There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the approach you take when managing working parents is one of the most significant factors in shaping your employee’s beliefs about whether they will be able to actively thrive in both their professional and family lives.
From the interest you show, to the support you provide, to the conversations you have – your employee will be looking for signals, making judgements, and drawing conclusions.
Of course, it’s likely that your natural approach will be based upon your own experiences. You will have formed perspectives, viewpoints, and opinions. But the question is, are these relevant and helpful to your employee? Everyone’s path to parenthood, family structure, and career/life aspirations is different, and it’s crucial to be open and aware of how unique each working parent is, and to keep your own experience in check.
Curiosity And Empathy
Practising compassionate empathy is key to this. To be able to help your working parents consider what is right for them, you need to let go of what you know and get curious about them and their lived experience. This isn’t always easy, in fact, when you realise just how different you are, you might be tempted to side-step the conversation altogether. Perhaps either you or your employee is in a same sex couple, is a single, sole or adoptive parent. Whatever the differences, it can make you reluctant to engage in substantive conversations because of the perceived lack of common ground. Conversations might become purely transactional or you might be quick to move on from hearing about something they are finding challenging. An unintended consequence of this can be that you are seen as unsupportive or out of touch.
If you can, instead, lean into this discomfort by asking open ended questions and you will be on your way to developing compassionate empathy. As described in more detail in this article, Empathy: The Missing Link to Inclusion, empathy is what allows us to use our rational and emotional brain together to consider broader perspectives and ultimately adjust the lens through which we understand others. Doing this with compassion leads us to respond and act. The process of asking, listening, and empathising will strengthen the quality of your relationship and equip you to support your working parents effectively going forward.
That said, here are some Traps that you may still fall into.
The First Trap
The easiest and most common is an often unconscious assumption that what has worked (or not) for you is a truth that is helpful for you to share. One assumption you may make is that their family unit is shaped in the same way yours is and that they have the same support network as you have.
Start by understanding their context. There may be cultural differences; perhaps they have support from extended family which you don’t have or vice versa. There may be childcare services that sound familiar to you but offer very different things in their part of the world. Maybe they are a single parent and your assumptions or persistent questions about how they organise their support accidentally signals a lack of confidence in how they are managing. Where your employee is one of a dual career couple, they too may be managing work and family in different ways.
In her book, Couples that Work, Jennifer Petriglieri describes three career models most commonly adopted for combining career and family. If you identify with one of these more than the others this is likely to influence the advice you are tempted to give.
Instead of automatically starting from a position of what you think you know from your own experience or expertise, make it a point to start from a position of curiosity. Really try to tune in to your parents. Don’t assume that you know what they are going to say or need. Are they telling you their plan and looking for your support? Are they expressing concerns and looking for reassurance? Are they asking for help? Are they asking for advice? In order to be an informed sounding board, you need to learn about their situation and their aspirations. Only then can you check whether your own experience or perspective is relevant for them. Everyone has their own story of what works best in terms of combining career and family. Encourage and support them in creating their own story.
The Second Trap
A second trap is thinking about the combination of career and family as a zero-sum game. Deep down do you believe that it is not really possible to be fully committed to both? That “you can have it all but not at the same time”? Your direct report may well be making similar discouraging assumptions. If you are nodding in agreement, I encourage you to challenge yourself to look at this differently. It can be very destabilising if your employee anticipates that he or she will be automatically thought of as less committed to their career should they also choose to be active parents.
So, it is up to you to challenge yourself to shift your thinking. Are you making assumptions that may not apply? Even if you have some lingering doubts, can you still play the part of an optimistic encouraging voice and provide support as they work to thrive in both arenas? When they express concerns, can you understand their point of view well enough to support them and potentially challenge unhelpful assumptions they might be making? One common concern I hear is how they will be able to perform to the same level when they have new constraints around their day. Can you help them to increase their impact without increasing time spent? Can you work together to identify ways to ensure their roles and responsibilities play to their strengths? Or can you help empower them to prioritise more ruthlessly and focus on what is important rather than getting bogged down with just the urgent? So often these shifts ultimately result in positive career momentum – a nice example of the zero-sum game assumption not holding true.
The Third Trap
The final trap is thinking that once things have been discussed and agreed, and your working parent seems energised and engaged, that your job is done. Starting or growing a family is a dynamic experience and what is an optimal way of combining work and family on day one will most likely shift and change over the years. Something that might seem too much to take on at one point could become more manageable in a relatively short space of time. The Yerkes Dodson dial below illustrates this nicely. Too little pressure can be as damaging as too much pressure. Your job is to check in periodically to see where they are on the dial and work with them to identify adjustments to help optimise their performance. Sometimes these are adjustments at work and sometimes these are adjustments at home. And of course, this is more likely to be a rollercoaster than a straight upward line. But when managed well, it is a rollercoaster that ultimately keeps moving higher.
Having powerful empathetic conversations is critical to being a great manager. To truly hear your employees, deep listening, and suspended judgment are much needed skills. Skills that might be a challenge to develop and use in this busy world, but skills that will help you to develop the environment for your working parents to believe they can actively thrive in both their professional and family lives.