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workplace culture

Keep Calm and Carry On

Image credit: "Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scan" by UK Government - Digital scan of original KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster owned by Steved1973 (talk) 10:40, 22 October 2011 (UTC). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

Image credit: "Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scan" by UK Government - Digital scan of original KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster owned by Steved1973 (talk) 10:40, 22 October 2011 (UTC). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

By Alice Trimmer

This expression is usually interpreted as an example of the British “stiff upper lip” that characterizes stoicism in the face of adversity. However, the expression “carry on” has another, perhaps now outdated, meaning. It used to mean complaining, for example, a mother would say to her whining child “What are you carrying on about?” I like to interpret this concept as follows: keep an outward calm even though you are carrying on inside. This has proven to be the single most effective coping tool I developed in over 30 years of managing publishing projects. It was even more valuable during my second career, which spanned nearly a decade, working in, and directing, a non-profit center for youth in the South Bronx. I found that if I could manage to keep calm while everything seems to be falling apart around me (and inside of me as well), this was the single most important thing I could do. As a manager, it is especially critical. When things go wrong—an important piece of work is not delivered on time, an assumption that was not checked has proven false, a critical message was not transmitted—one’s initial reaction is likely to be emotional and somewhat defensive. We may first think “What did I do wrong?” which can quickly modulate into “What did [Sarasponda, Eric, Sebastian, Ellie] do wrong?” Or “Why on earth did [Sarasponda, Eric, Sebastian, Ellie] not let me know about this earlier?” This is the time to take a deep breath and smile. There will be time for debriefing later, but if you get everyone in a whirl because you, the manager, are upset, it only saps energy and distracts the team from getting on with solving whatever problem or situation has arisen. This is easier said than done, but it is helpful to realize that often the consequences of such mishaps are not as severe as they are initially imagined, and furthermore, they are almost inevitable when an enterprise involving many moving parts is underway.  

Developing a Voice Through Assertiveness

Jenny Chen

By Jenny Chen

Recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella enraged the public by saying that women should not ask for raises, but let faith dictate their compensation. Though controversial, his statement serves as a wake-up call to the community that women clearly do not enjoy the same rights as men and more needs to be done to promote gender equality in the workplace. A previous Carnegie Mellon study on graduates with a master’s degree shows that despite a growing number of women graduating from college, women still make on average 7.6% less than men, in part due to their fear of speaking up. As I have learned from the MHI mentoring program, effective communication, especially assertiveness, is key to developing a voice and building a successful and fulfilling career. As a young, professional Asian woman working in a competitive, predominantly male industry, learning to communicate assertively has been a difficult, but necessary, challenge. A person with my profile is generally expected to obey authority, be polite, accommodating, and non-aggressive. While assertiveness is often confused with aggressiveness, the two differ greatly. Communicating assertively is neither forceful nor confrontational, but rather, direct, honest and respectful with the goal of a win-win outcome. Specifically, being assertive means actively managing my job rather than passively accepting all tasks which eventually result in excessive stress, burn out, and overall dissatisfaction with my work life.

To better manage my workload and my peers, I began to express my preferences, opinions and needs. I started speaking up during meetings, better setting expectations, and actively negotiating workload among my colleagues that had availability. Speaking up has opened up a communication channel between me and my team, and as a result, not only am I more relieved but my entire team is more successful.

While I still work the occasional late night and weekend, I am more prepared for them and feel better knowing that I actively participated in the dialogue. Part of the process was understanding myself and acknowledging my needs and limitations, as well as developing confidence and self-esteem to stand up for what matters. This also meant relinquishing the guilt of being selfish and not accommodating everybody's requests. To my surprise, my colleagues did not reject or criticize my needs, but rather, took them seriously and found the feedback to be valuable. I am humbled by their understanding, and realize that voicing my opinions and concerns is not about going against authority, but about promoting effectiveness on the job, a healthy work-life balance, and mutually beneficial relationships with my colleagues. A day after making his statement, Nadella recanted his words, and said that women should ask for raises. Whether sincere or not, statements like these help spark dialogue in the community and are beneficial for women as we continue to find our voice in the workplace. Furthermore, programs like the ones Murray Hill Institute offers will continue to equip women with the skills needed to better close the inequality gap. As long as we continue to forge ahead assertively and with greater confidence, we will continue to strengthen our relationships with our male counterparts and work towards gender equality for the well-being of all.

Jenny Chen is a diversified industries corporate banker.

Making the Mundane Meaningful

By Katie Robinson

Starting out in my career has often meant completing "mundane tasks"—making copies, going on coffee runs, ordering lunches, etc. Normally people would rather pass these tasks off to someone else than do them themselves, but I've always been able to approach these tasks with a different view. I owe that mindset to a college professor who planted a seed in my head. 

I remember one day when we were talking about internships during class my professor explained how coffee runs and making copies are actually important. They are a test. She went on to explain how if you can't make copies correctly no one will trust you with anything more important than that. Even the little effort you make when presenting their coffees with clean, non-dripping lids and the proper assortment of sugars laid out can illustrate your work ethic. If you take pride in what you do, then people around you see that you take your work seriously. These little details show your potential for future work with them. 

After my first full year of being officially in the workplace, that little seed my professor planted has grown into a little plant of hospitality. I've realized that every position has a sense of hospitality. I've come to describe my job as keeping people happy because of the amount of hospitality that is subtly involved in my position. It doesn't matter if I'm setting up for a small meeting or coordinating a large department celebration, the thought and effort that goes into the presentation makes a big difference.

I've seen the difference it's made in my career and on those around me. My so-called "thankless job" has become full of appreciation. The little details like remembering to have someone’s favorite soda on hand gives them the little energy they need to get through their next meeting. The neatly organized supply drawer allows people to quickly get what they need and move on. The clean workspace provides a calm environment to concentrate on the task at hand. 

The little loving improvements in hospitality create a happier and more grateful workplace. 

Katie Robinson is the Administrative Assistant for the Vice President of Production Management at Sesame Workshop and runs an advice blog called “Ask the Young Professional” where she gives advice to succeed, in and outside of work, as a savvy twentysomething.

Do you have an experience you would like to share about changing the culture in your workplace? Email us

Managing the Changing World of Work and Family

An interview with Nuria Chinchilla, author of Masters of Our Destiny

Nuria Chinchilla, a professor at the business school IESE in Barcelona, Spain, has been influential in promoting greater workplace flexibility in Spain and throughout Europe. During a recent trip to the US, she joined us at Murray Hill Institute for an Evening of Conversation and informal book signing. Alice Trimmer, of the MHI Board, interviewed her about her current work and her opinions on progress that has been made in helping women and all employees achieve more balanced lives.

In the years since 2008, when the first edition of “Masters of Our Destiny” was published, what overall progress has been made in helping women achieve life balance?

Laws have improved some women’s rights. But laws, as well as flexible corporate policies, are dead if they are not applied. In some cases, protectionist laws have resulted in a backlash for women. Work-life balance is a daily challenge. To make it real, we have to start by identifying our mission and priorities and to save some space and time in the agenda for the activities that will bring that mission forward. Balance depends on:

People: Try to become “Masters of Your Destiny.”

Family: Work-family balance is not “just for one.” It is a matter for the entire family:  spouses, children, grandparents, and others. Time management within the family is very important.

Companies: Many companies are becoming more conscious of corporate family responsibility and the need to attract and retain the best talent–talented men as well as talented women–and to help them gain trust in the company and be loyal to it. Corporate executives also want to have more balanced lives, and not only those of the Y Generation.

Society: We need legislation and budgets to support families and companies with corporate family responsibility.

Do we as women hold ourselves back by our own behaviors or reluctance to seize opportunities?

As we wrote in Female Ambition (Ed. Palgrave 2005), women meet two kinds of ceilings:

The Glass Ceiling: Men unconsciously choose and promote the persons most similar to themselves, in other words, other men (women do the same).

The Concrete Ceiling: Women themselves establish a ceiling, which can hinder them from seeking more power and accepting promotions. The concrete ceiling is not a result of lack of ambition, but rather a wider ambition to reach success in all spheres: professional, personal and social. Not every offer is seen as an opportunity by women. Personal costs are, sometimes, too high when companies are mechanistic and focus too much on short-term goals.

What is the best way to promote the self-awareness needed to set realistic goals for oneself?

The best way to promote self-awareness is by doing at least two exercises:

To know yourself: Reflect in order to gain insights and ask for feedback in order to discover your skills, competencies and potential. Having a good coach helps you to understand your abilities and capabilities and develop them.

Identifying your unique mission: This mission will be put into practice to meet needs in the professional, family, personal and social spheres. The better we know our competencies, skills and potential, the more realistic we will be about identifying our mission and reaching our goals.

Women often feel guilty taking time for themselves, even when such time would result in long-term improvements in work, social life, and family life. How can one balance one’s own need for development with those of the workplace and family? 

Many women do feel guilty about taking time for themselves. This is an emotional problem, the result of a non-integrated heart, a lack of rationality and a short-run vision. Saving time for personal development, meditation, prayer, gym, or the hairdresser is very important in order to be more useful, and to better serve our family, colleagues, and friends.

How can one become more cognizant of the need to re-prioritize responsibilities in families before some need reaches the crisis stage? Sometimes changes are so slow that they are hardly noticeable (for example, when a family member becomes more and more withdrawn, or family customs drop away because of scheduling challenges).

We become aware of the need to re-prioritize responsibilities in the family by investing time in family communication. This means identifying in a family session our mission as a family and revisiting it from time to time to see how all the members of the family are carrying out our internal and external family mission on a daily basis.

What areas are you currently focusing on in your own research and why?

Currently, I am working on the following topics:

Corporate Family Responsibility (CFR): We are studying ways to diagnose the degree of CFR in different environments within the same organization/enterprise in more than 20 countries.  Corporate environments can be: enriching, intoxicating or something in between. In a company, you have different micro-cultures depending on how policies are applied by different management styles and values. Leadership has become more and more important, because every day supervisors are the ones deciding the time and energy left for our lives after work. Have they a realistic, fair and balanced vision both of business needs and of our needs as human beings?

Women’s Advancement in Organizations:  We are studying obstacles and boosters that women encounter in their professional, family and personal trajectories.

Boards: I am a member of Vivianne Reading’s GBRW (Global Board-Ready Women) Advisory Board of the Commission of Human Rights in the EU. We have identified that the problem is not securing board positions (starting from the roof), but reaching top management positions from the middle management in organizations. The most important hindrances on the part of the corporation are the lack of responsible flexibility and not taking into account the needs that come with motherhood.

How does one plan a stable career in a workplace environment that is constantly changing and is becoming less and less secure? 

I prefer to talk about “trajectories” rather than “careers”—professional, family, social, life trajectories—because in Spanish the word “career” means to run against someone. In a changing world, stability is inside us and springs from knowing ourselves, our limits and our potential. One hundred per cent security doesn’t exist. We can achieve some security through our own values, competencies, having a purpose and a clear mission, and a determination to get things done.  Each person is unique and unrepeatable.

It has been said that to cope with today’s workplace, one needs to become more and more of an entrepreneur, even in a highly structured corporate environment. To what extent do you agree with this, and how does one develop an entrepreneurial mindset if one’s natural taste and inclinations do not lie in that direction?

Entrepreneurship is a competence for life. It is always necessary and has to be developed. Each individual approaches reality with different glasses. Being an entrepreneur means to provide your specific and unique vision and point of view and to act consequently in order to discover new opportunities whether they are in service, satisfying real needs of others or improving the products, the processes or the way we work.

What are some simple ways to bring the need for more family-friendly policies to the attention of management without seeming like a complainer?

First, we can change the term “family-friendly” to “family-responsible,” because the company has an obligation to respond to the needs of people with family responsibilities after work. Families of employees are the new stakeholders in a company. Data obtained from different studies show how greatly results improve in flexible and family-responsible environments. The figures from 23 countries gathered by the International Center for Work and for Work and Family, our research center, show that productivity increases 19% and commitment rises 300% in flexible and family-responsible environments.

For young people just finishing their education, it is increasingly difficult to find a job commensurate with their talents, education, or interests. What advice would you give a young person entering the workplace for the first time?

I would advise them to excel in service, and to put all their talents and efforts into action. Try to learn from other people in the workplace and be humble. “Don’t complain. Give thanks.”

From Clean to Serene

By Virginia Boles

This August, I began teaching at a school in Manhattan. I was working in the faculty lounge (a fairly small space where a lot of supplies are stored), and one of the other teachers mentioned, “Wow, they did a great job organizing this room! You should have seen it last year.” I was struck by how much the clean, orderly, cared-for space was appreciated by my co-workers. Now I’ve been there for a couple of months, and slowly but surely, the faculty lounge has begun to suffer the “tragedy of the commons.” From my co-worker’s comment at the beginning of the school year, I realized how much serenity an orderly, clean workspace can give. So, I’ve tried to do my part to keep the faculty room clean. It can be small things like changing the water cooler bottle when it runs out, emptying the trash can or putting in a new liner, throwing away the little shreds of paper left by the paper cutter, throwing away an empty cup left on a desk. These small details, which don’t take much time, make a huge difference after a while in keeping an area clean. It’s something that no one will notice if it’s taken care of, but that everyone will notice if it’s not taken care of. So with only a little bit of extra effort on our part, we can bring more serenity to our workplace, and help people be happier while they work.

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