Have you ever worked hard for a promotion but then hesitated on the threshold of assuming a larger role?
We often question our competence on the eve of significant job transitions that require new skills. Our successes place us on the radar for these new positions, but now that we are faced with the possibility, self-doubt begins to creep in. It tamps down our enthusiasm to stretch ourselves and cramps our career aspirations. As we diminish our own agency, we risk withdrawing from the new role before fully taking it on.
By the time we’re ready to step into bigger shoes at work, we’re used to being at the top of our game — after all, it’s often one of the prerequisites for being considered for more responsibility. Our string of successes ties us to a desire to only take on challenges we know how to handle. Job transitions come with untrodden ground. Our fear of failure makes us hesitate to embrace the opportunity.
For instance, when I (Evelyn) was an associate professor holding a medical director position at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital, I had dreams of changing the world by changing the paradigm of success in academic medicine and, ultimately, improving the lives of patients by improving the lives of providers. The invitation to interview for the full-time position of division chief was the gateway to realizing my wishes. But I was plagued with fear: of not being ready, disappointing others, provoking public criticism, and drowning under the burden of others’ expectations and judgment.
I approached Sabina for help. In his book, Think Again, Adam Grant writes that it’s important to detach in two ways when we need to rethink our incorrect opinions: We must detach our present from our past and our opinion from our identity. Sabina encouraged me to dump out all my doubts to discharge my emotions and counterproductive assumptions. This helped us work through the surprising demotivation I experienced, rather than the excitement we had both anticipated.
Over the course of our next several coaching sessions, we uncovered four demons — all of which are prevalent among successful professionals facing their next big career step — and the strategies we could use to defeat them.
I need to please everyone.
I was overwhelmed because I felt the weight of new responsibilities would be crushing; I would need to respond to greater pressures and submit to everyone’s expectations in my new role. My mindset was stuck in victim mode. I thought I wouldn’t be able to say no when others expected something of me or stop working when even one email remained that needed a response.
Sabina asked me to create a should-versus-want list, identifying everything I thought I should do and corresponding items identifying what I wanted to do. This list helped us clarify my own mandates rather than bending to the will of others’ motivations or shoulds. We give ourselves permission to switch from someone at the mercy of other people’s expectations (the victim) to the person at the helm of their choices (the owner). My list helped me pinpoint ways to succeed on my own terms.
My vision needs to be ready-made and perfect.
I assumed the vision I proposed for my department needed to be perfect right out of the gate in a concise, relatable, and actionable soundbite with wide appeal to all stakeholders. I didn’t want to expose any flaws or tax others with multiple iterations. A full-time position was a big deal to me, but to my constituents, time was short and expectations were higher.
Creating a vision is not a solo venture. Nor is it linear or clear from inception. Perfection shackles us to preconceived notions of what good work looks like and paralyzes progress. To fix this, I needed to begin with an idea or two, garner input from others, shape the vision, talk some more, reshape it, and continue molding it through multiple iterations. It led to a year of creating and revising the vision, rather than feeling as though I had to share it immediately. It then functioned as the litmus test for making tough decisions — for example, how to handle a team member’s family crisis or resolve conflicts between team members. No matter how smart we are or how quickly we work, when we invite others to create with us, our ideas will be better for having diverse input and more likely to be embraced.
I am not safe.
Fear frequently greets us on the threshold of a new opportunity. New rules and expectations, an unknown future, and ambiguous goals all jar our sense of safety. Our past challenges resurface, and we project them onto a gloomy prediction for the future.
I grew up the child of immigrants in small-town Wisconsin and am well-versed in being singled out as different. I had to learn maladaptive survival and self-protection skills: playing small, not standing out, going out of my way to please others. Assuming the mantle of division chief involved making hard decisions that would inevitably disappoint at least some. This triggered an autoresponse in me: “People won’t like my decisions, and they won’t like me. If I am not liked, I am not safe.”
While this specific example was related to my upbringing, we each battle fears that cast shadows larger than reality. Our fears arise from various needs like wanting to be liked by others, never being wrong, or wanting to be seen as the smartest person in the room. To protect ourselves from these fears, we tend to hide and play small.
I first decided to experiment outside work in safer surroundings. For example, I learned to stand taking up more physical space. As I grew in my presence, so did my confidence. This then led me to recognize which work items and skills needed more time to grow. I learned to “play big” one small experiment at a time.
In addition, over the course of a few meetings with Sabina, I learned that I was stuck in a single story about other people’s intent, and that other interpretations were possible. Sure, a coworker could offer direct feedback, trying to manipulate me to their way of thinking, or they might be deeply invested in my success and realized I didn’t have all the data or that my approach had been tried unsuccessfully previously. By expanding the possible reasons for someone’s behavior toward us, we liberate our minds from playing small and release them into a larger arena.
I will be seen as lazy, selfish, and self-indulgent.
Who am I to read a book for pleasure when patients need attention, peers require responses, and physicians crave coaching?
High-pressure jobs require time to destress and reenergize. The to-do list never sleeps. But that doesn’t mean you need to bring it to bed with you. Cy Wakeman once noted on the No Ego podcast that to avoid quitting our jobs, we would need to quit our jobs every night and every weekend. Before completing work each day, list one thing you must finish the next day and prioritize the rest of your tasks. Create a ritual that marks the end of your workday. Shut down your computer and walk out of your office for the evening — even if that means stepping over the threshold of your study and into your living room when you’re working from home. Block time a month or two in advance for self-care and communicate these mini-breaks to your team. Even just take the day off for your birthday and tell others about it. Transparency with your colleagues allows them to slay their own demons.
We cannot fulfill our dreams if our own fears and false expectations hold us back. Shining a spotlight on and naming our demons allows us to set the terms under which we do our best work for ourselves, for our teams and organizations, and for those we serve.