January 13, 2021

Should you “lean in” when the world is in crisis?

In my 30 years of work, women have made great strides in the workplace, and in some fields there are not many glass ceilings that still need to be shattered. Women still lag in pay, promotion and leadership of many industries, but they have fought difficult battles and ascended to new heights as a result of their tenacity. The picture is not perfect, but there has been much to celebrate in recent years.

Enter COVID-19.

Although all of us have faced massive challenges during this crisis, sometimes crisis begets opportunity. Some professionals have been able to act on those opportunities and seize a chance to prove themselves during difficult times. For others, taking on a new challenge seems unwise or simply impossible right now. Career momentum has stalled.

In my work coaching professionals, whether women or men, I have heard so many people express angst over what this time of crisis means for their careers. Women especially may feel pressure to continue growth and advancement, but all of us are prone to worry, stress and distraction in times like these. Should we embrace opportunity, whatever barriers we face? Or is it OK to put career progress on the back burner while the world is upside down?

There is no single right answer.

Career paths during a crisis

Evidence suggests that on top of the public health worries, isolation and other challenges of the pandemic, many people are concerned about their careers. Especially women.

While it would be nice to think that we have evolved to a place where the burdens of managing home schooling, preparing more meals at home and other pandemic-era challenges fall equally on the shoulders of men and women, in many homes, that’s just not the case. And the inequity lands even harder in the laps of women of color and single mothers, according to findings from LeanIn.org.

The effect on careers goes well beyond stress and domestic discord.  Data suggest that women with children are less likely to feel they have been productive during the pandemic than men; they are less likely to think remote work during this time has been good for their careers; and they are less likely to have gotten a promotion, leadership responsibilities or a pay raise. The long-term consequences could be substantial for women in the workplace.

I want to acknowledge that many men out there are also struggling. They may feel compelled to push through, particularly given stereotypical roles and characteristics historically assigned to men. But I think promising women for whom opportunity might seem fleeting especially feel this pressure to keep laser focused on moving up the ladder. The pressure to lean in.

Leaning in … in extraordinarily difficult times

The book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg and the subsequent Lean In movement called on women to do just that to advance their careers – to seize opportunity, embrace challenges and ensure they have a seat and a voice at the table where decisions are being made.  Although the concept garnered an immediate following, it also faced criticism in addition to praise, and author Sheryl Sandberg later wrote a follow-up book after the unexpected death of her husband.  The follow-up was called Option B, and it adds context to her ideas, noting that life challenges sometimes make leaning in difficult if not impossible.

Leaning might seem like the way to go for driven professionals, especially those who understand the historical context of the uphill battle being waged for women and people of color in the workforce.  But great opportunities sometimes present themselves at what seems to be the worst possible time.  Maybe you have a sick parent whose care demands all your spare time, and you receive a job offer that would multiply your influence but also your workload. Maybe your dream position is open, but it’s thousands of miles away, and your daughter is starting her last year of high school. Or, in this time of challenge right now, maybe you have a promotion opportunity that would land you in a job you have been striving for – but that would deprive your child of the support he needs for remote learning.

Conventional wisdom might tell you: figure it out and seize the moment.

Conventional wisdom might be right. But it could also be wrong. Every job is different, every career is different, and every life is different. Leaning in is great if you can do it without sacrificing what you care most about. If you can’t? It might be time to lean out.

Leaning out when it’s the right choice for you

Career decisions are never simple. I advocate an intentional approach rooted in what matters most to you, but even in the best of times, it can be challenging to segment your own priorities from those others might have imposed on you.  Many of the women I work with are trailblazers themselves, but they also feel external pressure to pick up the mantle of progress others have made and carry it further.  This can be exhilarating.  But it can also be too much.

If you have an opportunity right now that will move you forward but the timing is all wrong for you, should you lean into it?  If you let opportunity slip through your fingers, are you wasting this moment?

In a word, no. In a few more words, this might not be your time.  That doesn’t mean it’s not ever going to be your time.  What’s important is that you make the choice for yourself, for the right reasons and for the circumstances you are facing.  Ask yourself what matters most to you and answer the question honestly, then use what you learn to map a way forward that is right for you in this moment.

No decision has to be forever

Driven professionals don’t always have an easy time with the idea of leaning out.  But curve balls come our way sometimes, and you have to adapt if you want to keep moving forward.  Sometimes that means you duck to dodge the curveball, then get right back on the path.  But sometimes it means you step off the path – for the time being, at least.

It also might mean rethinking your next move.  Can you put a job change on hold but make a smaller adjustment to your assignments that will help you gain new skills at a reasonable pace?  Can you seek a mentor who can help you spot and address gaps?  Spending a little time on assessing where you are might help you see that you can continue growing without overwhelming your life.  But you might also decide you just need to tread water right now, and that’s OK.  We all need that sometimes.

Your experience

What are your thoughts on leaning in and leaning out?  What would make it easier to lean out at times that it’s needed?  I hope you’ll share in the comments, social media or in an email to me ([email protected]) if you’d rather keep your thoughts private. I’d love to hear from you!

Last updated January 12, 2021

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