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Lessons in courage - how women make big decisions

An ongoing study of women's careers reveals one big lesson: be fearless

Published: May 11, 2017 06:55:11 AM IST
Updated: May 10, 2017 11:40:35 AM IST

One of the surprising revelations from O’Connor and Dawson’s conversations was that, when it came to making their most important, life-changing decisions, women were more likely to go it alone
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We’re all editors and publishers now. Whether on social media or face-to-face we’re constantly selecting which parts of our lives to show to others – and which to hide away. Women are notoriously adept at airbrushing out the grittier parts of everyday existence to project a flawless veneer – the ideal job, accomplished children, a successful and supportive partner, idyllic holidays. But dig a little deeper and what would you find?

Kathleen O’Connor, Visiting Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and Erica Dawson from Cornell University, both psychologists and experimental researchers, were curious. Interviewing women of all ages, from recent graduates in their early twenties to retirees in their seventies, they heard how women made decisions that changed their lives – and ended up happier as a result.

“Interviewing” turns out to be a rather formal description. O’Connor and Dawson have a list of questions but they rarely need to resort to them. Over an hour and a half, conversation flows. “The stories are really powerful and inspirational,” says O’Connor. “There are lots of women struggling or unhappy and it’s possible to change that. The problem is we’re not exposed to how we can do it.” She and Dawson hope that the stories they’ve collected will encourage women to look again at their own lives and find the courage to alter them for the better.

The ongoing study is already revealing some interesting insights.

Don’t box yourself in
Sometimes, O’Connor reports, women hang onto what they know just because, well, it’s what they know.

Sarah, a very successful advertising executive in London, had achieved great success by a relatively young age. Talking to O’Connor she confessed that what she really wanted to do was live by the sea and paint. When O’Connor asked what was holding her back, Sarah replied, “It’s not what I do.”

So often women can get stuck when they choose to stay with the devil they know, O’Connor reflects. “Trust your voice,” she advises. “What’s the worst that’s going to happen? If you’re effectively dying in your current situation, trust the possibly happier abstract tomorrow.”

Learn to live with disruption

Whether we like it or not our lives will not unfold in a neat continuum. Disruption is inevitable. Sometimes we choose it by changing jobs or having children; often it arrives in a less welcome guise as we are faced with an unexpected redundancy or caring for ailing parents. Once you’ve weathered the initial challenge, the key thing, O’Connor says, is to view the upheaval as a pivot point – an opportunity for change. “Regardless of who made the disruptive decision, the women in our sample look back and see these disruptions positively, reporting better, happier lives afterwards.”

One woman’s perfect may be another woman’s prison
Many of the women O’Connor and Dawson spoke to had outwardly "perfect" lives. One successful American banker seemed to have it all: a prestigious job paying an excellent salary, a clear career trajectory and a financially comfortable future. A checklist for a happy and contented life, except for an underlying feeling of malaise. Leaving the office at 21.00 every night wasn’t getting her anywhere near reaching personal goals of buying a house, finding a partner and having children. Once she’d admitted this to herself she set about systematically researching which US cities would be the best places to achieve these aims. Then she picked one, packed in her job and relocated. The happy ending wasn’t immediate. Initially, she didn’t know anyone there and was unemployed for over a year. Eventually she found a job that she loved and is now living in an environment more likely to lead to the personal happiness she’s seeking.

Go with your gut

The American banker certainly did her research but, in common with almost all of the women interviewed, she also had the courage of her own convictions. Women often have the reputation of deciding by committee; canvassing friends’ opinions over a glass of wine before deciding how to tackle a situation. However, one of the surprising revelations from O’Connor and Dawson’s conversations was that, when it came to making their most important, life-changing decisions, women were more likely to go it alone. “The study revealed how self-aware they were and how they recognised that no one knew them better than they knew themselves,” says O’Connor. “It’s important to have confidence in your understanding of yourself.” This doesn’t mean working out every step before you make a big decision. In fact, many women reported that not having a detailed plan was a valuable part of the process. Acting on gut feeling started the ball rolling.

That was the case with one high-flying management consultant in her 30s. Having worked very hard, travelled and acquired the outward trappings of success, she felt she wanted to put down some roots. As a first step she bought a house in the countryside. Not long after she moved in, the boiler broke. She called the plumber. “A month later she was pregnant,” relates O’Connor. “She now has three children, still lives in the same village and runs the plumbing business for her husband. She was the happiest woman I spoke to.”

Know what makes you sing (but recognise that others may not want to listen)
O’Connor and Dawson found almost all the women they spoke to have an understanding of what makes them happy. Identifying what this is can be as simple or existential a task as you want to make it, but because the women interviewed knew what gave them joy, they were able to focus on a particular destination – even when other people disagreed about how they should get there.

Like the friends and colleagues of a twenty-six-year-old postgraduate student who were aghast when she abandoned writing her maths PhD thesis and walked away from a potentially successful life in academia. They thought she was jettisoning years of research, but she knew that being challenged made her happy. Taking a job in a software company gave her the income and spare time to satisfy her craving for fresh adventures by becoming an extreme sports athlete.

Dare to do it
While risking life and limb is not everyone’s idea of happiness, this woman’s story provides a useful analogy. Jumping out of a plane or off a cliff – whether real or metaphorical – is sometimes the right thing to do.

It’s a message that came through loud and clear during O’Connor and Dawson’s conversations. “When asked what advice they'd give to their younger selves, nearly every woman said, 'be brave',” says O’Connor. “Quit that job, leave that partner, speak up to that boss. Most of this seemed to reflect a desire to tell one's younger self not to be fearful. You'll find another job, another boss, they seemed to be saying.”

And what about men? Would the same mixture of inspiration, bravery and daring emerge from conversations with them? “It would be an interesting study,” O’Connor laughs, “for someone else!” She and Dawson deliberately haven’t sought to interview men. “We wanted to value the reports of women, and too often, when men and women differ, we look for ways to 'fix the women’.” She underlines, however, that the women spoken to described the importance of men in their decision-making – as supportive partners or, more often, as workplace mentors who had encouraged them to raise their aspirations.

What does this study mean for business?
O’Connor and Dawson’s findings suggest that companies that take the time to read between the lines and think more deeply about how and when women make big decisions will find their efforts richly rewarded.

Look at CVs differently
Abandon the notion that a CV has to look linear and don’t associate a need to take personal time as a lack of ambition. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first female director of policy planning at the US State Department, wrote: “It tilts the scales in favour of the workers who can compete that way, the ones who have no caregiving responsibilities or who have a full-time caregiver at home. It also means that as a society we lose massive amounts of talent. We lose the distance runners, the athletes with the endurance, patience and fortitude to keep going over the long haul.” (*1)

Question why a woman left your company
Businesses often lose out by failing to nurture their female employees’ early drive and determination. O’Connor cites a Bain 2014 report on gender parity showing that nearly half of women – compared with 34% of men – enter their first job aiming to reach the top. Within five years the number of women with this ambition plummets to 16% but remains unchanged amongst men. O’Connor and Dawson’s study found that very few women left the workplace never to return, so if a woman leaves your company, ask yourself why. Did she have a terrible boss? Did the company lack policies to support her when, for example, she needed to take time for personal reasons? “You recruited her, invested in her. She’s expensive to replace. Why are you letting this woman go?” asks O’Connor.

Cultivate your company’s alumni network
The woman that you employed and trusted didn’t cease to exist when she left your company: think what happened next. “She went somewhere and you lost her network. She didn’t become less capable,” says O’Connor. Encourage women through their leave process and try to create an environment that they may want to return to – that doesn’t necessarily mean the same job.

Show loyalty to women and they’ll return it in bucketloads

Many of the women reported that when a company showed them understanding during times of upheaval it earned their loyalty for life. That’s a powerful and reliable resource you can’t afford to ignore.

What does this study mean for women?
Don’t resign yourself to the status quo
There are times in life when stability is desirable or essential but there are also moments to take a deep breath and go for it. Do your homework but realise that not everyone has a plan and don’t get bogged down in minutiae. Say yes to things that are interesting to you. Ask yourself, “Am I going to learn? Am I going to have fun?”

Cultivate self-awareness
You are the best judge of what’s important to you and what makes you happy. However you can’t live off fresh air so be realistic about how much money you need to live the way you want. If you have a severance package, work out how long you can string it out for.

Share stories
The older women in the study expressed a desire to share their experiences with younger generations. At a time when so many women feel an overwhelming pressure to achieve everything in their personal and professional lives during their twenties, hearing another, perhaps more senior, woman say “I know exactly what you’re going through” may help to alleviate anxiety.

Be brave

The overwhelming message from the study’s participants was to be fearless; many regretted not pulling the trigger sooner on a course of action. Remember that even if things go wrong it doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. As Ron Howard, father of Decision Analysis, points out , “In an uncertain world, good decisions can lead to bad outcomes, and vice versa.” (*3)

If you’re treading water or, worse still, “not waving but drowning”, what are you waiting for?

*1 Slaughter, Anne-Marie, Unfinished Business, Oneworld, London 2015, p.35

This article was first published in London Business School Review. For more fresh ideas and opinion from London Business School's experts visit www.london.edu/lbsr