When I was 19, I had a hard time getting my ideas heard.
Granted – at 19, I probably didn’t have too many spectacular ideas. But I did carry a shyness around superiors and elders that often kept me from getting more than a few words edgewise in meetings.
Then, after a round of layoffs at my company, I found myself having to play the role of marketing and communications manager. That’s quite a change. And you can bet I felt the need to prove myself.
Since that time, one of those ways I’ve had to prove myself has been overcoming shyness and timidity about speaking my mind. I’ve had to overcome guilt and self-consciousness about self-assertion. I’ve had to learn how to deal with criticism, anger, and disdain. It has been painful, and I’ve had so many meetings where I have screwed things up by talking too quietly, too quickly, too meekly, or too conditionally.
But I have gotten more effective at getting my ideas a place at the table. Through my actions as much as through my bearing, I have proven that I’m capable of holding my own with people who might hold age or seniority on me. I’m vocal at most meetings, and I generally speak my mind when I think I have a good idea.
But now I’m starting to realize another truth. As important as “proving yourself” is, there is a time when continuing to do the things you did to “prove yourself” isn’t right.
I’ve established that *I* can speak, have ideas, hold my own in a debate. But what about the people working alongside me and with me? If I don’t let them speak – encourage them to speak, even – I’m not doing my job. If I am so self-assertive that I drive out their self-assertion, than I’m just another hubris-drunk micro-manager in a long history of micro-managers. If I am so opinionated that I make people with better ideas feel undervalued and unwelcome, I’m just shooting myself in the foot.
So the new lesson for me is to learn how to shut up.
As hard as learning how to speak up was, this one might be more excruciating. But I think it’s right.
Title choice aside, I suppose you don’t ever stop “proving yourself.” You just change what you’re proving. I no longer have to prove that I can generate, own, and advocate ideas. I do have to prove that I can lead well, build coalitions well, and do the thing which is best for my company (and not just my ego). That just happens to look like a little more silence.
Maybe another way of putting the challenge of managers is this: stop proving yourself when others need to prove themselves. You’ll both need each other to be successful.