We had a fascinating session with Dr. Tracy Brower, sociologist, and author of “The Secrets of Happiness at Work” and “Bring Work to Life.” She believes, supported by a recent study by UK organization (In)Credible, that being a mom or caregiver instills some highly transferable skills. These are insights and abilities we can carry from our caregiving into our careers.
We talked through five of those key skills, as well as five qualities that work should possess, in order to produce happiness.
Whether in the form of modeling, directing, coaching, or supporting, caregiving provides ample opportunities to become a good leader. Role modeling is especially important, which Brower stresses includes “being as authentic as we can, being open and transparent.”
It’s okay, Brower says, to be honest about your failures, about days when you’re struggling – authenticity is an admirable quality in a leader. However, consistency is key too, so that you’re leading by example – practicing what you preach.
It’s also important to give clear rationales for the decisions you take, rather than adopting a “because I said so” approach. Finally, leaders who are publicly visible are often the most appealing – they inspire and excite, which can help motivate employees and retain staff.
When employees feel appreciated and listened to, both they and the business benefit. Caregiving creates plenty of opportunities to exercise empathy.
One tip Brower recommends is to label the emotions you’re feeling, and to do so positively. Sometimes its important to employ “linguistic determinacy”, the theory that the way something is described will affect how we feel about it. Thus “problems” are reframed as “challenges” and “I have to” [perform some challenging task] becomes “I get to”.
We discussed the example of a lone female employee in an all-male financial organization. Her male colleagues would sometimes say they had to “deal” with her unique circumstances. It would be helpful to encourage these male colleagues use less negative language, substituting “work through” or something equally non-pejorative. Equally, when we are dealing with “a difficult person”, it can help to consider them as somebody with “a unique perspective”.
It’s also best to assume good intentions as the default when colleagues criticize. Remind yourself that your colleagues have plenty of reasons to think well, rather than ill of you. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, however – you’ll either receive encouragement that you’re a great job, or constructive criticism you can use to improve.
Being a parent raises your tolerance for stress, particularly as each developmental stage of a child brings new challenges. This is an especially distinctive skill you can bring to bear at work, explains Brower. Workplaces are increasingly stressful, and their constitution is changing all the time.
Conflict between employees need not be framed as stress-inducing. An example she gives is that dealing with Gen-Z employees who may have more of a lax attitude to punctuality or attendance. By being clear about standards, and firm in holding employees accountable, stressful conflict further downstream can be avoided.
However, do validate the stress levels felt and expressed by colleagues, before asking them to reflect on how they are coping with this, and asking what might help.
There are three main ways in which caregivers improve their communication skills:
Brower says, “sometimes in the workplace the task is the easy part.” Dealing with different personalities within a team can be more difficult. However, by agreeing work protocols in advance, you can reach an adaptive agreement for standards and ways of working.
It’s important not to compare workers with one another when giving feedback. Instead, show how their work contributes to the greater good. Encourage team bonding so that they rely on you less and give them group projects to reinforce interdependency. Also, be responsive to colleagues’ queries and concerns, Brower recommends. Don’t let reasonable requests for communication pass you by.
It’s important to realize, Brower reminds us, that there will be times when you simply receive a bad outcome from a working relationship. Sometimes it is best for both parties if the ill-fitting individual moves on. Give them a chance to feedback and express your regret that they have chosen to leave, without rancor or recriminations.
Says Brower, 54% of people say they develop this skill through caregiving. Learn to focus on what routines work best for you and use your “energy budget” wisely. Schedule more challenging tasks when you have more energy.
Establishing boundaries is key too, whether this means working a strict 8 to 5 week or taking regular breaks to do something else. Everyone has different parameters for boundary-setting.
A lot of working moms deal with guilt around focusing on their careers, Brower admits. However, she recommends you remember that becoming excellent in your career and working hard presents a great example to children. It’s wise to audit what constitutes being a good parent for you, and then ringfencing those activities, even if it’s just the weekly laundry or school run.
Towards the end of her presentation, Brower gave a quick summary of the five things she believes constitute happiness at work, namely:
In her final thoughts, Brower has come cautionary words about ambition and deferring happiness. She warns against thinking “when I achieve X, I will be happy.” Instead, it’s better to create a working environment that maximizes happiness, regardless of how close you are to fulfilling your dreams.