By Lynne Richardson, Dean, UMW College of Business
We all know people who seem to have been born confident. They exude it from every pore! Others, however, don’t feel like they are worthy and pay attention to what others think to define their value.
Years ago I had a female student, let’s call her Matilda, sit in my office and tell me her father sent her to college to find a husband because “she wasn’t as smart as her brother.” He was worried that she wouldn’t be able to support herself, so was willing to invest in a college education to ensure she found a man to take care of her! Matilda had been in two of my classes at this point, so I knew her pretty well. I said, “What do you have, about a 3.5 GPA?” Turns out it was a bit higher. Matilda was a beautiful woman and her father, I’m sure out of love (at least, that’s the way I’ve had to reconcile this), put her down every time he told her she was pretty, but not as smart as the genius brother. I told her that she needed to quit hearing that message from dear old dad as she was smart and talented. She would be able to get a job and not have to rely on a husband to support her. If she wanted to marry, that was fine, but that she could stand on her own two feet.
So many times, in our personal lives and in interactions with workplace colleagues, we say and do things that signal to others that they don’t belong or are not ‘enough.’ As parents, we mean well when we counsel the son who is not a good speller that he really shouldn’t register for the Spelling Bee. Or we tell our not-very-athletic daughter that she wouldn’t make a softball team, so she should not try out. We tell our partners, in order to protect them from hurt, not to apply for a new job because they don’t have the credentials or background the organization is looking for. In the workplace, we signal to coworkers they aren’t as prepared, experienced, or whatever when different tasks must be done. “Let Marie do it… she’s had more experience than you.”
I was blessed to have parents who told me I could do and be anything I wanted. And I believed them!
As a parent, I have tried to never hold my children back from trying something new, even when I knew the outcome wouldn’t be pretty. At age six, our son wanted to take diving lessons with a friend. I swallowed my negativity and signed him up. It was, to say the least, not his thing and remains one of the hardest things I have ever had to watch anyone experience. It was painful for both of us. But he wanted to try, so I supported him.
In the workplace, I tend to hear “I can’t” from people when they are asked to get out of their comfort zones. Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” At times folks I have worked have felt like I have bulldozed them into trying something they didn’t believe they could do. While it hasn’t always worked out well, what I don’t want them to do is box themselves in. On the other hand, sometimes colleagues have been shocked that I thought they could do something (and been proven correct!) that they were sure they could not.
We’ve all heard that when we have big dreams, we shouldn’t tell the naysayers in our life who, while meaning well, will tell us all the reasons we cannot achieve our dreams. I agree with this.
So think about how your messages impact others, whether it’s a family member, work colleague, or friend. Encouraging words are important for each of us to hear!