I recently listened to a Desert Island Discs episode featuring the late Raymond Briggs, author and illustrator famous for The Snowman.
One of his anecdotes in particular stuck with me. He said that a motivating concern for his mother, Ethel, was what the neighbours would think. One manifestation of this was that she always made sure their upstairs and downstairs curtains matched, even if they clashed with the interior decoration!
More than one coaching client has said to me that a key benefit for them from our work together has been that they care less which, on the face of it, doesn’t sound very positive.
However, what they mean is that they’ve learned to worry less about what they think other people might think about what they say and do.
For example, one leader recently told me she was struggling to make a recruitment decision. She desperately needed to fill vacancies in her team, but stakeholders were vocal in their opinions about whether she should hire externally or promote existing team members.
She was paralysed by the inability to keep everyone happy and the fear of getting it wrong.
When we helped her get in touch with what she felt the right thing to do was, the answer was clear : promote her team members. For her, this was about fairness and trusting in people’s potential to learn and develop.
The risk for her was not delivering and so losing credibility. Yet when we drilled down further, we discovered the stories she was telling herself about what could go wrong were just stories.
There’s good reason why worry about what other people might think gets in our way.
If you think back to our early human ancestors, they needed to stick together to stay safe from wild animals and neighbouring tribes. The consequence is that we’re wired to maintain connection with others and to seek their approval and respect. That means it’s natural to feel anxious or fearful when we think we might be at risk of disappointing people.
The cost is that we spend more time worrying about how our curtains look on the outside rather than how they look on the inside.
If we shift attention inside ourselves to decide what we think and feel is right and act upon it, we may risk some disapproving looks and words from the neighbours. However, we’ll feel more congruent with our values and purpose and have a greater sense of agency.
Alison Reid helps new Directors focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm and effective under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.