“If you take risks, sometimes you’ll get a standing ovation, and sometimes people will throw tomatoes.” –Tara Mohr, writer, teacher, and speaker
For much of my life I measured success by how well I stayed out of the line of fire. Follow the rules. Do what is asked. Don’t question. If someone was disappointed, mad, or frustrated, it wasn’t going to be because of me. I was a peacemaker, a cheerleader, a pick-up-the-slack person. I avoided tomatoes by avoiding risk.
I didn’t realize at the time how much this was costing. In my desire to keep all around me happy and conflict-free, I often sacrificed what I wanted and needed and had the capacity to do.
Although I tended to dismiss them, there were people at various points in my life who challenged me for being too nice and too safe, for being unwilling to say out loud what was percolating (and sometimes raging) in my head.
Years ago, one of my favorite supervisors pushed me to be bolder. My evaluations read: “Trust your innate abilities,” “Be more vocal,” and “Assert your ideas/perceptions.”
“It’s okay to make someone angry,” my partner once told me. He was the person I worked hardest to please.
Some time later I realized he was right, and I took the biggest risk of my life. After many years of marriage, I decided it was time for us to divorce. There was anger, there was disappointment, there was frustration. And we survived it, and each is the better for it.
This was a beginning.
Easing away from the need to please was (and is) the hardest thing–and the best thing–I’ve ever done, and it has impacted all aspects of my life, including work.
It involves speaking up more often, challenging the status quo when it is limiting us, and testing the boundaries of creativity even when it causes discomfort. It means accepting the eyerolls, sighs, and scowls.
In his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Seth Godin suggests that society today requires “original thinkers, provocateurs, and people who care.” We need “passionate change makers [who are] willing to be shunned if it is necessary for them to make a point.” We can float or make waves.
As a department leader, this meant no longer hinting at what we needed to accomplish. It ultimately resulted in a two-page vision for the department that outlined a concrete direction and why we were moving that way. I had to sell it, defend it, and move it forward. I had to trust my knowledge, experience, and instincts. Somewhat to my surprise, the staff went all in. While they call this document–affectionately, I think–the “manifesto,” they made it their own, and five years later we have outcomes to show for it.
As a writer, this has meant taking more chances with my words. I wrote a somewhat controversial blog post a year or so ago, and it occasionally re-emerges. Most people in my workplace weren’t aware I was contributing to a blog until that post. Someone found the link and published it in our internal campus newsletter. It created a bit of a stir. Some saw the post as “courageous,” while others saw it as an attack. I said something “out loud” that I wouldn’t have in the past. I’m glad I did it; we needed to talk about it.
In her wisdom, Tara Mohr once asked, “Can you think of any leader or innovator whom you admire who doesn’t have enthusiastic fans and harsh critics? Get used to wins and losses, praise and pans, getting a call back and being ignored. Work on letting go of needing to be liked and needing to be universally known as ‘a nice person.'”
Here are a few of my old niceness-based beliefs and how I think about them today:
1) It doesn’t matter who gets the credit for a great idea/project/etc.
Have you ever let someone else take credit for something you did? Did you say to yourself that it didn’t matter because people were benefitting from it, regardless of where the idea came from? It absolutely does matter–to our confidence andmotivation, to our current and future employers. Give others credit for their ideas and claim your own. Our work tells our story.
2) Arguing is bad.
Avoiding conflict is bad. Not challenging bad ideas is bad. Not challenging bad leaders is bad. Arguing disrespectfully is bad. But arguing well is not only not bad, it’s essential. If we’re avoiding disagreement or criticism, we’re not allowing the work to be the best it can be.
3) All employees can perform a job well if supervisors coachwell.
Nice supervisors tend to over-coach. Nice supervisors sometimes think, “if only I could find the right training/motivation/tasks/etc., so-and-so will become a better employee.” But sometimes an employee’s skills and the jobjust do not match, and generally it doesn’t take a long time to figure that out. Good coaches are invaluable, but coaching isn’t always the answer. It may be in everyone’s interest to sever a relationship, and supervisors must be able to bear the weight of this.
4) We should not make audacious requests.
Do it. Invite the Provost for coffee. (We had a lovely conversation.) Ask for new professional-development experiences. A day, a month, or a year later, you may find yourself in places you never expected to be.
Nice, safe, and comfortable don’t always get the job done, and there is so much to be done.
A colleague recently sent me a message that both acknowledges my efforts and nudges me farther. I offer his words to all who take (or are considering taking) risks, to all who choose to plunge ahead despite possible (or probable) pushback:
“Thanks for being a pusher of things awesome… a skeptic of bullshit… a leader of creating future leaders. Please continue to not accept the status quo. Please continue to push the boundaries. Please continue to be YOU. The world needs more of you. Don’t disappoint the world.”
I strive to be that person. Let the tomatoes fall where they may.