This morning, as I reflected on some sessions I recently had with a couple of clients, this somewhat ironic thought came to mind – “Why let others hold you back when you can do it yourself?” On the surface the two clients who inspired this thought were different – one was a Caucasian female hospital executive, the other was an African American man who worked in finance. But, what they had in common was that both were capable and conscientious individuals who felt unappreciated by their organizations. And, both were convinced that if they could only get a title that carried more weight, they would suddenly have a “seat at the table” and be taken more seriously by those around them. If only management would give them this credibility, they would instantly be recognized as the valuable thought leaders they were.
Unfortunately, what both of them failed to recognize was that the “Title Fairy” doesn’t just go around, magically bestowing titles on unsuspecting professionals. Yet, because they had both concluded the issue was their title, they had become blind to the many ways that they (not their bosses) were working against their advancement.
Are you guilty of similar behaviors? Read below to find out:
1. You Don’t Want to be Uncomfortable – I am convinced that to truly grow as an individual, some degree of discomfort is necessary. Just as a muscle doesn’t grow unless you stress and challenge it, we do not grow unless we stress and challenge ourselves. Whether it is getting constructive criticism, or pushing yourself to pick up a new skill, personal development requires getting out of one’s proverbial comfort zone. As Anais Nin said, “…the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Are you preventing yourself from blossoming?
I can speak to this one first-hand. I have always been a capable speaker, but to take my career to the next level, I wanted to be an outstanding one. For the longest while, I considered joining toastmasters, but kept procrastinating because I was intimidated by having to speak in front of a group of people (yes, I am aware that this is the whole point of participating in Toastmasters)! Finally, I decided that I needed to push myself, and so what did I do? I enrolled in an improv comedy class. I had a strong sense of trepidation about signing up for such a thing, but I forced myself to do it by signing up and paying for it before I had a chance to change my mind. And, not only did I find out that it really wasn’t as bad as I had made it out to be in my mind (in fact, it was actually fun), it significantly improved my comfort and skill as a presenter.
2. You Wait to be Invited – My mom, who is a fount of proverbs and idioms, used to say “Faint heart never won fair lady.” This is also true in life. Only those willing to put themselves out there are going to fulfill their potential and be all they can be. Getting recognized by others for your work requires a willingness to be bold, and to proactively show your value, as opposed to waiting to be called on.
One of my clients, of whom I am really proud, decided that she was going to stop waiting to be invited to the table. She was a brilliant, insightful, and hard-working leader who never wanted to “overstep her bounds.” As a result, senior leaders saw her as someone who was competent, but whose drive was in question. After many coaching sessions, and being pushed over the top by reading Sheryl Sandburg’s “Lean In,” she decided to take greater initiative. First, she volunteered to chair a committee. Then, she had a conversation with her boss in which she told him about her career aspiration to continue to advance in the organization. She also reached out to other senior leaders, offering to help them. As luck would have it, when a vice-president role became available, leaders thought of her in a more positive light, and put her in the position on an interim basis. As I write this, she is still acting as an interim leader, but is determined to show the value she brings so she can earn the title. She expressed to me that she has never felt so empowered.
3. You Think Merit is the Only Factor that Leads to Success – “I’m not interested in schmoozing. My work should speak for itself.” If I had a dollar for every time I have heard some variation of this argument, I would be one wealthy woman. Clients with this point of view make the argument that work is about getting tasks done, and, therefore if they show quality work, they should be recognized. While this may be true in a minority of cases in which people are skilled individual contributors, this is less true for those who aspire to leadership. What these individuals forget is that their colleagues have hearts in addition to minds. They forget that relationships are a key means of influencing others. They are unaware, as Maya Angelou said, “…that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I remember working with one young professional who worked very hard to establish herself through her credibility. As a female in her early thirties, she was convinced that she had to prove how smart she was to be appreciated in the organization. Thus, she was committed to her work, reliable, and driven. As a result, she was recognized as someone who was committed to her work, reliable, and driven. However, while others saw her as someone who was pleasant and professional, they didn’t feel particularly drawn to her. Because she made no effort to engage people on a personal level, they felt neutral about her, as opposed to being drawn to her. In our work together, she learned she could let her intelligence shine through (it’s not like it was going to go anywhere), while also focusing on relating to others in a warmer, more personal way. While this was a definite change for her (see behavior #1), it led to better work relationships and an enhanced ability to influence others.
4. You Never Question Your Beliefs – This, in my view, is the most way you can hold yourself back. Psychologist, Albert Ellis, said,” Rational beliefs bring us closer to getting good results in the real world.” Unfortunately, a lot of us have beliefs that are wholly irrational. We entertain various thoughts like, “I’m not good at sales,” or “They won’t listen to me – I’m not smart enough,” or “A person like me can’t get ahead in this organization,” and we respond to them as if they are true. In turn, our thoughts impact our behaviors. If I believe that I’m not good at sales, why bother trying to sell something? If I am convinced people won’t listen to me, why should I speak up? If I have concluded that I can’t get ahead in the organization, why would I bother to make attempts to get noticed? To deal with this one, you need to take a good long look at yourself, and determine how your beliefs are holding you back.
For example, a client of mine had the belief that she was treated unfairly in her workplace and couldn’t get ahead. In reality, she couldn’t get ahead because others perceived her as being defensive and critical. Instead of using that feedback to her advantage, she used it as further evidence that she was treated unfairly. And, as the perfect embodiment of a self-fulfilling prophesy, because she thought she was being mistreated, she became more defensive and critical, which made it harder for her to get ahead. I wish I could say she turned this around and experienced glowing success; however, because she was never willing to make herself uncomfortable by questioning her self-perception, she continued to languish in her role and under-performed despite being very talented and smart.
To close, here is a wonderful quote from John C. Maxwell : “The greatest day in your life and mine is when we take total responsibility for our attitudes. That’s the day we truly grow up.” Make today the day you grow up and stop holding yourself back.
Dr. Patricia Thompson is the President of Silver Lining Psychology, a firm devoted to helping organizations and individuals actualize their potential using the principles of positive psychology. With 10 years of experience consulting to senior executives, she is passionate about helping people flourish. Follow her @Patricia_Atl on Twitter.