I was unaware of my detrimental persona until a colleague said to me, with incredulity in her voice, “Wow, you are actually human.” Her comment materialized over lunch, where I had apologized for being so harsh to her and her team regarding some errors made on an initiative I was leading. I explained to her the pressure I felt to ensure the project ran smoothly, the stress I was experiencing at home, how none of that excused the way I treated her, and how truly sorry I was for the way I behaved. She was taken aback by my candor, and murmured that I was human, as if talking to herself.
This interaction got me thinking – did I not act “human”? I asked my most trusted colleague about it and she gave me a big dose of the truth: I presented myself as someone who was at the top of her game, someone who looked, spoke and acted the part, all while effortlessly balancing family and work. She told me it was difficult and daunting for others to live up to my standards, and that people did not feel I was approachable given how “perfect” I appeared to be. No one thought I would be able to relate to their struggles, given I had few of my own. As a result, people did not enjoy working for me or with me.
I was floored. If they only knew that there were times I was hanging on by a thread, thinking that this would be the day my life unraveled. I had regular anxiety about my kids, and rushes of insecurity about my capabilities as a manager and leader. I suffered from lack of sleep, drank way too much coffee, and emotionally ate chocolate by the pound (which only increased my stress about being overweight). I always carried a nagging feeling that I was forgetting something important I had to do, despite my detailed list of To-dos that were organized in one of three columns labeled “work”, “family”, and “personal.” I had little time for friends (OK, I had few friends), and felt guilty for how little I exercised. In my mind, I was a mess – a functioning mess, but a mess all the same.
But I put on a good show. I was meticulous and judicious about my appearance, took deep breaths during the day to calm myself, over-prepared for important meetings, spoke with conviction, and projected myself as confident, capable and very much “together.” The problem was that I also portrayed myself as someone who was unapproachable and lacked empathy. I learned that people both admired and resented me at the same time. This great act I was putting on was not producing the results I wanted. Further, I realized it was exhausting and unsustainable.
So I changed – slowly, but surely. I began opening up to those who worked closely with me, sharing with them my concerns about work or my family, or how lousy I felt that day. I came out of my office more often just to talk, share a funny story or even (diplomatically) vent. Over time, through trial and error, I found a balance between sharing my own life struggles and demonstrating leadership in times of strife or uncertainty. Acting human allowed me to release some of my nervous energy so that I did not transfer it unproductively onto others. And it strengthened my relationships with my team, which I found very gratifying.
So here is my message to my female colleagues who feel the need to maintain an “I’ve got it all together” image: you can give yourself a break. People appreciate authenticity. Your quirks and anxieties make you more relatable to your team members and colleagues. Sure, you need to find a balance, but I encourage you to examine the balance you have today. Determine if sharing more of your true self would be beneficial to you and to your colleagues. To quote Amy Bloom:
“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.”
Not only is it OK to show people the whole of you, it can also be powerful, making you that much more effective as a professional, manager and leader.