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Be the Lighthouse, not the Lifeboat

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– Why women need to be mindful about what they volunteer for

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by having to do stuff that isn’t directly in your role description and resentful that you have ended up doing it? If so, you’re not alone.

We need to regularly ask ourselves:

  • What am I busy doing that I volunteered for?
  • How strategic a use of my time and capability is it in terms of my leadership aspirations?
  • How is that work I volunteered for being observed, valued and assessed by my peers, boss and team?

An HBR article in July 2018 by Babcock, Recalde and Vesterlund entitled ‘Why Women Volunteer for Tasks that Don’t Lead to Promotions’ explores how women tend to volunteer for tasks that don’t lead to promotion.

After conducting extensive research across field and laboratory studies, they found that women are more likely than men to volunteer for “non-promotable” tasks. They found that not only are women more likely to volunteer for non-promotable tasks, they are asked to take them on more often, and when asked to take them on, they’re more likely to say yes than men are. “This can have serious consequences for women,” they conclude. “If they are disproportionately saddled with work that has little visibility or impact, it will take them much longer to advance in their careers”.

Why do we volunteer for these jobs more than men?

In my experience working with women leaders, and which research supports, there are two primary reasons:

1. We are expected to and
2. Sometimes we prefer to.

The two are of course interconnected but require different approaches to managing as women leaders. That is, how we manage the expectation in our organisation and how we manage our wanting to do it in ourselves. This is wat that looks like.

We are expected to volunteer
Babcock, Recalde and Vesterlund concluded that the most significant factor influencing women’s decision to volunteer for non-promotable tasks is the fact that we know we’re expected to. There are huge amounts of data around gendered role expectations, speaking to the ‘communal’ qualities of women and the ‘agentic’ qualities of men in the leadership development canon. Where unconscious stereotype expectations of the feminine repertoire of behaviours still require women to pick up pro-social caring and helper roles in organisations to a greater extent than men. It is one component of how we navigate what can be a double bind between our gender role expectations as women and the expectations of leadership.

We want to volunteer
Sometimes as well those roles can represent our ‘safe place’ in a confusing landscape where we are getting mixed messages about what we are good at and what is valued as female leaders. We can all be reluctant to leave the comfort of roles (formal and informal) we are good at, where we are valued and ‘known’.

One of my clients is clear that her being so proud of being the ‘go-to girl’ who gets things done is the biggest obstacle to her advancement. It eats her time and energy, it prevents her learning to delegate well, it reinforces her subordinate position and it stops the colleagues she is ‘fixing’ from being accountable for their lack of delivery. But it was difficult moving out of it.

Those extra role behaviours can become expected. Ask yourself, are you the ‘fixer’, the do-er, the social organiser, the go-to girl….? If so how well do these roles serve you and your leadership?

How to avoid the trap

In HBR April 16, 2015 Deborah Kolb and Jessica Porter’s article called ‘Office Housework Gets in Women’s Way‘ reinforces this conundrum and offers some good advice on how to manage it, such as:

  • Negotiate it into a role or a promotion once the ‘helping’ is over.
  • Make sure the value (financial and organisational) is understood – you don’t work for free. If you are helping out a team that is stretched, for example, ascertain the cost of your contribution. Make visible what you are doing and negotiate for more resources.
  • If it is personal request like planning the office party make it reciprocal – get others to take their turn.

All of this can be done with intention as well as with good grace and generosity of spirit. SO…

Volunteer with intention
Of course we want to be good organisational citizens (and are expected to be) and to be seen to be conscientious, altruistic and helpful – the good soldier. But you have enough housework to do at home, don’t go taking it on at work if it erodes your leadership credibility. Sometimes doing what comes naturally such as our helping behaviours, can get in the way of our leadership persona and our leadership development. Choose what you volunteer for wisely.

Shed that comfortable old-shoe role
Be aware of any ‘stuck-roles’ that do not serve your best leadership self well. Make a plan to stop taking on those roles and create new habits around stepping outside your role comfort zone, just a little at first, and notice what happens. You will find you are spending your time and energy on new leadership behaviours, building new muscles and as scary as that might be in the short term it will be deeply liberating and empowering for you in the medium term.

The world needs your leadership light, there are plenty of life-boats out there. Be the lighthouse.

If you’d like to know more please contact me here.

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