How Playing It Safe Puts Your Career at Risk
Which one of these describes you:
- You hesitate putting your hand up in a meeting and saying something because you worry it might sound dumb or be the wrong thing to say, or
- You step forward and speak out with confidence when you have something to say.
For much of my career, I was in that first category – the one who held back, sat quietly and stayed small. I can tell you it doesn’t feel great. And once you get on that slippery slope, it feels harder and harder to become that second kind of person.
Of course you have to be prepared, but that was never my problem. In fact, I was probably over-prepared. It was the part about stepping forward and onto the stage, whether literally or figuratively, that was the tough part.
If you’re in that first category too, then you’re (unfortunately) in good company. It’s so easy to fall into that trap.
But we don’t need to stay in that trap, and there’s definitely a way out. More on that in a moment.
You’re already on stage
In my case, I thought I was playing it safe by not speaking up. I truly believed that if I didn’t say or do anything, then it couldn’t count against me or hurt my chances.
I was wrong.
What I didn’t realize then was that I was on stage the whole time. When I sat at the back of the meeting room, not saying anything, I was communicating just as much as if I put my hand up and spoke. I was making an impression, and not a good one.
This became obvious to me once I was a senior person watching my team in our weekly meetings. The quiet people were harder to promote, and I wondered whether they had the “right stuff”. And the ones who spoke up got respect for having the courage to share their views, whether or not I agreed with them.
No wonder it took me longer to get promoted than many of my more vocal colleagues!
Step up and stand out
What I’ve discovered is that sitting silently is equally as damaging as the worst thing that can happen if you stand up and speak out.
We need to take chances, to speak out. Even if half the room thinks you’re saying something dumb, the head of the group is more likely to notice you and think you’re brave to speak up. No one is going to think, “she’s really smart” sitting in the back of the room quietly.
Frankly, it’s a good idea to let go of what other people think of you as a metric for deciding what you’re going to do.
As the saying goes, “What people think of you is none of your business.”
Change your mindset
So much of this comes down to mindset. What you believe and say over and over again to yourself and even out loud.
Whether it’s “I’m too old” or “I’m too young” or “I’m not ready” or “I can’t do math”, if you say it enough, you’ll condition yourself to behave as though it were true.
Here’s an example of how my mindset held me back over the years.
Fear of rejection
Back in the day, we had a client event in Venice. It wasn’t just an event, it was the event, and clients couldn’t wait to be invited.
During the planning process, the question of speakers came up. I secretly wanted to do a speech. In fact, I was dying to be asked. I believed I would do a great job. Bring a breath of fresh air to the usual conservative approach and make it a more successful conference.
But I told myself, “I can’t volunteer for this – it’s too embarrassing to have to ask. They might laugh at me. They’ll be thinking, ‘who is she to think she could be a speaker at our big event?’ And maybe I’m not ready for this big a stage anyway.”
In the end, I was never asked, I didn’t put my hand up, and they had the usual suspects do the speaking.
Lack of confidence
Three years earlier, I was a speaker at a smaller client conference. But because I lacked confidence, I never asked anyone in senior management to come listen to my presentation.
I said to myself, “the senior people aren’t interested in my little topic, I might not do a good job, it’s the first time I’m doing a talk this big, I’ll wait for next time to invite them.”
Well, my talk turned out to be a big success – people were engaged, asking questions and having fun.
But it was also a big missed opportunity not to have any senior people see me do well. The same people who would later make the decision on speakers for the flagship Venice conference.
Wanting to be perfect
When I was a teenager, our visiting relatives would ask me to play the piano for them. They knew I had achieved a level of accomplishment and wanted to hear for themselves. But I always said no.
Even though I practiced for hours every day, I said to myself, “I’m not ready, I don’t have a piece I can play perfectly all the way through. I’ll wait for their next visit.”
I had my performance standard set on “perfect” even for an audience of friends and family who weren’t going to judge me. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if my parents had made me play and saved me from myself?
A pattern of behavior
Looking back, I could see there was a clear pattern of behavior: holding back, talking myself out of “showing up” and waiting for a better moment to take the stage.
I realized this has been my MO, or modus operandi, for my entire life. I had baked it into my identity – being the one who does things perfectly, plays it safe, and doesn't take risks.
It was based on a mindset of fear, shame, perfectionism, caution and insecurity. These are potent forces that don’t serve anyone well.
For each of us, that pattern will be different. It will show up in different ways as a thread that runs through our lives. The key is to see it as a pattern, and make it work for you not against you.
Lean into fear
When I finally understood my pattern, I learned how to use it:
- To give myself permission to take the action when my instinct was to hesitate.
- To invite people to my debut performance, even if it felt premature.
- To put my hand up and ask a question even though I feared it might be dumb.
When you see the impact of the entire series of behaviors over time, it’s much easier to get past the initial fear or whatever is stopping you and persuade yourself to take a step forward.
Now I say to myself, “Aha! There’s my old friend fear/perfectionism/insecurity. Thank you for showing up, but I’m going to override you in service of my bigger mission. I’m going to go ahead and step forward.” That’s what I call “leaning into my fear”.
I discovered that over time you can create new patterns of behavior and, with it, new instincts. It takes practice, perseverance, and reframing the way you look at things.
As Tony Robbins said in his new year’s video, “the strongest force in the whole human personality is the need to stay consistent with the way we define ourselves… you’ll do whatever it takes to stick to your identity.”
And our identities have been formed over decades.
So the key is to examine what you’ve baked into your identity and see whether you need to change any elements of it. And then ask yourself: “when did I accept that this is the way I am?” All of which is the beginning of making a change.
What will you do?
What patterns come up in your life time and again that hold you back? And most importantly, what will you do now that you know?
Leave a comment below and let me know.