How to overcome guilt at work

June 12, 2013

(This post originally appeared on The Hired Guns blog.)

Recently I was at a conference for female entrepreneurs when a young business owner got up to ask one of the panelists a question: “How do you deal with Mommy guilt?” I wasn’t inspired by the answer, which consisted of the usual fudge along the lines of spending ‘quality time’ with the kids.

I wish she’d said what women need to hear, which is, essentially, “Don’t feel guilty.”

Guys don’t tend to have a problem with guilt – or if they do, they keep it to themselves. But women? We have a full-on, all consuming relationship with this wearying emotion. Most men are not constantly obsessing over something they may have said to upset someone at work, or worrying about a favor they didn’t do, and they’re certainly not tying themselves in knots over being away from their children during the working day. But because women are so geared towards relationships, we are excellent at feeling awful about anything that could harm those relationships.

I’m just as, well, guilty as any other woman on this front, but I am gradually training myself not to be. I’ve been inspired in this regard by some influential women, among them Financial Times columnist Mrs. Moneypenny, otherwise known as Heather McGregor. She runs her own headhunting business in London and is married with three sons. She’s also the author of a book called Mrs. Moneypenny’s Career Advice for Ambitious Women.

“I don’t do guilt,” McGregor told me recently. “It eats at your self-confidence and you feel terrible all the time. That drains you of energy to do anything useful, or to move forward in your life.”

And if there’s anything professional women need, it’s time, energy, and the ability to focus. Guilt eats into all three.

Guilt also comes in various flavors. Here’s how to avoid the worst of them:

‘I screwed up’ guilt
How often have you felt awful for unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings, or making a mistake at work? There’s a simple answer, according to McGregor. Accept the blame, apologize quickly, rectify things to the best of your ability, and then move on. Don’t wallow in your error, and don’t say ‘sorry’ multiple times. A female friend recently told me the story of a young man who works for her. He screwed up royally, she reprimanded him, he said sorry once, took the rap, and never referred to it again. She was half-envious, half-admiring. She knew if she’d been in the same situation, she’d have beaten herself up for days.

‘Saying no’ guilt
Women are really good at feeling bad about saying no. But if you want to achieve a lot at work, and in the rest of your life, and maintain some semblance of sanity, you’re going to have to say no to various requests, from taking on extra work to appearances at your children’s school.

Heather McGregor is pragmatic: “First, acknowledge that you can’t be everywhere. You will just be average at everything if you try to do too much…no one will get proper attention.” She’s missed plenty of parent/teacher conferences (her husband goes to those) and sports events. She points out that you can “say no in a positive way”. If a contact asks her for a favor she doesn’t consider worth her time, she always responds with a polite ‘no’, but also makes a few suggestions that could help the person with their request.

Mommy guilt
A friend of mine — an entrepreneur and mother of two — has heard comments like: “You’re probably too ambitious to have another baby” (she wasn’t). She also said that one of her young son’s friends recently mistook the family nanny for Mom, because he saw the nanny so much more often. This stuff used to bother her, but it no longer does, because she loves working. She also feels she’d be a lousy stay-at-home mom. She doesn’t feel guilty.

McGregor says one way around any creeping feelings of guilt is to communicate openly with your children (when they’re old enough to understand) about why you can’t always be there. Her honesty extends to explaining that she brings home the bacon and that if her business suffers, so will their ability to pay for their house, go on family vacations, and receive a good education. She says women need to look after themselves first, then their children, citing the airline oxygen mask example (put on your own mask first, then help your child). “If you are healthy and breathing and OK, if your career is going well, if you’re earning well and able to provide for your family, your family will be better off,” she says.

Also, remember there’s a whole industry out there to make women feel guilty. Playing on our emotions is what sells products. Don’t succumb.

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