Lean In/Lean Away



Are you biding your time?  Are you coasting?  Have you given up?  Is it not your responsibility? Or, maybe you’re trying too hard?

In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, the author advocates that both men and women lean into the roles that they are perhaps not fully engaged in.  Women will often lean away from their work roles for a number of reasons, according to Sandberg, such as feeling it is not their role, trying to be polite/team players, anticipating maternity leave, or feeling like it’s cheaper to leave the workforce than pay for childcare.  Sandberg states that, in contrast, men lean away from the traditional female roles of parenting and housecleaning.  For equity and the benefit of all involved, men should lean in toward their home and family roles and women into their work and professional roles.

Apparently, Sandberg got a lot of heat for this book.  I’m not sure why exactly, except to maybe surmise that whenever you generalize, you will potentially be wrong about someone.  And gender roles are a hot topic, so while I generalize all the live-long day on this blog, I haven’t really touched upon these hot gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political affiliation topics.

But I digress.  What I really want to point out is that maybe Sandberg was too specific in her request for both men and women to lean in and engage.  There are men who are disengaged and women who are engaged in some areas and not others in the workplace.  At home, it’s the same dynamic – some ways women are disengaged (stereotypically, with finances) and others in which men are more engaged (stereotypically with the TV, haha).

Once, during a professionally restless time period, I was looking for a new job.  One job in particular seemed like it had a great deal of potential and a likely job offer, but the timeline just streeettcchhed on, even more so than the usual academic search.  During that time period, there was a tendency to disengage, not only from my work, but also from my local relationships.  I had more than one person tell me, “oh you’re leaving so I guess we won’t plan to get together.”  I did not end up taking that job, and so leaning away for the almost 10 months that the search process spanned would’ve meant 10 months of treading water,  lost productivity and opportunity to grow relationships.

I have also heard others just talk about wanting to wait until…. graduation, their new job, retirement, when their kids go to college, their next vacation….to be happy, start caring for themselves, de-stress, quit rushing, enjoy themselves, try something new.  Isn’t that a long time to wait to be happy or satisfied?  Why not aim for satisfaction and engagement every day?

I don’t really have a problem with leaning in.  Fortunately, during that job search I possibly even over-compensated and worked harder.  When I did not actually leave, I had both feet fully engaged at work and some terrific projects and opportunities that had developed during that time period – which honestly was part of the reason I decided not to go.  In hindsight, it would’ve been a huge mistake to lean away for so long, especially since I ended up staying.

But, I think there’s a whole subset of us who tend to lean in too hard sometimes.  We’re euphemistically called, “intense.”  We are also less charitably called, “pushy” or “demanding.”

Intense people sometimes need to lean away. I know my teenaged boys and my sweetheart sometimes just need some space.  That is not my natural inclination, and, in a way, to lean in with them means to lean away physically, psychologically and emotionally.   There are similarly situations at work that also just require time, letting situations ripen, working the process, letting go, or self-reflection instead of pushing pushing pushing.  Sandberg would say that women who push are “aggressive” while men who push are “assertive.”  I’ve been called aggressive more than once, as you can imagine.  My goal is to temper it with diplomacy and hopefully a growing amount of wisdom.  A dose of humor and positivity never hurts either.

So, as with all things that we endeavor to do, we should be conscious.  Where do we lean in?  Where do we lean away?  Where do we need to adjust and step in or step back?  I know some feel overwhelmed by these choices, but these choices are where our power is.  We have very little control in our lives, and the only thing that we can control is ourselves.  If we focus mainly on what we can control, instead of what we cannot, we can be more powerful.  Applying wisdom and intentionality to what was previously unconscious allows us to be more effective and happier in our lives.

So go for it.  Lean in.  Lean away.  We will all be metaphorically bobbing to and fro as we experiment.

I know some people are afraid to make a change because they might make a mistake.  What if you ARE making a mistake now, and by not making a change, you’re prolonging a mistake that could’ve been fixed years ago?  Doing nothing is not the same is doing no harm.  Remember, the sin of omission is just as bad as the sin of commission.  Don’t assume inaction is safer than taking a chance.  The worst case scenario is that you learn a lesson.  So what do you have to lose?