One of my more accomplished colleagues at work told me the other day that after decades on the job she still feels reluctant to speak up at meetings to offer suggestions because she’s afraid others might find her ideas to be stupid. What seems to irk her most is that invariably someone else will pipe up with the same idea she held back offering and be met with praise.
My colleague, whom I’m calling Zuzu, has no trouble speaking truth to anyone around if they do good work or violate company policy. She also has no trouble making a decision when she’s left alone to do so. It’s just when offering new ideas in a larger group of people trying to solve an issue that she finds herself clamming up out of some fear of embarrassment.
Zuzu wonders if she is doing more damage to her own reputation and to the success of the groups she’s in if she continues to hold back. Or, given her insecurity, is holding back the sensible thing to do.
Zuzu’s predicament is not unusual. Many of us are reluctant to offer ideas in group settings, particularly when there are one or two others in the group who seem to dominate the discussion. Often we hold off saying anything because we share Zuzu’s fear of saying something that will embarrass us and cause the rest of the group to think we’re not as bright or insightful as we’d like to think we are. Sometimes we don’t talk because there are just some unproductive meetings that we pray will come to an end and we try to avoid saying anything that will prolong them.
With increasing frequency some students are expressing concerns that they are facing an impostor syndrome where they believe it will become apparent to someone soon that they have no business having been accepted into school and are surrounded by fellow students who know far more than they do.
Managing insecurity can be challenging. It can also be crippling if it’s allowed to shut a person down from engaging in anything.
That’s not the case with Zuzu. She engages. She gets things done. And she loathes large meetings for the insecurity they bring upon her.
The right thing for Zuzu and others who share meeting participation anxiety to do is to remember a few things. First, you’re at the meeting for a reason. Presumably something about your past accomplishments or your current insights got you invited. Second, the flip side of possibly saying something perceived to be stupid is that it could be perceived to be spot on and perfect for the moment. If you don’t say it, then either someone else might or it will go unsaid and a possibly good idea would never see the light of day.
It’s no simple task to overcome anxieties. It’s challenging to speak when you’re afraid to sound stupid. But if you are at the meeting and you have something to contribute, you should fight the urge to hold back and go head and contribute. Just don’t talk too much or the meeting will go on forever.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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