Managing upwards after family-related leave

Those of us who have taken a period of months away from work will know that returning can be the hardest part.  Most of us would also say that the relationship you have with your manager is paramount to the long-term success of your return to work.

Building a strong relationship with your manager takes time, and extra effort needs to be made well before you even go on family-related leave.  However, we don’t always have that luxury of time – all too often we are faced with business re-structures, which means reporting lines change and we find ourselves with the challenge of a new manager.

Getting to know your manager needs to go to the top of your to-do list on return from leave.  It can take many months to understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses and ways of communicating.  However, as a starting point, it’s useful to put yourself in your manager’s shoes and understand how they may be feeling about working with a new returner, who has potentially been out of the business for up to a year.   Consider these questions:

How a returner may be feeling:

‘Will I still be respected by my team and manager now I am a mother?’
‘How can I prove I am still committed to progressing?’
‘Will I get my confidence back?’
‘Will my baby settle in childcare whilst I’m at work?’
‘Will I and my baby feel separation anxiety?’
‘How will I cope financially if I work part-time?’
‘Will my manager and colleagues treat me differently when I have to leave at 5pm?’
‘What will I do when my baby is sick?’

How a manager may be feeling:

‘What paperwork will I have to complete?
What is the process for managing a returner?’
‘Will Rebecca remain committed and focused now she has her baby?’
‘How much time off can she take if her baby falls ill and what is the procedure?’
‘Will Rebecca have to miss early or late meetings now?’
‘Is her business knowledge out of date now and how will she catch up?’
‘Can she and will she still want to travel now?’
‘Will she be able to cope with the more complex projects this year or should I give them to someone else?’

What we notice here immediately is the commonality:  both manager and returner has a list of questions, some insecurities; and overall, a strong need for reciprocal reassurance.  After a lengthy period of not working together, or with a new manager/employee relationship, it takes time to rebuild a trusting relationship.  If time isn’t spent on the relationship (from both sides), the danger is that unanswered questions then become assumptions, which can lead to misunderstanding and resent over the longer term.

The solution?

I’m all for quick wins – so whether you are a manager or a returner, meet regularly and observe each other’s behaviour and progress in all situations.  If you are a returner, discuss concerns, but also find ways to show where your strengths are.  Even if you think your manager knows you, you and the business will have changed.  If you are a manager, be led by your returner; ask how you can support and be open to flexibility.

The quote below is taken from this article written for Berkeley University in the US, and stresses the importance of actively managing the relationship with your manager – at all times:

It’s important to understand your boss – not just initially when you first begin working with one another, but throughout your relationship.  On an ongoing basis, it’s important to communicate as priorities and concerns change….This is important because you and your boss are mutually dependent on one another…

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