When and Why Do We Shrink in the Presence of Others?



Recently, a client asked me to speak to 100 HR Professionals to talk about being more bold in the workplace. He wanted me to start a conversation about the challenges and opportunities of being a bolder version of ourselves at work.

When I started to prepare for the session I wondered, “what the heck do I know about being bold?” Frankly, I had a hard time thinking of a recent experience where I myself acted boldly.  I started to define what being bold means for me. Is being bold the same as being courageous? More examples of being courageous were popping in my mind than examples of being bold. That caused me to pause.

Courageous: Not deterred by danger or pain, brave.
Bold: showing the ability to take risks; confident and courageous.

The definitions are different. And when I think about being courageous or bold, I think of different experiences and different feelings come up. 

What was I thinking?

What was I thinking?

My earliest memory of being bold (which turned out to be painful curiosity) was when I was in the first grade. Without a lot of thought, I walked up to classroom stapler - the classic kind from the 1970’s with the big round disc on top for leverage – and stuck my finger into the open slot, nail side down on the base, and slammed the stapler down with my other hand. The staple went through my finger, hit the nail bed and closed up on the inside of my finger.

The teacher looked at me horrified. “Why on earth would you do that Tina?” she yelled and rushed me to the nurse. Staring at my finger with grand curiosity, I said, “I wanted to see if it would go through.” Once I realized it did, I was equally horrified and started whaling.

Naïve? Yes. Bold? No.

I started to wonder if being bold requires overcoming a fear.  It could mean knowing you have to say or do something in a future situation and overcoming the fear to do it. It might mean facing a fear so you could “act” in a bold way.  Maybe like sky diving if you’re afraid of heights. Or staying in the room with a spider when you’re terrified. Or asking someone to the turnabout dance that you’ve been secretly in love with for two years. 

I’ve done one of those three things.  I’m not bold or courageous enough to go sky diving or hang out with a spider that could clearly kill me if it decided to leap in the air and land on my arachnophobic face. I was courageous enough to ask my high school crush Nick out to the turnabout dance after weeks of being afraid to do it and for 24 hours experienced the bliss of his “yes” response. But the next day he backed out so he could go with someone WAY more popular than me. (I was truly convinced I was the inspiration for the movie Pretty in Pink.) 

So, I did face a fear in asking out Nick. And for 12 hours owning the courage it took and the result it brought felt great. I faced it - I did it - and I got what I wanted. But Nick wasn’t courageous enough to tell me the truth when I asked and both our attempts and failures at being courageous or bold ended up pretty wonky and I felt worse than I did when all I was doing was facing the fear and idea of asking him out. In the end, I had to deal with the very thing that I was hoping wouldn’t happen. Which was useful learning. I guess.  The “all that can happen is he says no” concept, when you’re 15 years old, is not very helpful. 

After a bit of reflecting, I did come up with action that I took that I would label as truly bold.
When I was 17, my entire family chipped in to help pay for a school trip to France. This was a HUGE surprise and a HUGE deal for me as we didn’t have the money to pay for something like this, which is why I never asked. I never wanted my parents to feel bad that they couldn’t provide that opportunity for me.  But I desperately wanted to go and my French teacher, Mr. Wallace knew it. I lived and breathed everything French back then. It was my favorite class in High School and learning about another culture gave me keys to worlds I never had access to before. Knowing how passionate I was, he unknowingly contacted my parents, not realizing they couldn’t pay for it. But they found a way and in the spring of my junior year I was off to France. It was a life changing experience.

The trip started in the South of France and would end in Paris after our arrival via an overnight train. Every sign, every word, every smell, every taste, was new to me. I was overwhelmed with curiosity and wonder. I could hardly take it all in. I was in a constant state of elation. Mr. Wallace warned us over and over that if we lost our passports, it would be very difficult to get us back into the country and we’d be stuck in France. He trusted us as adults to hang on to our own documents and every day he used the scare tactic to ensure we were glued to our passports.

After days and days of hearing this, it started to sink in. “If we lose our passport, we’re stuck here. And we can’t get back to America.” So, when it was time to leave the hotel to rush to the train station, I walked out of my room, grabbed my passport and quickly threw it in the waste basket. I headed to the train station and got on the train. When Mr. Wallace did an impromptu passport check, I ‘panicked’ and couldn’t find it. He thought I was kidding but realized it was truly not in my possession.

He scurried back to the next car to talk to the other teachers, and I sank in my seat and did everything I could to hold back the smile. I was stuck in France. I was about to be stuck in France. I didn’t have to leave France and I never had to return to the United States.

For me, I’d consider this move not courageous or stupid. It was bold. (Let’s be honest, it was bold with a splash of naïve and stupidity). It was bold because it was not pre-meditated. I wasn’t facing a fear. But I was acting on an impulse that was part of my passion and my purpose: to understand the world in a new way.  I was honoring a deep desire of something very real and authentic for me.  It was a way of listening to my heart.  It was impulsive, no doubt. But it was in service of a much higher purpose. To be more of me. 

I realized in France (unconsciously at the time, consciously years later) that exploring the world and experiencing other cultures was going to be the key for me to understand myself better and to know how to live in the world as an inclusive human being.  This was the beginning of a worldwide tour for me and it hasn’t stopped.  It was the first authentic step - my first bold move - in becoming more of who I already was.

I’m still sitting with the question of what it takes to be bold. Especially at work where we have constraints and hierarchies and norms and mental models that all shape what it means to be bold, and what it doesn’t.

But the question that me and this group will continue to ponder is what it means to be just a little more bold in our roles. Where are we holding back? Where are we playing small? And why? When do we find ourselves shrinking in the presence of others? And what is the source of any resistance to be bold? Is it fear of losing our job? Is it fear of losing approval or being judged? Is it fear of losing security? What type of grounding and confidence does it take, personally, to be more bold? And in the end, what is the incentive for being more bold? Or bold at all? A favorite quote from Derek Sivers is, 

“If more information was all we needed to do something, we’d all be billionaires with killer abs.” 

So the reward for being bold has to be greater than the effort and amount of courage it takes to do it. So the question becomes, what’s at risk if I am more bold? And what do I gain if I show up more boldly? What’s at risk if I don’t act more boldly? What do I lose by not going for it?

I’m grateful for the ask to explore these questions as it made me realize there are opportunities where I can show up more boldly. In my personal relationships, asking for what I need and asking for help are two bold moves that are hard for me. And in my consultancy, continuing to listen to my heart and speak truth to a client, even when I know it may be something he or she doesn’t want to hear or take in. And choosing to do it anyway because it’s servant leadership, serving something bigger than both of us. 

Does being bold resonate with you? Do you feel you’re able to be bold in your role at work? If not, why not? And if yes, what enables you to to do?