assumptions are the same: that a good worker devotes themselves to their organisation, shaping themselves to the system they’ve joined, and tries not to rock the boat too much. Conflict and challenges are ‘office dramas’, ideally tidied away as quickly as possible; your annual objectives are more likely to revolve around responsibilities and productivity than self-actualisation; and if you find yourself unravelling at work… well, you might be lucky and have an empathetic manager, but the chances are you’ll have one who feels awkward and hopes you get a hold of yourself sooner rather than later.
Post-pandemic, we are still grappling with questions of what we want from work. Our day-to-day may have settled back into a routine, but the questions raised by the upending of our working lives linger, and the answer for many women is that they want to feel more supported and fulfilled: research by consulting firm McKinsey & Company showed that 47% of us hope that an improved focus on employee wellbeing will be a legacy of the Covid era.
One way to achieve that might be a reset of the expectations we put on ourselves. "There has been that assumption that you somehow have to be a corporate warrior, and show up and be 'professional'," says Phil Bolton, a career coach and co-founder of Elevayte, which works with leaders and teams in growing businesses. "I think it’s probably one of the very biggest causes of misery and heartache in the workplace. How can people be their best if they’re not able to be themselves at work?"
This isn’t about weeping in the communal kitchen, but about giving the same amount of thought and attention to the emotions you experience in the office as those you have outside of work. In our ‘real’ lives it’s considered normal to work through challenging moments, identify our negative patterns and, if necessary, seek professional support in the shape of a therapist or counsellor to help us when we’re really stuck.
Meanwhile, conventional work culture seems to think that a Friday-night moan in the pub is the only answer to the many problems we might face during our nine-to-fives. But applying some deeper thinking could be transformative – for you and for your career. "The world of work asks us to be cogs in a wheel," says Marla Teyolia, founder of Culture Shift Agency, which works primarily with women of colour to help them navigate their career journeys. "But this idea of wholeness can absolutely, positively impact organisations. If we give folks the resources so they can connect with their values – the things that are really important to them, how they want to lead, and what they’re leading in service of – it deeply impacts their work."
There’s every reason why your job should be an emotional business. Regardless of whether you have a career you feel passionate about or not, most of us spend the majority of our waking lives at work. It’s where we earn the money that supports us, where our intelligence, productivity and creativity are assessed and measured, where our ambitions and dreams flourish or die, and where we’re repeatedly put into situations of conflict and challenge, success and failure. And we do this alongside people who might be very different from us, who we might not necessarily choose to spend so much – or any – time with. It’s also a mistake to think you can ‘switch off’ your true self when you arrive at work. It’s when she shows up uninvited that problems can arise.
"I’ve got clients who will fight like lions to protect the creative integrity of what they’ve just made," says Sheryl Garratt, a coach who runs The Creative Life and who works with established creatives as they grow their careers. "But ask them to name a price for a job they’ve been asked to do and they just go to bits. We all have those little blocks, and it’s to do with how we were raised and all sorts of things that feed into our beliefs about the world. But they compound over time. So something that’s quite small when you’re 20, by the time you’re 40, it could turn into a real hindrance."
Phil Bolton agrees: "We all bring different lenses to the world and different ways of interpreting what’s going on in the workplace. We may be reactive to certain things. I’ve come across clients who have reacted to over-domineering male senior figures because they have a slightly over-domineering father and find that, in those situations, they have the response of shrinking and not speaking up for themselves."
So, understanding your own patterns of beliefs about the world, yourself and the people around you can help you negotiate tricky moments in the office in a way that feels more comfortable – but it can also enhance your performance and that of your colleagues.
"To be at your best in work and in your professional life, you really need to understand yourself," says Bolton. "The first element is self-understanding. Spend some time getting really clear on your values – what’s most important to you? How do you choose and prioritise? Then understand your strengths. What is it that sets you apart from other people? What are those superpowers that you can bring into the workplace? Generally speaking, we’re at our happiest and most fulfilled when we’re using our greatest strengths to create value for other people."
Not only is this kind of work beneficial for individuals and those working around them but, ultimately, for whole organisations and the society they operate in. Workplaces everywhere are seeking to ‘diversify’, but if that’s going to mean anything beyond ticking a box, people will have to have the freedom and self-understanding to bring the full range of their experiences and perspectives to work with them so that their organisation can feel the benefit of that diversity – anything else will just mean different people behaving in the same way.
"The perspective I’m going to bring as a Mexican woman is a very different perspective to one [a white woman] is going to bring," says Teyolia. "And both of those are valid. But what happens if we feel we have to conform to a system and we’re not bringing the full richness of our identities? The organisation misses some really valuable resources and insights. There are costs if we feel everybody has to be cookie-cutter."
Of course, workplaces themselves must bear the responsibility for making this process possible – Teyolia notes that her white clients and clients of colour both have similar ambitions, but the women of colour she has worked with have first had to attend to levels of burnout and exhaustion from negotiating workplaces that were toxic or hostile. But understanding how your identity forms part of your working self is a good place for the individual to start.
If this is so beneficial, why aren’t more people doing it? The answer is – they are. "Most professionally successful people build a pretty solid supporting network around themselves," says Bolton. "They build a team that meets their needs and helps them be their best self. And they invest in that." He notes that, when he worked in the US over a decade ago, it was a ‘badge of honour’ for senior leaders to have an executive coach, because it showed that they were taking their professional development seriously, and this mindset is becoming the norm here in the UK, too.
Mentors and coaches provide insights, experience and a structure for exploring your work self, and changing the bits that are holding you back. "That’s the real value of a good coach," says Garratt. "We’ll hear the stories you’re telling yourself and ask you to check whether they’re useful or whether you could tell better ones. They can also help you negotiate challenging relationships or situations. It’s about thinking, 'What triggers me?'" Garratt continues. "Get to the root of that, and then see if you can try to change those triggers. Having someone to discuss that with is great, but also be willing to experiment. If this isn’t working for you, and it’s making you unhappy, try it another way. Eventually you’ll find a way to manage it."
But what if career coaching isn’t in your plans – or your budget – right now? "First, I would see whether your work environment does offer coaching," says Teyolia, "because a lot of times there are professional-development funds that can be utilised, or there are programmes that people aren’t aware of. I would start there to see if it’s an option." If not, she recommends daily contemplative practices in the morning and evening. Check in with yourself and ask how things went and what emotions showed up as you navigated your working day.
Take time to think about your values – the things that really matter to you most in your working life. It could mean financial security, career advancement, flexibility or the freedom to spend time on things that are meaningful to you outside of work. And be honest with yourself about what’s really at the root of them. "There are the values you think you should have," says Garratt. "And then there are the things that are really driving you. A lot of my clients, for instance, are people who live really free lives. But there’s this deep-seated fear in some of them of ending up living in a ditch. So although their lives seem very free, security is actually a really big value for them."
Own your ambitions, however big they might seem, and then be specific about how you’ll achieve them. "Most people are their own worst enemy," says Bolton. "They limit their possibilities and potential, because they are not even aware of the things they are doing to limit themselves." Writing your award-winning novel is perfectly possible, but not if you don’t make a plan of how you’ll actually go about it, which you then commit to.
Find your own professional support. If there is someone ahead of you in your career, ask if they will be your mentor: their advice and experience could be invaluable. Seek out impressive peers and create connections with them. "That network is critical to development," says Teyolia. "And that’s something that everybody – specifically every woman – really needs to develop if they do not have one."
And finally, free yourself from the beliefs that plague so many of us: "That you’ve got to be self-sufficient, that you’ve got to do everything for yourself and if you ask for help, it’s a sign of weakness," summarises Bolton. It’s not true, and the people making the most progress already know it. "I work with senior executives," says Teyolia. "I work with C suite, I work with VPs. And we have this very misplaced view that [those people] have got it all together. And what I want to tell you is that they do not, and they’re engaging in practices like this. And I hope that gives you permission to say, I have to start doing it too."
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