I’m a born leader: At age two I was already articulate, had strong opinions, and naturally told others (including adults) what to do. As a toddler I was called precocious. By first grade I was called bossy.
By the time I was ten years old, I had learned that people liked me better when I partially hid my leadership ability. So I worked hard in school and took some leadership positions, but I also kept silent and kept my head down many times when I had something to say.
I continued with this partial self-betrayal all the way through college and medical training. Once I was in the workplace as a doctor, I was in the position of leader every day. I allowed myself to show more of my true leadership qualities. And I immediately started getting negative feedback about my personality.
Here is a partial list of names (not including bitch) I’ve been called in the workplace over the years:
Aloof, Arrogant, Mean, Entitled, Negative, Sensitive, Insensitive, Demanding and Superior
In the early years of my medical career, hearing one of these names would wound and confuse me. How could I be aloof when I cared so much about others? How could I be arrogant when I felt so unsure? How could I be mean when I always said, “thank you?” I kept myself up nights trying to figure out how to be friendlier, how to be kinder, how to be more “regular.” I was a nice person with good intentions trying to do an outstanding job. Why didn’t others perceive me that way?
I spent several years trying, in vain, to escape these words and others like them. I felt like a failure as a human being. I lost confidence and withdrew in my day-to-day interactions at work, trying to avoid offending anyone. I was doing my job well, but I was not being myself, and I was miserable.
Fast-forward many years, a few wise mentors and a career change later: I know now that being called those nine names was not the problem. My reaction was the problem: I took what was being said about me as a negative truth.
Now I hear those words as compliments.
It’s all about the context.
I’m not just a leader. I’m a female leader in a male-dominated environment.
I’ve observed over the years that my natural leadership behavior is viewed more negatively by my coworkers (men and women) than the same behavior from a man. This is not a feminist rant or a personal pity party. It’s just how it is, and this is the context for interpreting the names I’ve been called.
With this context in mind, here is my reinterpretation, or reframing, of the list of names:
Aloof – Concentrating while being female
Arrogant – Decisive while being female
Mean –Gives negative feedback or correction while being female
Entitled—Advocates for myself while being female
Negative—Picks up on flaws in plans before others do while being female
Sensitive—Calls out others for bad behavior while being female
Insensitive—Results-focused while being female
Demanding –Holds people accountable while being female
Superior –Demonstrates expertise while being female
Does reframing these names mean that I believe I don’t ever deserve a bit of negative feedback? Or that I don’t have things to improve about my leadership style?
Absolutely not–I have plenty to learn and lots of growing still to do.
It’s a matter of separating the soul-killing messages that say I shouldn’t be my natural-leader-self from valid constructive criticism.
How do I know what to make of a given piece of feedback, then?
Discernment: what part of a piece of feedback is about context and what part really warrants a change from me? Figuring this out is a lifelong project that requires help from trusted mentors and friends. Though I’ve learned to discern a lot for myself over the years, I still talk with the people in my life who know me well and understand my context. They help me see where I’m just getting a reaction for being my wonderful, powerful self and where I’m crossing a line into true arrogance, insensitivity or something else. I then take the context-driven feedback as a compliment, and I take the rest as fodder for professional growth.
If you find yourself up against these types of names or similar feedback, take a look at your context and consider a reframe.
By the way, I would never have learned to reframe these negative messages alone; in fact, I would never be where I am today if I’d tried to do it alone. If this post has spoken to you, reach out to a trusted friend, mentor, or to me. No one does it alone.
The best is yet to come.