Work-Life Balance: Suggestions for Managers, and the People They Manage

I coach a lot of people who need to work on developing their assertiveness. I also coach a number of unsympathetic people who have been asked to tone themselves down. We’re looking for a happy medium, a way for careers to advance and organizations to prosper without anyone’s feelings getting hurt.

Which is great.

But then we get into conversations about work-life balance, and how to ask for the conditions they desire, and things break down. People hit walls made up of the bricks of their personality and their culture, and they can’t see the beauty of what’s on the other side, only the pain, or at least awkwardness and the scraped knees of the climb.

Shelly Lazarus, Chairman Emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, encourages people in search of improvements in their work situation to find the confidence to say, “This is who I am, this is what I do and if you want me to keep on working here you need to trust me enough that I will get done what needs to be done, but I’m going to do it on my own time.”

Try this type of encouragement out in Asia (where I’ve been living for 23 years), and you’ll get a small percentage of people who are willing to try and a large percentage who will laugh, as one former client did. “Oh no. No, no,” he said. “That would be ridiculous.” But it doesn’t just happen here. You’ll get the same response from a percentage of any population.

Can corporate culture trump personal culture? I’ve seen that it can, eventually, if employees really, really believe in the corporation, and if they’re working for people who walk the corporation’s talk. Lazarus has things to say about the role of leaders in corporate culture as well. “It’s not just what you say; it’s what you do. If you don’t behave in way that’s consistent with what you say, you will be found out, in a minute.”

So who are you? Are you a leader who wants to increase motivation and retention? Do you value diversity? Do you want to keep women in all levels of your workforce? Do you want to make sure the introverts have the same chance of success as the extroverts? Then how aware are you of their desires? Do you believe in the corporation’s values? Do you know what they are? How often do you demonstrate them? Do you do so in a way that makes you approachable? And if people approach you, how well do you listen? (Hint: Most of us believe we’re good listeners, and most of us are wrong. Reflect on these questions on your own, sure; but ask around for a second opinion, or do a 360 if it’s been a while since your last one.)

Or are you an employee wanting improvements in your work-life balance? What can you do if you don’t have the confidence yet for the conversation? Or if you’ve been told you’re too aggressive, and might damage your relationship with the boss? You might be wise to take the recommendation of another prominent woman at Ogilvy & Mather, Group Chairman Fiona Gordon. In her keynote speech at an Ad Women Singapore event last December, Gordon recommended that people find a mentor in their organization who has skills and traits very different from their own, to challenge their assumptions and improve their ability to flex their style when necessary.

Find someone who will give you critiques, not just compliments.


Alison Lester is a writer and communication skills coach based in Singapore. Her books include a guide to more creative and comfortable presentation skills called Present for Success, and a collection of essays called Restroom Reflections: How Communication Changes Everything. She blogs at, and her first novel, Lillian on Life, will be published by Amy Einhorn Books in January 2015.

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