How to Keep Centered When Home Becomes Your (Quarantined) Office

Is it possible to maintain a work-life balance when the usual boundaries between the two are suddenly and indefinitely removed?

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In an America under quarantine, millions of people have found themselves forced to renegotiate the delicate equilibrium between their professional responsibilities and home lives.

In recent weeks, the United States has become a global epicenter for the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting more cases than similar hotspots in China and Italy. The wildfire spread of the virus has prompted extreme public safety measures across the country. Over 160 million people nationwide have been ordered to stay home so far. In my home city of New York, schools have been closed, restaurants and entertainment venues shuttered, and all non-essential business offices firmly locked shut.

By necessity, businesses have needed to follow workers into isolation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just under a third of Americans can take their work home with them. Rather than face furloughs or layoffs, these fortunate, tech-connected workers have the privilege to keep earning a living from the quarantined safety of their home offices. In these trying times, having the ability to work remotely is a gift — but it does come with its share of challenges.

When we work in isolation, we no longer have the physical boundaries or routines that separate our working lives from our at-home environment. While we once might have prepared for work by picking up a cup of coffee on the way into the office, we now can roll out of bed and over to our desk in seconds. We can’t leave work stresses at the office because our home has become the office. One study published in a 2015 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that these blurred boundaries can, over time, create greater stress, overwork, loneliness, and family strife.

That said, remote working isn’t always detrimental for employees; in fact, many prefer it! According to a survey from FlexJobs, 65 percent of surveyed workers say that they are more productive working from home, noting that they enjoy fewer interruptions, limited office politics, and reduced stress from commuting. These statistics show that it is possible to have a positive remote working experience — but you need to find a balance between your professional responsibilities and at-home life. Below, I’ve listed a few tips on how to renegotiate your home-work equilibrium.

Create Artificial Boundaries

It might be tempting to stay under the covers and work from the comfort of your bed in the morning — but you would be better off avoiding the urge. To borrow a quote from the Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Being More Productive, “Unless you are careful to maintain boundaries, you may start to feel like you’re always at work and losing a place to come home to.”

Having a threshold — a visible line that cordons your working space off from your relaxed, non-work environment — is a necessary part of maintaining a balance while working remotely. What that threshold might look like will depend on your home situation. If you live in a studio apartment in New York, you might not have a spare bedroom or home office to use as a designated work zone. However, you can strategically rearrange furniture or use a folding screen to separate one room into distinct zones.

Self-isolation protocols may prevent you from leaving work behind by physically exiting an office building, but you still have the ability to shut a door or step away from your working space in a tangible way.

Don’t Slouch into Bad Habits

When you work at home, adhering to corporate dress codes is optional. If you want to roll out of bed and trudge to your home office in pajamas, you can — but that doesn’t mean that you should. Getting dressed and following a regular morning routine empowers you to better oscillate between a professional and a relaxed mindset. Some research indicates that adhering to a daily routine could help fend off the depression and loneliness associated with extended periods of isolation.

“Now that our interactions with the outer world seem poised to be put on hold, getting dressed takes on a kind of necessary transformative power,” journalist Rachel Tashjian wrote in a recent article for GQ. She has a point; in a time when every aspect of your life must take place in a single environment, having some way to distinguish them is a necessity. Sure, that distinguishing act might only be putting on business-casual attire during the day and switching back to sweatpants at 5:01 PM — but it still helps.

Establish Clear Lines of Communication — At Work, and at Home

Make no mistake about it: working at home requires a different set of expectations. If you’re working from home while looking after children or a sick family member, you need to proactively tell your boss what you can and cannot get done during a remote workday.

Similarly, you may need to have a discussion with your family and explain that you will need space and quiet during your working hours. In my home of New York City, children have been asked to attend school remotely. For those suddenly being asked to look after their children at home while simultaneously sticking to work responsibilities, it’s important to create a new daily schedule that lays out expectations for the family’s morning routine, daily tasks, and post-work family time.

The coronavirus has thrown all of us off-balance. With quarantine in effect, we lack our comfortable routines and easy office-home separation — but that doesn’t mean that we can’t renegotiate a new work-life balance. With a little work and thought, we can bring some level of normalcy and equilibrium back into our daily lives.

What the Coronavirus Teaches Us About the Viability of Remote Work

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As novel coronavirus sweeps the globe, the viability of a remote working world has been put to a sudden test.

All around the world, the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) has compelled governments and employers to encourage — and in Italy and China’s cases, mandate — isolation measures. On March 16th, the White House advised a national moratorium on gatherings of more than ten people. Some state governments, including my home of New York, have gone even further by closing all “non-essential” businesses, banning all non-essential travel, and shuttering dine-in food and entertainment venues.

The result? Hundreds of thousands of American workers have fled their corporate desks, attempting to go about business as usual from the isolated safety of their home offices. Notable tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Airbnb were among the first to establish remote work as the new office default, and countless smaller companies have since followed suit. According to the Atlantic, a near-third of America’s workforce is likely remote and homebound.

So, this unintentional social experiment compels us to wonder — will COVID-19 be the factor that pushes us into a remote-working world? When the pandemic finally fades, and we emerge from our home offices, will our companies decide that it might be better to let us stay there — or remove the possibility of remote work altogether?

Most of all, we have to ask ourselves: What will this pandemic teach us about the future of flexible work?

Remote Work: The Most Popular Controversy of Modern Business

The dialogue around remote work has mostly fallen into two categories — its appeal, and its risks.

The former is apparent. According to a 2020 Flexjobs survey on remote working trends, 4.7 million U.S. workers, or 3.4 percent of the overall workforce, currently put in their hours remotely — a considerable increase from the 3.9 million reported just five years before. Researchers mapped a clear trend upwards, noting that remote work saw a 44 percent growth over the last five years, 91 percent in the last ten, and 159 percent in the last twelve.

The reasons for this growth are myriad. For one, office solutions such as Skype, Slack, and Microsoft Teams have increasingly empowered workers to collaborate and complete work from anywhere with an Internet connection, thereby removing the need for a central office. Remote work also allows companies to hire professionals who might not be able to afford the cost of living in dense urban metros. Then, of course, is the work-life balance appeal; workers may feel that they need the greater flexibility that remote opportunities allow.

“If you still consider remote work simply a desirable perk, you’re definitely in the minority,” a writer for the research firm IWG wrote. “Working outside of their company’s main location and having a choice of work environment is now a key factor for many job seekers when evaluating new career opportunities.”

And yet, remote work isn’t without its critics. Some employers take a less-optimistic view of their out-of-office employees, worried that the quality of employee work would plummet if left unsupervised. It’s a fear that motivated Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer to ban workplace flexibility in 2013 and demand that workers either relocate to the office — or leave their roles.

Meyer decided to revoke remote privileges after in-office employees claimed that they were “being hamstrung by absenteeism by coworkers. The last straw, though, was when Meyer checked the company’s private network logs and found that many remote employees were not logging in when they claimed to be working.

Meyer’s actions at Yahoo! stand as a case study against the viability of full-time remote work, warning other companies away from buying into the apparent benefits of flexibility. But do Yahoo!’s experiences paint an incomplete picture?

Remote Work Has Potential — and Not Just During a Contagion

Yahoo’s work-from-home experiment might have failed, but other companies have seen runaway success. Consider Ctrip, a Chinese travel company, as an example. In 2015, Ctrip partnered with researchers from Stanford University to investigate how allowing the organization’s Shanghai-based call center employees to work from home four days a week would impact business productivity. The study trialed the new, flexible policy on 500 sample employees — and found remarkable results.

The researchers found that telecommuters experienced a productivity boost equivalent to a full day’s work. Employee attrition decreased by a whopping 50 percent; workers needed fewer sick days, less time off, and shorter breaks. Most notably, the study reported that Ctrip saved as much as $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing their office footprint.

These findings demonstrate that flexible work arrangements offer incredible benefits for companies and employees alike. However, as both Yahoo and our experiences with COVID-19 have already begun to show, implementing a functional model for remote work won’t be a simple matter of telling employees to work from home one — or five — days a week.

Lessons Learned from COVID-19-Mandated WFH

For many office workers, the coronavirus spread has prompted a crash course on what it means to work from home every day. People have begun adjusting to virtual work — but for some, the transition has been less than ideal.

“You know, I am a person that needs to be in the office,” financial data analyst Cindy Ruiz commented for NPR. Ruiz shared that she misses her in-office tools, the connectivity, and the social environment. She says that she misses her colleagues and her daily office life.

Interestingly, Ruiz’s experience reflects the real problem with remote work: loneliness. Even the Ctrip-Stanford study above, for all its positive findings, reported that the majority of their subjects experienced social disconnection and isolation when working remotely.

“While technology and virtual work itself has advanced dramatically in recent years, our preparation to work virtually has not,” management researchers Barbara Z. Larson and Erin E. Makarius explained in an article for Harvard Business Review.

In their investigations, Larson and Makarius have realized that successful remote working requires specific social skills and a degree of interpersonal support that most companies don’t even realize that they need to give. In their article, the pair note that only a third of companies train their employees in virtual working behaviors — and that even when they do, they typically focus more on software skills than social skills.

This is a mistake; according to Gallup, employees who do not feel adequately recognized or supported are more than two times as likely to quit than their supported peers. For all their digital connectivity, remote workers need even more care and interpersonal interaction to feel connected to their working community.

So, yes — COVID-19 may be the (forced) trial run that prompts companies to enter into a new era of flexible work. This period of isolation may open some leaders’ minds to the benefits of flexible arrangements or inspire workers to pursue more at-home options. However, our current experiences also demonstrate that companies can’t implement an effective remote policy by telling employees to stay in their home offices. Employers will need to launch social training programs and teach managers how to include remote workers in a business’s community.

But no matter what happens when the coronavirus quarantine eventually lifts, one point is clear: all companies will have to rethink their approach to remote work.

Artificial Intelligence Will Change the Way Leaders Think About Management

This post was originally featured on ScoreNYC

The robot revolution is here, and it’s taken over the manager’s desk — or, at the very least, begun to share the chair.

In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) tools have begun to edge their way into the day-to-day conventions of work and leadership. In 2019, the Oracle and Future Workplace [email protected] Global Study reported that nearly 50 percent of respondents said that they currently used some form of AI at work — a notable leap from the year before, when only 32 percent said the same. However, more striking are the attitudes that the data revealed; according to the study’s researchers, HR leaders were the most optimistic about AI’s entry into the workplace (36 percent), followed by managers (31 percent).

This revelation might seem counterintuitive at first glance. After all, nuanced interpersonal work doesn’t seem to fall easily into the category of repetitive, data-driven roles that most people associate with AI expansion and automation. Fields such as retail, transportation, advertising, and logistics all seem more at risk for technology-caused job losses. In fact, CNBC recently reported that 42 percent of workers in the business and logistics support sector have “above-average concerns about new technology eliminating their jobs.”

And yet, AI is just as present in the management profession — if, notably, not as feared. The above Oracle study noted that most employees seemed to view AI and human managers as complementary, rather than competing, presences in the workplace.

Respondents shared that they felt robots were better than human supervisors at “hard” organizational skills such as maintaining work schedules (34 percent), problem-solving (29 percent), and managing a budget. However, they also noted that humans surpassed AI when it came to “soft” empathetic skills like understanding employee feelings (45 percent), supporting a positive workplace culture (29 percent), and evaluating performance (26 percent).

These findings suggest that AI is in a position to support human managers, not replace them. Currently, more than 50 percent of a manager’s time is spent on administrative coordination and control — the very tasks that, as the Oracle study indicates, employees believe are better performed by AI. Conventional managers spend just 30 percent of their time on problem-solving and collaborating, 10 percent on strategy and innovation, and a mere 7 percent on developing their people and engaging with stakeholders.

Given this data, it stands to reason that if managers delegate the brunt of their administrative responsibilities to AI tools, they will have more time to spend on the tasks that they are best-suited to perform. Managers already want AI support; according to data published in a 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review86 percent of surveyed managers mentioned that they would like AI support with their monitoring and reporting responsibilities.

Manager-to-AI delegation stands to benefit businesses, as well. To quote American Express’s vice president of customer data science and platforms, Anthony Mavromatis, in an article on the matter for WeForum: “By cutting [managers] loose from tasks traditionally expected of them, AI allows managers to focus on forging stronger relationships with their teammates and having a greater impact in their roles.”

Layne Thompson, the director of ERP Services for a U.S. Navy IT organization, made a similar point in an article for the Harvard Business Review. He noted, “More often than not, managers think of what they’re doing as requiring judgment, discretion, experience, and the capacity to improvise, as opposed to simply applying rules. And if one of the potential promises of machine learning is the ability to help make decisions, then we should think of technology as being intended to support rather than replace [managers].”

AI has tremendous promise to help managers — and a few potential pitfalls.

Earlier this month, the Verge ran an article about the dark side of AI-supported management, profiling what can happen when human managers become subordinate to AI organizers rather than partners with them. The piece shared a few anecdotes of management gone wrong, particularly highlighting the case of an Amazon warehouse worker who was driven to injury under AI-directed management processes.

“Management was completely automated,” the worker, speaking under the pseudonym of Jake, told reporters. He explained that managers would patrol the warehouse floor with their laptops open, pushing workers to speed up whenever their AI-powered tracking software indicated a slowdown.

The repetitive, fast-paced work took a toll on Jake’s back, eventually creating a disc injury. One manager told him that bending his knees more when lifting would be easier on his back — but when he did so, another supervisor came by to notify him that his rate had dropped and he needed to speed up. Eventually, the problem became so pronounced that Jake was unable to continue working.

Jake’s story illustrates what can happen when humans are used to reinforce AI-produced hard metrics, rather than work in collaboration with AI to support employees. In Amazon’s case, prioritizing the achievement of what AI viewed as optimal performance led to managers giving up an essential aspect of their usual roles — noticing when employees are struggling and intervening when necessary. As a result, Jake was unable to work, and the company had to pay the turnover costs of replacing a good employee.

AI holds tremendous potential for managers, but it must be applied correctly. AI’s role should always be to support managerial performance — not to set performance metrics and use human managers as enforcers.

When businesses incorporate AI management technology into their workflow, they need to have a clear vision for how it will — and will not — be used. Leaders should emphasize that the technology will only be used to automate time-consuming administrative work and give managers more time to fulfill their interpersonal responsibilities, such as providing team-wide support, developing personnel, and pursuing innovation. Then, they should periodically check in to make sure that those goals are being met and that AI hasn’t — as in the case of Amazon’s Jake — turned toxic to the very people it was intended to help.

There is no doubt that AI can benefit managers, employees, and businesses as a whole in the future. However, business leaders will need to be strategic, and, above all else, demonstrate human empathy as they incorporate the technology into their managerial ranks.

A Definitive Case for Remembering Someone’s Name

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Of all the networking mistakes, forgetting a connection’s name is by far the most awkward. If you’ve ever gone to a business function, you’ve probably experienced the embarrassment firsthand. The situation often starts well enough; a friendly and vaguely-familiar guest comes up to your table and begins to chat. As the conversation wears on, you have the uncomfortable realization that you have met this person before. You frantically try to remember their name and background, even as you carefully make generic small talk and pretend to recall them as well as they clearly remember you. Eventually, though, the conversation inevitably grinds to a halt. The person’s smile dims as they realize that you don’t even know their name. They reintroduce themselves and politely excuse themselves, looking a little disappointed. The exchange is so embarrassing that you avoid them for the rest of the night. You feel a little regret for the memory lapse — after such an awkward exchange, you think, the odds of forging a real business connection with that person are close to nil.

This kind of encounter is precisely what you don’t want when you’re building a professional network.

Digital Connection and Digital Distance Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

Over the last two decades, it has become all too easy to leave courtesy by the door. We’ve traded in our handwritten Rolodexes for aloof online portfolios, and our outreach efforts have migrated to social media platforms. For younger generations, in particular, in-person connectivity has fallen from favor. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2018 Social Media Use study, roughly 87 million millennials use the online professional networking platform Linkedin and make up a full 38 percent of the site’s user base. Researchers also found that nearly half of all college graduates in the United States are Linkedin users.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the shift to digital platforms like Linkedin is a bad thing — quite the opposite. At the push of a button, we can send connection invitations to colleagues across the globe and easily maintain an extensive roster of business contacts. Moreover, digital tools like Linkedin are invaluable to professionals and employers alike. Research has shown that not only do 90 percent of recruiters regularly use the platform but also that employees contacted on it are 40 percent less likely to leave a role within six months than those hired using conventional means.

The problem is, however, that the very digital tools that allow us to make connections despite geographical distance often create interpersonal distance. Typed messages are impersonal; connection requests without proper follow-up are superficial. It’s easy enough to request a connection over Linkedin — forging a robust professional relationship in the real world is an entirely different challenge.

Understanding the Value of a True Business Connection

Real interpersonal connections are utterly invaluable in the business world. In 2018, researchers for one study published in the Journal of Corporate Finance found that CEOs who had strong relationships with people of different backgrounds often created higher value for their firms and achieved cheaper funding opportunities than their less-connected peers. Other research has similarly indicated that well-networked corporate board members also tend to have a performance advantage.

Having a strong business network can also benefit professionals on a personal level. As one writer sums up the matter in an article for the Harvard Business Review, those with a robust roster of personal connections tend to experience “more job and business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority. Building and nurturing professional relationships also improves the quality of work and increases job satisfaction.”

But what is a personal connection? Is it a Linkedin friendship and the occasional “hello” at a networking function? The awkward scenario at the top of this article demonstrates that the kind of tenuous link those ties hold doesn’t always count for much.

No — an effective professional network must be forged with care and built on a foundation of respect and interpersonal support. Though professional connections are often limited to the business world, they are, in essence, friendships — and like friendships, they require care and effort to grow.

As business researchers, Tiziana Casciaro, Francisca Gino, and Maryam Kouchaki put the matter in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “When your networking is driven by substantive, shared interests you’ve identified through serious research, it will feel more authentic and meaningful and is more likely to lead to relationships that have those qualities too.”

Courtesy: A Critical Part of Networking

I guess one could say that prioritizing in-person courtesy in an age of digital networking is a little old-fashioned, but I doubt that anyone could argue with the results it provides.

When I first found my start in business in the early 1980s, there weren’t all that many women in business; fewer than one in ten women served on Fortune 500 boards at the time. Given this, I had few female mentors to look for guidance and support. However, I was determined to become an entrepreneur and knew that I couldn’t rely on anyone else to give me the connections I needed to succeed — I had to build my own Rolodex.

When I began working, I made a point of remembering the names, faces, and stories of those I met. I sent birthday cards and thank-you notes; I reached out when one of my contacts started a new venture or had a new baby. In just paying attention, I could strike up real conversations my contacts cared about, rather than making unmemorable small talk.

These days, mailing a paper card instead of sending a quick email seems a little out of fashion. But I believe that doing so is still meaningful in the way that an in-person smile and conversation is more impactful than a spur-of-the-moment text.

I told as much to one of my mentees, a young entrepreneur. At the time, she was having an issue with a particular buyer and didn’t know how to smooth over the situation. I told her to send flowers and a card. It was a move that hadn’t occurred to her — but when she tried it, the conversation thawed enough for her to make constructive inroads in their negotiation.

Going that extra step to reach out and turn a business contact into a real connection shows that you care; it sets the foundation for healthy relationships and builds both trust and goodwill. Above all else, people appreciate being valued, understood, and heard. When creating a professional network, it is vital to think of your connections as people first, and business contacts second.

So, remember a name, a story. Send flowers; offer a thank you card. Doing so won’t just boost your connections — it will make you a better friend, more capable business innovator, and a more thoughtful person.

Stop Helicopter-Mentoring Young Entrepreneurs

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Picture yourself at the head of a train. Ahead, you notice that the tracks look broken, uneven, and dangerous. If the train continues forward, it’s almost certain to hit bumpy terrain. Luckily, you see a solution; there’s a switch up ahead, and you know that if you can divert the train, it will trundle along to safety, unharmed.

So, what do you do? The answer is obvious: Divert the train.

It’s a no-brainer of a decision — except when it isn’t. What do you do if the train isn’t yours to control? You can probably guess where I’m going with this metaphor.

Every new entrepreneur worries that they’ll make a mistake that will topple their business. Their concern is understandable; after all, the Small Business Association estimates that only two-thirds of companies with employees survive two years, and only half make it to the five-year mark. The statistics for venture-backed startups are worse, with a survival rate of just 25%.

The prospect of failure is frightening — for entrepreneurs, and for the mentors who support them. As a serial entrepreneur and occasional mentor, I know firsthand how it feels to stand on a young entrepreneur’s business “train” and see trouble coming up ahead.

As a mentor, you want to protect your mentee from harm. You don’t want to see the business they’ve given their all to build topple, or watch them struggle with problems you know you could solve if given a chance. It feels like a given to hover over the metaphorical controls and step in whenever you see your mentee making the wrong choice — but in doing so, a mentor can be the person making a mistake.

Mentorship is a Relationship, Not a Dictatorship

Mentorship is, at its foundation, a personal relationship that requires connection, trust, and respect. If it lacks any of the three, the mentee will not receive the professional benefits that are typically associated with mentorship. According to one recent study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, mentees who do not have a basic relationship with their mentors perform at the same level as unmentored subjects. Without the foundation of an interpersonal connection, the mentoring relationship is virtually useless.

As Vineet Chopra and Sanjay Saint describe the matter for the Harvard Business Review, “The best mentorships are more like the relationship between a parent and adult child than between a boss and employee. They’re characterized by mutual respect, trust, shared values, and good communication, and they find their apotheosis in the mentee’s transition to mentor.”

I know the value of having a friendship with your mentees firsthand. One of my mentees chose to follow their entrepreneurial interests by building a business in my field; the similarity in our ambitions and career interests created a strong connection between the two of us. Today, she excels at what he does — but when she was new to the field, she often came to me with questions. I was her first mentor, the person she called if she was stuck on a problem, a source of support. It was easy to want her to succeed.

Sometimes, though, I saw her make small mistakes and chose to say nothing. I let her stumble, even though I might have been able to prevent her from tripping.

Why? For me, it was a matter of not being a helicopter-mentor.

The Relationship Dangers of Helicopter Mentoring

Like a nervous parent, mentors may find themselves hovering over their mentees, waiting to swoop in when they see a potential problem. I know the temptation personally — as empathetic people, we want to save those we love from potential dangers. As counterintuitive as it might seem, though, helicopter-mentoring can be dangerous. Left unchecked, it fosters resentment, limits achievement, and sours relationships.

The interpersonal trouble starts when a mentor starts barraging their mentee with advice. When you “give” instruction too frequently, you may end up “taking” control by asserting your viewpoint and leadership over your mentees.

A collection of four psychological studies explored this phenomenon in 2018. Its researchers found that even well-intentioned advice can create a sense of power over the advisee. In the worst cases, the advice-receiver may feel as though the advice-giver is attempting to control their actions.

While you may not mean to oppress your mentee, your constant interventions signal your lack of respect and trust for their thinking. This can leave a mentee feeling powerless, resentful, upset, and even rebellious. In the long run, your mentee might stop bringing their concerns and ideas to you, thereby harming the relationship further.

Helicopter mentoring isn’t the only habit that mentors struggle to break. Chopra and Saint cite several other types of “mentorship malpractice” in their above-mentioned article. These include but are not limited to claiming credit for a mentee’s idea, taking control of their projects, limiting a mentee’s efforts to your schedule, and stopping them from asking for second opinions.

Like helicopter-mentoring, all of these behaviors are controlling — and all can stem from a place of good intentions. Mentors need to be careful with their interventions and prioritize respectful interaction above all else. Otherwise, they may find themselves on the outs with their mentee, wondering why their guidance goes unheeded or unanswered.

Mentors Need to Understand Their Own Motivations

The next time that you find yourself hovering, take a moment to check yourself. Ask yourself why you want to intervene — is the problem a major one or just a potential hiccup? Will your advice be necessary, or are you simply putting your opinions over your mentees’?

Understanding your motivations is essential. You can’t wrap your mentee in bubble-wrap, and they certainly won’t thank you for doing so. Shutting down a mentee’s idea because you want to protect yourself from your own worry isn’t only selfish — it may impact your mentee’s success and harm your relationship.

Remember your role. This is your mentee’s life and project; you are a source of support and guidance, not one of control. If you do feel the need to discourage or offer constructive criticism, think carefully about how you frame it. Check your phrasing, and try to encourage even as you point out the flaws you feel need to be addressed. As business writer Anthony K. Tjan writes for the Harvard Business Review, “You might be tempted to help them think more realistically, but mentors need to be givers of energy, not takers of it.”

Young entrepreneurs need to learn on their own. You can hover over someone to catch them when they fall, but if you do, they will never learn to run. Allowing people to make mistakes will enable them to grow as professionals and as people.

Let the train go.

Passing the Torch: Why Female Leaders Should Become Mentors

This post was originally featured on ScoreNYC

Let’s face it — we spend most of our careers with our gaze firmly fixed upwards. Our professional focus is on climbing the corporate ladder, building our business, and summiting whatever professional peak we’ve put in our sights. We hardly ever pause to look back at those struggling to climb the rungs below us, much less help pull them up to our level.

As much as our successes deserve to be celebrated, we can’t rest on our laurels. Women who achieve leadership positions in business have the experience and influence necessary to help other talented women shatter the glass ceiling. The choice to step up and be a mentor is entirely up to them; however, female leaders will set the foundation for a more innovative and diverse professional landscape by doing so.

Currently, professional women do not have access to the mentorship opportunities that their male colleagues do. According to statistics provided by Lean In, 60% of male managers in the U.S. and 40% in the U.K. are “uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together.” When researchers pressed for answers, they found that the managers’ reluctance was due in part to a concern that they would face allegations of impropriety by forging professional relationships with women.

This fear is misplaced — however, this and other social factors do make it difficult for women to reach the top rungs of their organization’s corporate ladders. Today, women leaders are relatively few and far between. Data gathered by the American Center for Progress reveals that while women constitute 47% of the U.S. labor force, 52.5% of the college-educated workforce, and 51% of professional-level jobs and management roles, female employees are vastly underrepresented in top leadership tiers.

A quick survey of a few prominent working sectors illustrates my point. Consider the legal profession, where female workers hold 45% of associate roles and only 19% of equity partner positions. Look to the medical sector, where women represent 40% of all physicians and surgeons but only 16% of permanent medical school deans. Lastly, consider the financial services landscape, where only 12.5% of CFOs for Fortune 500 companies are female despite women holding 53% of financial management roles and 37% of financial analyst positions.

Despite their qualifications, women today are struggling to establish themselves as leaders. By offering their guidance, those who do make it to the top ranks have the opportunity to create a snowball effect that would boost diversity, broaden female professional networks, and potentially even improve business performance. Mentorship can, too, improve the mentor’s professional performance by helping them formalize their leadership approach and distill their experience into teachable and more readily-understandable lessons.

Here’s what you can do to begin your first foray into mentorship.

Find a Mentee

It’s possible to find a mentee by chance, but waiting for the right person to cross your professional path isn’t particularly efficient. Reach out! Tap your professional network, ask your personal connections, or even join a mentorship program. Be selective when you search; ideally, you want to find someone who you can work well with and can benefit from your particular brand of experience.

Set Expectations

Make sure that your expectations align with your mentee’s before you put time into the relationship. This is for both your sakes — if you spend hours coming up with a detailed development plan only to find out that your mentee doesn’t have the time to execute it, you’re both going to feel frustrated. Sit down and have a heart-to-heart; the only way to have a productive relationship is to ensure that you’re both on the same page.

Invest, But Try to Step Back

Let’s get one point straight — mentoring demands a lot of emotional and mental work. As one writer for Fast Company describes, “At its best, mentoring is a dynamic, ever-evolving relationship, requiring a substantial emotional investment by you, the mentor, in your mentee’s growth and development. It’s a role powered by large doses of empathy and seeking first to understand at what point your mentee is today.”

If you overly invest in your mentee’s growth or attempt to dictate their direction, you might find yourself hurt or surprised when they reject all or part of your advice. Your fundamental role is to empower, not spoon-feed! Give your mentee space to grow and gently cultivate achievement; invest, but step back.

Mentorship isn’t a luxury for female leaders; it’s an imperative. I hope you step up.

Diversity Is Pointless Without Balanced Conversations

Conversational barriers effectively render a group homogenous and remove the benefits that diversity might have otherwise provided, even if the group is technically diverse.

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Imagine yourself in this scenario: You are not the company’s CEO, but rather a new team member who recently joined the organization. You’re sitting with a handful of colleagues in a conference room, your notes in front of you. You’ve thought about this particular project for days, and have a clear proposal for the team’s approach. You politely chime in—only to be cut off mid-sentence by one of your coworkers.

“Excuse me,” you try to interject, “But to return to my point…”

This time, a different coworker bulldozes over your attempted comments, preventing you from getting a word in edgewise. This trend continues for the rest of the meeting; eventually, you close your folder and stop talking. What’s the point if no one will listen?

Unfortunately, this kind of conversational exclusion is all too common for many women at work. As one female professional described in an article for the New York Times, “My female boss told me she needed to allow each man to interrupt her four times before protesting in a meeting. If she protested more often, there were problems.”

Research backs this anecdote. Studies have shown that women often feel uncomfortable speaking up in mixed-gender settings and are more than twice as likely to be interrupted during a group conversation than men, particularly if their industry is male-dominated.

One study conducted by sociologists at the University of Santa Barbara examined  the link between gender and interruption by analyzing conversations between same-sex and mixed-gender groups. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that male conversationalists interrupt females far more than vice versa or in homogenous groups. The data that they reported, however, is startling: while the two same-gender groups only experienced a collective seven interruptions, the mixed-gender conversations saw a whopping 48 interruptions—46 of which were due to a male interrupting a female.

How to Create Female-Centric Cultures in your Small Business

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It’s well-established that gender diversity is remarkably good for business. According to a 2018 report from McKinsey, companies with a balanced mix of male and female executive team members are 21% more likely to see above-average profitability than their more homogenous peers. These gains aren’t limited to boardrooms, though; research published by Gallup indicates that gender-diverse business units in retail and hospitality have 14% and 19% higher average comparable revenue, respectively, than less-diverse business units.

Female inclusion creates business gains — it’s as simple as that.

Given a little thought, it’s not hard to see why these benefits appear. Workers of different genders and backgrounds naturally have different ideas, viewpoints, and insights into the market at hand. In a respectful, collaborative working environment, these differences give diverse teams a better ability to creatively solve problems, deliver top-tier performance, and serve a complex consumer base.

The opportunity for profit hasn’t gone unrecognized. Today, some 85% of companies track gender diversity to some degree, and many have made diversity a priority. Microsoft, for example, announced that it would be linking its executives’ bonuses to the company’s diversity goals in 2016. In the same vein, the technology manufacturer Intel crafted a diversity initiative that sought to mirror the percentage share of women and minorities in the broader workforce within the company’s employee base.

Of course, companies have a reason to act beyond diversity gains alone — talent. According to the 2017 PwC Female Talent Report, a full 77% of CEOs view the availability of skills as the most significant threat to their business. Researchers found that 58% of surveyed employers were actively attempting to recruit female hires to broaden their talent pool; for employers with over 10,000 workers, that percentage leaps to 78%.

Companies need gender diversity — not only to thrive but to survive. To borrow a quote from a writer for Gallup: “Companies cannot afford to ignore 50% of the potential workforce and expect to be competitive in the global economy.”

However, businesses cannot reap the benefits of gender diversity without first understanding what women value and creating a workplace culture that acknowledges and supports them. Below, I’ve listed a few ways to do so.

Design Forward-Thinking Recruitment Strategies

Too often, qualified women are passed over as a result of unconscious or intentional gender bias. According to the PwC study mentioned above, more than one-fifth of surveyed women across the globe reported experiencing gender discrimination when applying or interviewing for a job, as opposed to just 5% of men.

Though harmful to gender diversity, these exclusionary decisions often aren’t consciously made with exclusion in mind. Some recruiters might pass over an exceptional female candidate for a less-impressive male after seeing a gap in her resume. Others might consider a young, married applicant and worry that she might soon need to take maternity leave; or review a young mother’s resume and decide that she might focus on her family more than her work.

Make no mistake — though on the surface understandable, these decisions are exclusionary, unfair, and without basis. Researchers for the PwC study found that the stereotype of young women taking an extended leave to care for children is largely unfounded — in fact, men leave more often than women.

To quote the researchers: “Across the network, more women leave than men at our most junior grades only – and at this point in their lives very few of these women are at the stage of starting a family. At all other grades, more men actually leave than women. But we were replacing both our male and female leavers with predominantly male experienced hires.”

Thus, women too often find themselves shut out of career advancement opportunities because of outdated stereotypes. For the women who do temporarily leave the workforce, it can be incredibly challenging to return — some remain in unemployment limbo for years at a time.

Companies should make an effort to eradicate bias — conscious and unconscious — from their hiring process. Otherwise, they risk losing their ideal candidate to stereotype and assumption.

Provide Women With the Benefits They Want

When companies discuss benefits with female employees, they tend to focus on motherhood alone. However, while family leave policies are important, women want support in other aspects of their professional lives. According to CNN Money, 70% of surveyed female workers cite paid time off, respectful work environments, flexibility, salary equality, and learning opportunities as “must-haves” at work.

The takeaway? Create benefits that support women at all points of their careers, not just during their maternity leave.

Check Your Messaging

If women don’t see their gender represented among company leadership — or even respected industry roles — why would they want to join the team? Workplace cultures that don’t present women professionally and undermine their welcome will naturally struggle to gain diversity benefits.

As one writer puts the matter in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “If the ‘fun’ culture being promoted or bragged about is one in which women may be less likely to be able to participate, what are the chances that women are seen as “fitting in” the company?”

Creating a culture that is gender-inclusive is not only the right thing to do, it also empowers you to appeal to the entire available talent pool, not just a small subset.

Self-Awareness Isn’t Helping Women Progress At Work. Here’s Why.

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New research has identified three reasons why self-awareness can actually hinder the success of many female workers.

Self-awareness is often touted as a foundational leadership skill for the 21st century. After all, research shows that executives who see themselves clearly are more confident, more creative, make better decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively.

The self-aware are also better leaders and receive more promotions. It’s even true that companies with strong financial performance are comprised of employees with higher levels of self-awareness than poorly performing companies.

When it comes to self-awareness, women have a slight advantage over men, which would lead us to jump to the logical conclusion that women are being promoted more often. Except, of course, that’s not true. Women are still underrepresented in senior leadership roles and are still paid less than men.

How do we reconcile the fact that self-awareness isn’t helping women progress at work? New research has identified three reasons why self-awareness can actually hinder the success of many female workers.

Women Believe They are Underestimated in the Workplace

Let’s begin by clarifying a popular theory: women are not less confident than men. It’s been found that the self-confidence gap between girls and boys diminishes significantly by the age of 23. Men and women in leadership positions rate their abilities similarly. The idea that gender inequity in the workplace can be explained away by a woman’s lack of confidence no longer holds water.

But while women strongly believe in their own abilities, they face a related challenge that men do not: many women feel that their colleagues underestimate their output and worth. In fact, a recent study showed that while men and women’s self-ratings of their emotional intelligence do not differ, women are three times more likely than men to believe that their supervisors would rate their abilities lower. In reality, their bosses rated women slightly higher than their male counterparts.

What accounts for this disconnect? Research suggests that ingrained gender roles and persistent stereotypes likely play a role. While women are self-aware in that they understand themselves and the value of their contributions, they’re also aware of unconscious prejudice at play within the workplace and are therefore less likely to correctly perceive how others view them.

While prejudice certainly still exists and cannot be downplayed, it’s also true that many leaders are willing to award credit where it’s due, regardless of gender. When a woman believes that others don’t value her, she’ll inevitably be more cautious about asking for things that she may very well deserve, like promotions and raises. Therefore, women looking to advance quickly should attempt to gain a more accurate picture of their contributions through the eyes of others. This might involve soliciting feedback from supervisors and other colleagues to gain a greater understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as others see them.

Women Do Not Receive Quality Feedback

Although women ask for feedback just as often as men, they’re less likely to receive it. Many managers fear giving honest feedback to women because they’re concerned about having their comments perceived as hurtful. These managers still believe the stereotype that women are more emotional than men, and they choose to avoid difficult conversations that could provoke tears or an irrational outburst. Researchers have coined the phrase “benevolent sexism” to refer to behaviors that shield women from negative feedback.

This is problematic because feedback is essential to a leader’s growth and development. It’s very hard to improve without it. It’s much more likely that a woman will be passed over for promotions and raises when she can’t address the issues that would make her more effective in her role and more valuable to her organization. Whereas men are getting feedback that’s specific and tied directly to business outcomes, women are more likely to receive feedback that’s vague, which only tells a woman that she’s not meeting expectations, but doesn’t give her the specifics to address her shortcomings. It’s simply not actionable. The disparity is devastating, as vague feedback leads to lower performance ratings.

On the other hand, vague positive feedback is just as problematic because, while it tells a woman that she’s doing well, it doesn’t specify why or how, so she’s left in the dark about how, exactly, to continue replicating those actions which are valued. And without detailed, documented achievements to point to, it’s more difficult to make the case for promotions or raises. Likewise, when women can solicit and record specific feedback, it has been shown to eliminate men’s overrepresentation in performance categories. In other words, it helps to neutralize bias.

The best solution for women is to know their audience and solicit concrete performance feedback from colleagues that they feel will be both supportive and honest. And, when feedback isn’t specific enough, women should ask follow-up questions. They can try to quantify successes and failures, the behaviors that have led to both, how often they engage in such behaviors, and the organizational impact of their achievements and shortcomings. Seeking concrete examples and documenting them makes them available for future negotiations.

Women Can Take Negative Feedback to Heart

The three ways people form a picture of who they are include: how they see themselves, how others see them, and the comparisons they make to others. While men most value how they see themselves, women tend to focus more on how others see them. Women are also more likely to amend their view of themselves in the presence of feedback from others. While feedback is essential to leadership, placing a greater importance on others’ evaluations of one’s performance can be dangerous. It not only potentially causes us to depart from our own values, standards, and goals, it can cause us to dwell on our fears and shortcomings. Coupled with the tendency to ruminate on insecurities (which women are more prone to do), this kind of behavior can be fatal to one’s career.

Self-awareness is a comingling of self-perceptions and the perceptions of others, and women need to be careful not to fall into the trap of overriding their own self-images based on others’ opinions. Feedback is important and should be taken seriously, but it should not be taken as gospel. Viewpoints will inevitably vary person-to-person, and it is the synthesis of those varying impressions, paired with one’s own assessments, that form a more complete vision of a leader’s strengths and weaknesses. It is this diverse and informed view that women should analyze to extract actionable insights and form the foundation for their personal performance improvement plans.

Additionally, women can strengthen their own sense of self in the process. We can ask ourselves about our greatest aspirations, our guiding principles, and our values. What work energizes us the most? What career path should we take and are we on the right track? The more we recognize, value, and prioritize our own views, the stronger and more resilient they will become. This strength is perhaps our greatest protection against negative views that threaten to upend our own. It never hurts to prove someone wrong.

Despite the bold claims about the importance of self-awareness in leadership, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all recipe for success. Sure, women can strive to be self-aware leaders. That’s not a bad goal, as long as we also commit to ensuring that we keep others’ feedback constructive, productive, and in perspective.

When Should Women Ignore Career Advice?

This post was originally featured on ScoreNYC

As soon as women step foot into the working world, they face an inundation of career advice from magazines, from family members, from coworkers, and even from the strangers that they happen to strike up conversations with during a wait at the train station. Each person has their own opinion on how a female worker can optimize her skillset, demeanor, ambition, speech patterns, and outfits to maximize her potential for professional growth. They often feel inclined to share their wisdom — regardless of whether their beneficiary even wanted the guidance in the first place.

For the person on the receiving end of the conversation, this tidal wave of advice can feel frustrating and stressful. Women — and particularly those in the earliest years of their career — may struggle to reconcile conflicting instructions or worry that they might fall behind if they don’t follow given advice. They may even feel insecure in their carefully-planned career trajectory if an unsolicited advisor provides well-meaning but judgemental criticism. Over time, the accumulation of well-intended but grating advice can wear away at the receiver’s confidence, leaving her unsure of her own direction and capabilities.

Now, this isn’t to say that all advice is harmful and wearing — quite the opposite. When solicited, guidance from our friends, family, mentors, and others can be invaluable, especially when we begin our careers. After all, what better way to learn how to start a business, ask for a raise, or even switch industries than to consult someone who has already done precisely that? Experience is an invaluable tool in any professional development arsenal, even if the lessons we draw on aren’t ones that we lived firsthand.

The problem comes, however, when we begin to think that others’ experiences and opinions are more valuable than our own. In perpetually accepting advice, we unconsciously position ourselves as always needing help — and stop believing ourselves capable of walking forward on our own.

This would be troubling enough on its own — but is made even more so because not all advisors instruct to help their advisees grow.

Understanding the Nuances of (un)Healthy Advice-Giving

The reasons behind a person’s decision to give unsolicited advice can vary. Our friends and families want to see us succeed; other women want to mentor us; our colleagues and supervisors want to see us thrive. Well-meaning advice-givers are often motivated by altruism, friendliness, or even excitement.

series of four studies published in the May 2018 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that even when an advice-giver isn’t actively or consciously attempting to control another person, the very act of providing advice provides a sense of sway and power. An earlier study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania supports this finding, writing: “In giving unsolicited advice, the advice-giver appears to presume that his/her authority will be accepted by the advisee.” The report goes on to say that because women are socially conditioned to shy away from authoritative statements and use more questions, their conversational partners — and assertive men, in particular — often already have a presumption of authority and therefore feel comfortable giving unsolicited advice.

Naturally, the advice-receiver is put in an inferior position, which can have a clear and detrimental impact on both their confidence and their relationship with the advice-giver — although the advice-giver may not immediately recognize the harm they cause.

As MindBodyGreen writer Dr. Margaret Paul wrote of her experience as being an unsolicited advisor, “Over the years, I finally began to understand that my imposing viewpoints weren’t being interpreted as sharing wisdom, and my care was instead being viewed as an attempt to control.”

The truth is, no one can tell you how to live your professional life better than you. While others’ perspectives can and should — when requested — inform your decisions, they should never take precedence over your own opinions.

Here are a few tips for how you can productively dismiss unwanted career advice.

Set Boundaries 
When someone gives you unsolicited advice, decline their assistance. You can do so politely by acknowledging their perspective and intent; however, it is crucial to avoid the assumption that you needed, requested, or couldn’t have succeeded without their help.

Don’t Ask for Advice to Be Polite
Sometimes, we ask questions for the sake of making polite conversation. However, if you don’t need advice, don’t ask for it — if you do, you may inadvertently make others think that they have permission to step into an authoritative or mentor-like role over you.

Assert Yourself
Accepting productive advice without losing self-confidence is a balancing act that you will need to achieve alone. As feminist writer Rebecca Solnit put the matter: “I’ve learned that a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding, listening, and progressing–though too much is paralyzing and total self-confidence produces arrogant idiots.”

It is possible to stand firm against unsolicited advice while listening to those you want guidance from; however, striking that balance can take work. Shut down your self-appointed counselors if you feel that they’re forcing their authority onto you — or don’t. The choice is, as always, up to you.