Thursday, June 16, 2016

On being (professionally) Brave

Despite the risks…


In today’s business world, there is much being said about being confident, "leaning in" and taking charge of your career – especially in terms of being a female in business. Much of this has to do with being brave at work. What does that mean and what happens if you’re brave at work and what happens when you’re not? That probably depends on you, your personal circumstances and your level of comfort. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

I believe that bravery in your professional life has a lot of moving parts, depending on the context and the environment.

Being brave means taking action despite fear, the perceived personal risk, and the uncertainty of how things will turn out. We often overestimate the chances that things will go wrong (due to our fear?) and don’t trust our own abilities to handle the results – either success or failure. We tend to lean toward the idea that doing nothing is safer and less costly than taking the risk. And we also worry a lot about what other people will think of us – or what we fear they will think of us. How valid is all this, though?

What happens when we give in to unnecessary fear? A lot, actually.

Apologizing unnecessarily is not being brave. Making an impassioned argument is not something you should apologize for, yet many of us do just that. We often will begin by saying "I’m sorry, but….." or "Forgive my directness, but…..", or something similar. You don’t usually hear men offer an opinion with an opening apology. Don’t mistake getting angry (again, not without due cause) with being passionate about your position. Apologizing simply because your position may make others unhappy will only serve to allow them to hold the balance of power in our lives and often negates what we have to say.

Being humble and working behind the scenes can sometimes be positive traits, but allowing others to take credit for your work can make you a doormat and possibly damage your career. There’s a difference between being a grandstander and being a team player who makes significant contributions and expects recognition for those contributions.

Playing it safe rather than speaking up, making a change or taking a chance only to regret it later, or failing to stand up for others is not brave. It may be risky, but it’s not brave. Standing up to authority, uncovering mistakes, reducing uncertainty and protecting those in need are necessary and important risks to take. Sometimes we have to make the judgement that something else is more important than our fear. 

Two examples from my professional life illustrate some of these points. I was once in a meeting with staff ranging from supervisors to the executive director. The discussion turned to the organization’s efforts around cultural competency and how our policies, procedures and actions could align with this concept. One supervisor began to opine about how it was possible to be "too politically correct" and that we couldn’t please everyone. Valid points depending on the context and circumstances. However, he became more animated and began deriding and mocking people from other religions, other races, ethnicities and those from other countries ("other" meaning other than his religion, race, etc.). As I sat there, and looked around the room, I saw that no one was reacting to his rant. I first responded calmly by saying our goal was to be more inclusive rather than exclusive. But he continued, and still no one said anything. As an HR pro, I was stunned, and for an organization that is dedicated to an inclusive life for its clients, I was having a hard time understanding why no one else was responding. Finally, I had to speak up. I clearly and directly told him he was being offensive and he needed to stop. What happened then? There was still absolutely no reaction from the assembled group of supervisors, managers or directors.

I took a risk and called this man out in the meeting. I did so because I was personally offended (I’m in an interfaith marriage) and I was professionally offended. I’m an HR pro, and this supervisor was openly expressing his biased and discriminatory views in the workplace, which in turn was very risky to the organization. What happened next blindsided me. I was reprimanded for calling him out in the meeting. I responded by explaining my position, and the affront it presented to my personal and professional integrity. It also opened my eyes. I realized that it was time for me to move on, after almost nine years. I had accomplished a lot (although maybe no enough) and needed a new challenge. I resigned. That took courage; it took bravery, despite the risks. I resigned from a job I loved, from an organization whose mission I was committed to. I loved (most of) the people I worked with and the clients we served. But I had to be true to myself. I vowed to examine the situation and determine if there was anything I could have done before this incident to have prevented it. Did I not educate enough? Did I not convey the value of diversity? What did I miss, or fail to do? Or did I simply not see what was actually there all along?

In this case, I made the judgement that the situation was far more important than my fear of confronting someone openly, and my fear and apprehension over quitting an otherwise great job.

What happened next was a direct result of my giving in (again) to my fear of taking a risk and being true to myself and fear of the possible consequences. I was offered a position at a company that was a bit of a start-up (a risk?). That company turned out to be the most toxic, manipulative and dysfunctional work environment I have ever experienced. But I stayed with it; I didn’t want to give up. I stayed because I was hesitant to take the risk to start another job search, I was hesitant to stand up for myself when others stole my work and took the credit; I was hesitant to confront the lies I was being told and how I was being manipulated. I tried to positively influence the environment by being the best "me" I could be both personally and professionally. In the end, the decision was made for me because the company was not getting enough business to support my position any longer (hmmm, I wonder why?). Since that time, the company has experienced something like an 80% turnover of staff, and the revolving door continues. People may come on board, but don’t stay long (they were braver than I). I did come away with some additional skills, which have been useful to me, so it wasn’t a complete loss. But I’ve also now had two relatively recent experiences that have taught me I need to be braver in my professional life.

What can you do to be braver in your professional life?

  • Say yes to an opportunity because of how it will help you grow; say no to an opportunity because it won’t allow you to grow.
  • Speak up in a meeting when there are big consequences – positive or negative.
  • Don’t hide the things that matter to you just because it doesn’t matter to people around you.
  • Decide that you can’t always fit in with others’ expectations, because you don’t like the person you become when you do that.
  • Explain to your boss that you think there’s a better way, even if others seem to be against you.
  • Stand up for yourself when others are trying to sway you in your thinking or action and that way is against your instincts.
  • Decide to take a stand in your life, right now, rather than just going with the flow.

I’ll try to be braver, will you?

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