Sometimes, when I scroll through Instagram or watch TV, I think that all people want women to do is shrink. Advertisements show us that we should weigh less, age less, have less body hair, and on and on. And sometimes, at work, I get the impression people want women to talk less, achieve less, and perhaps even want for less. One of the stronger obstacles I’ve had to overcome in my own career is to not internalize those messages. To not shrink myself so others can feel larger. To not shy away from my ideas, and to not accept less in work and life when pressured to do so. I’m here to take up space. To fill a boardroom with my voice. To be bold in my decisions. And to be unapologetic about my ambitions. If you’re ready to stop shrinking, here are three action steps to make sure you’re putting yourself out there.
Stop Apologizing I apologize way too much. It feels as if an apology just lives under my tongue and can’t wait to roll off of it. Usually for things for which I have no reason to be sorry—like when I bump into the furniture and apologize to the couch. It is as if I have an apology mindset, poised and ready to apologize—and therefore justify, defend, and excuse literally everything that I do. And justifying, defending, and excusing yourself are the quickest ways to shrink. Putting a bunch of explanations between yourself and others automatically hides you. Downplays your value. Strips you of your worth. But recently I was able to witness the easiest way out of an unnecessary apology.
I was at a meeting where several of my colleagues were reviewing a document presented to us by a consultant. She was a very talented woman who came highly recommended. Her work was stellar, and we were all extremely pleased by her report. Except on page 12, I noticed a typo. I felt weird pointing it out, because I certainly didn’t want her to think we cared about something so trivial, but I also knew that from our end, the document had to be perfect. I cleared my throat uncomfortably and brought the error to her attention. Her response? “Thank you so much!” And then she marked up the edit.
Now, had it been me, I would have started with an apology, followed by a litany of excuses. “Oh gosh! I’m so sorry! I didn’t see that! Sorry! It’s been quite a week! I should have caught that!” But watching the consultant confidently thank me for catching the error, rather than apologize for making it, made me realize that most things I apologize for are actually opportunities to give thanks for feedback. She not only handed us an exemplary report, she gave me a brand new phrase to replace all those times I apologize for absolutely no reason: “Thank you!”
As an executive coach, I work exclusively with female leaders, many of whom are at the top of their organizations. Nearly all of them cite their struggles with speaking up. And though these women are very different in a variety of ways, their reasons for not speaking up are very similar. They worry about how they will be perceived. Some fear appearing too assertive. Others worry they will be labeled too opinionated. One even said she was afraid that, if she spoke up, there was a chance she would be shot down and she couldn’t risk the embarrassment. But the reason that really stuck with me was from a client new to her leadership role. She said if she stayed quiet in meetings, at least people might think she was very smart. But if she spoke up, they could assign all kinds of negative attributes to her. To which I responded: “You know, they can assign all kinds of negative attributes to you when you stay quiet, too.”
Staying quiet is a form of shrinking. A way to stay in the background and away from potential criticism. But here’s the deal about speaking up: it is one of life’s only low risk/high reward situations. You can be criticized, looked down on, and thought to be wrong whether you speak up or not. But you can’t be praised, or share another perspective, or see any of your amazing ideas come to fruition if you don’t speak up.
If you’re in a meeting and have a question, it is very probable someone else—or everyone else!—has the same question. But we often sit in meetings, or classrooms, or conferences, or the dentist’s chair and hold back from speaking up with a question, an opinion, or an alternate point of view. I once sat on a board of directors for a nonprofit and went four years without asking for the definition of an acronym the organization used constantly. I assumed everyone on the board knew, and I felt silly at that point asking what it meant. Finally, when I took the role as president of the board, I cornered the CEO and confessed. She laughed out loud and said, “Oh gosh, of course you don’t! I don’t think I’ve ever made it clear.” At the next board meeting she clarified the acronym’s meaning, and I watched a room full of smart adults all collectively exclaim, “Ahhhh!”
You aren’t supposed to know everything. The key to success is not in having the answers, but in asking the questions. So stop shrinking away into a quiet existence. Voice your opinions, ask your questions, and yell your ideas.
Start Taking Risks
This one is fun. Sure, it might make you feel anxious, and I should probably use a word other than “risk,” but the point is, this is the one that puts you front and center of your own life. Essentially, taking a risk—even a teeny, tiny one—is a very strong way to do the very opposite of shrink: grow. And yet, playing it safe is the path we most often choose, leaving us to stay small. What is it you want to do? Go back to school? Start your own business? Cut your bangs? Whatever it is, whatever is tickling the back of your head as you move through the motions of your day, that is the very thing you need to do. Right now.
But how? How do you go after something that at its core is very exciting, but is fully encased in fear and doubt and insecurities? Easy. The first step is to realize that there are very few things you can do that are actually risky. I mean, if you’re struggling with putting yourself out there, I highly doubt the risk you’re wanting to take is to gamble your life savings on the slots in Vegas. So be assured in the fact that it is usually very hard to ruin your life. The second step is a tactic I use with clients all the time. I ask them to talk about the absolute worst case scenario if they act on an idea (one they might classify as a risk), and then explore the best case scenario. What happens every time is that once they verbalize the scenarios, the best case excites them endlessly and the worst case sounds laughably improbable.
Your life and career can either inch forward or leap forward, but either way requires forward motion. I’m never worried about the size of the step; I’m just adamant it be in the right direction. We shrink ourselves when we stay in the same spot, at the same level, or with the same thoughts. So whatever you can think of that might push you upward or onward, don’t shy away from it.
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