We are all originals. Each of us travels with our own life story, values and dreams for the future. We start forming these from the moment we enter this world and build on them as life experiences influence our hearts and minds. We currently live in a time of constant change and ambiguity: what I term the unknown.
While the unknown can cause considerable anxiety, it also provides a tremendous opportunity to apply our hearts and minds to generating smart ideas to make a difference. Never have we needed new ideas more to improve the lives of those around us.
Yet, when it comes to our own lives, all too often we step away from our original selves, deferring to the agendas and pushback of others rather than pressing forward with our ideas. Why is that, when there is so much richness in going after new ideas? Trying out a new product that improves health, building an initiative to help people communicate more effectively, or creating a service offering that creates tools to promote better collaborative thinking are all important and worthy of your pursuit.
The problem is that with every new idea, there is the distinct possibility our ideas might fail, encounter ridicule, or even cost us our job. They also might lead to something new, exciting and useful. In short, the road to learning whether a new idea will work is paved with uncertainty and scariness.
New ideas push people outside of their comfort zone. Instead of dealing with the discomfort, many people resist it and simply stall out, slipping into habitual defensive behaviors and losing the chance the ideas might be successful. That resistance might include yourself. While wanting to avoid stress is understandable, where would that leave you and your desire to improve the lives of others?
The key to moving ahead is to learn how to take chances and thrive on the bumpy road through all the unknowns you will encounter along the way to making something better happen.
FOUR STEPS THROUGH THE SCARINESS OF THE UNKNOWN
You cannot stop the pace of change. You can create ballast in yourself by understanding who you are, what you want to do and what behaviors might get in your way. Here are four steps toward embracing instead of than avoiding the discomfort that comes with innovation in a way that will move new ideas forward.
Discover your dreams for making things better
Success in the 21st century requires an entrepreneurial mindset. That means rather than coloring between the lines of what is known and usual, you should focus on what is new and needed in a rapidly changing world.
Winners in today's environment jump in with both feet and learn what they can about their customers, co-workers and communities. The grandmother in Hawaii who first came up with the idea of a Women's March in Washington started by looking at her four granddaughters and fearing that they would not have the opportunities she had enjoyed. She was a retired attorney, not a community organizer, but that did not stop her from putting an idea out there into her social media about organizing a national protest march to protect the rights of women and girls, including her granddaughters. She had no idea of how it would go, but she nevertheless plunged into the unknown with an idea to address an emerging need.
In the business world, new opportunities present themselves in every aspect of organizational life, whether it is the company's market position, work culture, talent development or new products. By exploring what is truly new and needed among your various stakeholders you will discover the ideas to make their lives better.
Develop a healthy attitude toward the discomfort of taking risks
New ideas require taking risks. Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury once said, "Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down." In other words, the entrepreneurial mindset accepts the scariness of the unknown as an asset rather than a liability.
With new ideas come risks. You won't know if they will work until you test them. Much can go wrong along the way. Your boss, colleagues, customers or even friends might think the ideas are stupid, irrelevant or too expensive. Your team could respond to working on them with loud criticism, cynicism, or passive-aggression.
The strong feeling of discomfort that new initiatives can cause may not by seen as cool, but at the same time it happens, a lot. In fact, the impulse to flee back into a less stressful place is normal. When you experience discomfort in yourself or in others, you have a choice: You can abandon the idea and go back to same old, same old, OR, you can embrace the scariness as part of the journey. Choosing the latter means you are on the way to something better.
Accept failure as your friend. When you try new things, failure is always an option. For many, it can be associated with shame, lower self-esteem and a reason to hide. These reactions come from many different places including cultural norms at your organization, negative comments from people pushing their own agendas or family of origin issues.
When failure occurs, embrace and celebrate it, especially when the idea is risky and laden with great potential. See it as a moment to pause, evaluate and recalibrate. Look at bumps along the road as learning opportunities, not reasons to slash headcount, slow down or abandon the quest.
Most of the time you misread the needs of your target audience. Use failure as an opportunity to summon up the courage to re-connect with them to learn what you missed in the first place. The conversations might be initially awkward as you learn things you did not know before about them and their needs. However, stay with it and a better idea will emerge. Then try the more informed new idea with the benefit of your new knowledge.
Overcome resistance (yours and theirs) to the discomfort of taking risks
When pursuing those new ideas, watch out for defensive behaviors. Human beings are messy. That's what makes working with them both wonderful and challenging. Unless you figure out a way to test a new idea without any humans involved, including yourself, you will have to deal with many counterproductive behaviors along the way. They will be especially evident while on the uncharted road to new things. The new causes stress, and stress raises defensive behaviors.
Defensive behaviors can give short-term comfort but will take you off the path of traveling to bigger horizons. Defenses are places to hide, and stop growing. Everyone has them. What matters is how they get in the way of your dreams, and then what you do about them.
There are many defenses that people adopt. Three very common ones are micromanagement, personalizing and conflict avoidance.
- Micromanagement gives you the illusion of having control over how something will turn out. In reality, it will only cut off the creativity of an eventual yet to be determined outcome as you obsess on details instead of the bigger vision. They also will numb the thinking of your team members.
- Personalizing will cause you to hear feedback on an idea as a judgment of your personal worth rather than a comment about the broader picture. A presentation may have failed because the audience recently heard a speech on the same topic and had had enough of it, you did not adequately understand their baseline knowledge, or there was someone in the audience who they all knew had tried the idea before at a previous company and failed. Whatever the case, none of those outcomes was a reflection on your self-worth. They are broader communication problems to be solved. Presentations can always be improved, but your value as a human being is not relevant to that improvement.
- Conflict avoidance is not knowing how the other person will react to something you say that they might not like. That uncertainty can be scary. It requires you to know your ultimate goal in the conversation. Do you need that person's friendship or just a respectful consent? Do you need him or her to buy into your whole idea or are you okay with them merely agreeing to approve your initiative and support its implementation? When you know your goal and values, you will know where to flex and where to hold firm through whatever takes place in the conversation.
Surface personal motivators for fuel
To move yourself and lead others through the discomfort of testing a new idea you need a clear sense of purpose.
The road toward better outcomes is uncomfortable. To travel its scary uncharted twists and turns to achieve something better, one needs a good reason to undertake it. This is where you can pull strength from your life story, values and dreams for the future. They define what we most care about, regardless of what others think. The stronger and more personal the reason, the better. Smart navigation of the twists and turns of change requires that you pay attention to what others need to be convinced. Even more, knowing your core beliefs will keep your feet planted solidly on the ground, allowing you to stand tall as you work your way through the testing ground of your new idea.
The Hawaiian grandmother who galvanized the Women's March cared deeply for the future of her granddaughters. That gave her the deep meaning she needed to take the gutsy and scary move of proposing to the social media universe the idea of a national march.
The purpose does not have to be deep. What it has to do is to motivate and provide emotional fuel. You might initiate a new project to provide a compelling tutoring program to young children in underfunded schools, because you remember how you benefited as a child from tutoring by your neighbor, or you simply want to show your rivalrous older sister that you too can make things happen. Either purpose will serve if it results in giving you the courage to push through the scariness of experimenting with program design, funding challenges and building engagement among the children themselves. The key is whether it will give you the courage to embrace the scariness of the uncertainty that comes with trying out new ideas.
Bringing to fruition new ideas to make things better is scary, but your willingness to embrace that discomfort means you may well be on the way to something good, and thus, is well worth the risk.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."