“And what does your father do…?”

Walking through the vast, opulent lobby of a global law firm in the City I was stopped in my tracks by a huge noticeboard entitled “Allen & Out”, encouraging staff to champion their LGBT colleagues. The firm were promoting LGBT awareness as part of a diversity and inclusion initiative. So what? You may ask. Why my amazement?

The last time I’d been to their offices back in the early 90s the reception was like a gentleman’s club, full of leather studded armchairs and copies of Hare & Hound and Country Life. At that time, the idea that a law firm would even acknowledge it had gay members of staff, let alone actively champion them, would have been astounding.

I remember a client complaining to me about an employee he wanted to sack: “She’s a bolshie dyke and I want her out”.  I was shocked but didn’t know how to challenge his sexism and homophobia – such views were commonplace at the time.

Overt discrimination based on social class was rampant too. At interviews for trainee solicitor jobs in the mid 80s I was routinely asked: “and what does your father do?”

To my intense relief I had a “respectable” answer to this question – my father was an accountant. I’m uncomfortably aware my career could have been very different if he’d been a bus driver. Of course, no one asked about my mother’s occupation.

When it comes to equality and diversity we all know the situation isn’t a bed of roses: Weinstein, Trump, The President’s Club.  And yet, LGBT people are no longer forced to hide who they are at work and no one gets asked about their father’s occupation.

What fear do you want to overcome?

I love writing and it gives me huge pleasure when one of my newsletter readers tells me “I don’t read many newsletters but I always read yours”.  Sometimes they go on to say “You should write a book”. 

At this point I freeze like a rabbit in the headlights and my internal critic says “You can’t do that!” So another year goes by and the book never gets started.

This year I’ve decided to tackle my fear head on by joining The Writer’s Studio, a group led by the amazing Kathy Gale, former Managing Director of The Women’s Press.  As I sat in the group for the first time last Friday having my writing tactfully critiqued I went right back to my 10 year old self listening to Sister Mary Cyprian, the terrifying nun headmistress of my primary school, picking apart my grammar.

I will always remember my shock as I proudly presented my story to her and she responded by criticising it in front of the class, leading to my internal decision “I can’t write”.

Last Friday a big part of me wanted to run away from the group and wholeheartedly agree with Sister Mary Cyprian and my 10 year old self.  Yet I know that if I stick with this work my writing has the chance to flourish.

What I am learning about facing my fears is:

  • We make decisions in childhood to keep us emotionally safe and these become “hard wired” into us. We need to periodically upgrade our “hardware” by uncovering and challenging those beliefs. This takes courage, patience and self-compassion.
  • When we are making changes, sometimes it feels worse before it feels better. This is not a sign to stop but to keep going.
  • Getting the skilled support of others to overcome our fears is vital. Just as it’s a bad idea to try to cut your own hair, calling on expert support can move you forward in leaps and bounds rather than trying to muddle through under your own steam.

When I’m coaching my clients on their personal impact and presence, it can feel scary for them to receive feedback about highly personal aspects of themselves such as their voice, body language and posture.  Watching themselves back on video can be squirmy!

Yet when they are willing to take risks, be vulnerable and try out new methods, the results are transformational.

Leadership is as much about small, everyday acts of personal courage as it is about big, bold initiatives.

What are your secret fears and how are you overcoming them?  I’d love to hear.

Are you your own harshest critic?

I remember when I was learning to be a mediator my mentor, Richard, gave me this advice:

You need to be your own harshest critic and your own best friend”.

My immediate response to this was “I know how to be my own harshest critic!”

And at that point I realised I had no clue how to be my own best friend.

Now that I coach women leaders I see I was not alone in this.  I work with women who appear confident and poised on the outside yet inside they are extremely hard on themselves.

Why does this matter?  The fact is if all you hear is a constant stream of harsh criticism, then it is difficult to flourish and give of your best.   Sadly, the consequence can be that you hesitate over opportunities rather than confidently stepping forward and you end up being passed over as a result.

Here are my tips for getting your inner critic under control:

Pay attention to your internal chatter. Do you have a voice in your head that says: “You were rubbish” or “You’ll never be good enough!”  If so, learn how to identify that negative inner voice and hear what it is saying to you. This gives you a choice whether to believe it and let it run the show or to counteract it with a more positive and realistic voice. If someone else spoke to you like that would you let them get away with it?

Accept compliments from others: If someone pays you a genuine compliment – accept it!  All too often I see women shrugging off a compliment, yet seizing on criticism and taking it to heart, whether it’s valid or not.   A practice I’ve done for years is to keep a file of compliments people have given me.  I’ll periodically read it and this gives me a lift and reminds me of all the great things about myself I have forgotten.

Give yourself compliments: Find ways to develop your “inner best friend” muscle. After a session with a client I’ll take a few minutes to write down both what I could have done better and what went well. The positives column is always longer than the ideas for improvement, yet it’s only by writing it down that I can see this. Take time to remind yourself of what you do well and might be taking for granted about yourself.

What tips do you have for developing your “inner best friend”? I’d love to hear them.

How singing in a choir can make you a better leader

I’ll never forget my choir’s first flash mob. I was sitting in an Italian restaurant on Valentine’s Day, surrounded by romantic couples, with a friend I had tricked into thinking he was just coming out for dinner. Little did he know that the opening bars of Love Shack were my cue to stand up and belt out a medley of love songs to the unsuspecting diners.

His face was a picture as he went through a succession of emotions from total bewilderment, gradual dawning realisation and finally delight as he realised what was going on. For five minutes time stood still as we serenaded the diners and entertained them with our love songs. They were transfixed by our performance and we left the restaurant on a high, thrilled that for a brief moment we had created a connection.

Afterwards I realised how being part of the choir enables me to be braver and bolder than I ever am on my own. I would never normally dare to stand up and sing impromtu to a whole restaurant, and the exhilaration of overcoming my fears is huge.

Here are some of the things I’ve learnt:

  • Nearly everyone performs better in a choir than they do solo – having the security of other singers around you makes you more confident about singing boldly and helps you find your note. Find a good team to be part of and you’ll do far more than you could ever do on your own.
  • Performing a flash mob is a “random act of kindness”. The crowd are offered a gift of entertainment they were not expecting, and a chance to pause and share a moment of joy with others, before the performers melt back into the crowd, asking for nothing in return. In business and leadership if you are generous with your time, wisdom and knowledge, sharing it freely, it will come back to you in spades.
  • Being a choir member is a great opportunity to be a follower. If your day job involves being the leader and making stuff happen, the great thing about a choir is that you just have to turn up, learn the songs and be a good team player. It’s great to practice followership for a change and have the experience of being led.

If you’re looking for a life and leadership enhancing hobby – especially if you’re one of those people who think you can’t sing – then get yourself along to a choir.

Is it OK to cry at work?

I was brought up to think that crying at work is completely taboo and I’d lose all credibility if I let my emotions get the better of me. When I was working as a City lawyer in a global law firm sometimes I’d escape to the loo to have a private weep. Indeed, I remember excusing myself from my first appraisal as I realised I was going to cry and didn’t want my bosses to see that I was upset.

Years later I trained as a psychotherapist and spent much time in groups where we were encouraged to let the tears flow as we shared our feelings and life stories and I could see that this was a powerfully healing experience.

All too often, when overwhelmed by strong feelings and unable to hold back the tears, I see people apologising for “being emotional” – seeing tears as a shameful sign of weakness.

In my programmes for women leaders around the world we’ve been having lively discussions about whether it’s OK to cry at work.

“Why not!” I say.

I know that I feel a lot better after a good cry and there is nothing inherently shameful about tears. We are not meant to be robots at work, leaving our humanity at the door as we come into the office.

Women in particular fear being seen as weak or manipulative if we allow tears, yet I think that many men would welcome the opportunity to express their vulnerability in this way too. Women often find it easier than men to access their tears, so you can show leadership by letting your tears flow and being OK about it when others cry. I’m not suggesting you bawl your eyes out in the boardroom every week, but if from time to time you feel genuinely tearful then experiment with letting this show.

We have made so many strides in the diversity area – gender, race, LGBT, disability, taboos around mental health – is it time for tears to come out of the closet too?

Let me know what you think!

 

Note: First posted on Liz’s blog: www.lizrivers.com/my-blog

Wonder Woman was right – posture is power

Do you ever wish you could have some more oomph when you speak? Would you like to be able to get your audience to sit up and listen to you without fail? An unlikely source of inspiration is Wonder Woman – a 1970s series in which Lynda Carter, dressed like a female gladiator, vanquished villains and saved the day. Her trademark pose was legs planted wide apart and fists on hips – like a female Superman.

It turns out, according to acclaimed TED speaker Amy Cuddy, that Wonder Woman was on to something. Cuddy shares some surprising research about the power of posture. We have long known that our body language is a huge part of our overall communication with others. If our words are powerful but our stance is weak, the listener will believe our body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%) rather than our words (7%).

Cuddy tells us that our posture also has a powerful impact on how we feel inside. Simply adopting a high status power pose (a la Wonder Woman) for two minutes is enough to significantly raise our testosterone levels – the hormone which encourages confidence and risk taking. Conversely, just two minutes of a low status, unconfident pose will reduce our testosterone and raise our cortisol level – the stress hormone – which causes us to doubt ourselves and lose confidence.

Our bodies are the most powerful tool we have for strengthening our confidence and self belief. Women particularly have been socialised not to adopt powerful, high status postures or take up too much space (just look at how men and women take up space on public transport to check this out). The result is we can spend years developing our technical skills only to let ourselves down through poor posture.

So, next time you have to perform under pressure – whether it’s giving a presentation, making a pitch or attending a difficult meeting or negotiation – find somewhere private and stand like Wonder Woman for two minutes. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.

Liz Rivers and Esther Stanhope demonstrating the Power Pose to Accenture Women’s Network

If you want help to look and feel more confident when it really matters then get in touch.

 

Note: First posted on Liz’s blog: www.lizrivers.com/my-blog

Women – when NOT to say sorry

We are taught that we should say sorry when we have made a mistake. This is generally good practice when a genuine mistake has been made, but is there a danger women say sorry too often and undermine their credibility in the workplace as a result?

Linguist Deborah Tannen, author of “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” points out that men and women understand the word “sorry” in different ways. Women will often say sorry to express empathy as in “I’m sorry that happened” whereas men will hear it as “I apologise, it’s my fault this happened” and respect the speaker less as a result.

For example, I was a guest on a live BBC radio programme last weekend and there was an awkward moment when the female presenter mistakenly announced a record which was not scheduled and there was a longish silence. These things happen in live broadcasts but she then went on to apologise for it so profusely that listeners started to call in to comment on it. A simple glitch which would have been forgotten in five minutes became much more significant due to excessive apologising.

Since becoming aware of Deborah Tannen’s research I’ve started to monitor how often I feel the impulse to say sorry and to question whether I really need to or whether there is another way of responding. I’m shocked by how often I say “sorry” unnecessarily. I have noticed that women will sometimes put themselves “one down” in order to make the other person feel comfortable, but at a cost to their own credibility.

This becomes even more critical in formal situations such as presenting. How often have you heard someone start a talk by saying “I’m not very technical” as they wrestle with their PowerPoint? It’s a bit like saying “please like me” and it always makes my heart sink as it neither shows confidence nor genuine vulnerability.

So, if you have genuinely made a mistake then by all means say sorry and accept responsibility. However, if you are a woman beware of saying “sorry” to a man in a work situation unless you really mean “I apologise”. Find another way to express yourself or you could unintentionally lose credibility. And, unless you have just punched your host, don’t ever start a presentation with an apology.

 

Note: First posted on Liz’s blog: www.lizrivers.com/my-blog