The other day saw a momentous break in my usual routine of rushing through my interactions with others and overlooking my conversational omissions. After a particularly withdrawn interaction, I stopped to think "we all know what we don't have the time or the ability to say, but what don't we have the courage to say?" In that moment, I realised that if I did not operate through the omissive filter of my fear of vulnerability, I would say a lot more than I currently do - infinitely more - and I would say I am someone who is relatively free-spoken. This all started with a lie...
I had been occupying a managerial role in a business project with a small team for a couple of months now. Quarantine saw the transfer to remote working. I had sought to avoid such aspects of the project, but this morning’s meeting was planning out the software requirements for our prototype. I wanted to tackle this technophobia and get stuck in with prototype planning. My efforts, presented to the group, were not well received; the team did not understand and they did not approve. One person in particular left early - for unrelated reasons, but it hurt, nonetheless.
I could not evade the feeling as if I had failed to deliver on my strengths; I had not sold them. The knock my confidence took as a result engendered a yearning to hustle for my self-worth. I felt the need to redeem myself, my pride, and prove I was capable. Prove this to myself, thinking back on it, more than my teammates.
Coincidently, this juncture was accompanied, in the book I was reading, by a chapter on psychological safety - "by far and away the most important of the five dynamics which set successful teams apart." Psychological safety is "team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. It enables tough feedback and difficult conversations without the need to tiptoe around the truth. In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalise or think less of them for it."
Equipped with a definition for what I lacked from my team, I knew exactly what was going on and what had caused it. Fixing things, however, proved less simple.
I had planned to raise the topic, delving into our strengths and weaknesses as well as the ways we think, speak, receive, and criticise. My aim was to foster a comfort in the vulnerability of openness within my team. My chance came the very next day.
The morning brought a technical call about the newly proposed prototype - a much more feasible proposition than my own had been advanced after my pitiful attempts yesterday. This meeting, however, marked not the start of my redemption - there was no display of technical capability, no very important conversation about psychological safety - I just could not bring myself to it. Instead, in the position of "project manager", I found myself mute. (These inverted commas were figuratively donned at this point, such was my perceived inadequacy).
With my typical effortless confidence rather evasive, once again I waded the murky waters of the technicalities. So far was I out of my comfort zone that I proceeded to lie when my uncharacteristic silence was brought into question; I attributed my behaviour to tiredness - "a lack of sleep having helped a friend out last night."
For the rest of the day, my thoughts were stuck in a loop:
"Why did I not say the things that I wanted to?"
"I really don't like to lie"
"Why was it that I felt this way in the first place?"
I delved into the reasons that I had to go to such extremes to hide my perceived inadequacy. All explanations drew back to one, overarching facet: they were all conversations that I simply had not had the courage to have.
Despite me not knowing quite what this illusively unspoken sentiment was, instinct told me that one of the conversations I was not having promised to be especially illuminating. It pertained to the newest member of the group - the one, coincidently, that left my prototype proposal early. As I explored my thoughts, I kept being drawn to a statement that I was not convinced accurately described how I felt. It was all I had at this point, so I decided to run with it: “I think I am trying to impress you..."
Struggling to propose a better explanation, I took my business notepad and entitled a fresh page with: "The conversations I am not having". Putting pen to paper, I was surprised by how easy an exercise this proved to be - forthcoming was a litany of unspoken sentiments. With this particular group member, I wrote:
"I feel as if I am trying to impress you. I am not used to being aware that I am trying to impress people, and I don't know why I am in this case. It is not that I am doing anything in particular, it is more what I am not doing..."
"...I think it is a consequence of the combination of my constitution, and a group full of fiercely strong members. I think I respect and look up to yourself and your abilities immensely. I see you almost as a mentoring figure in some senses due to the qualities that you possess and your experience. Hence, I think I may be trying to impress you - or rather live up to an elevated vision of myself for you.
"It could be that I am intimidated by you - I doubt this, however, as I am not at all aware that I am experiencing a competitive element within myself or the team - or that, in this case, I am tip-toeing around you. If I had to pinpoint something, it would be your incredibly virtuous and utilitous trait of being a good, impartial judge. I feel like you would be the first person to give due praise but also the first person to bring me back down to Earth, and I do have a tendency to have my head in the clouds..."
In formalising these thoughts by writing them down, I had rediscovered something first unearthed much earlier in the year - my tendencies to try and protect my image. This is not something that I do by orchestrating what others' see - not by actively doing or saying anything in particular - I would like to think that I stay true to myself in everything that I do. Rather, this was birthed through omissions from my personal narrative. What I had concluded that this had boiled down to was the fear of letting people down - I had fallen victim to its vice on several occasions. Excelling at striking a good first impression, it has proved easy for me to feel, from the very onset, like the only way I can take things is downhill.
*Exhale* - that was quite a lot to take in all at once!