“What will people think?” It’s a powerful mantra – one of those earworms that crops up inconveniently and without warning in our most creative and hopeful moments. Just when we cobble together the courage to practice daring leadership, start a blog, apply for a new role, lead with our most authentic selves – you name it – that phrase lodges in our brain and hunkers down to put a stop to all such creative opportunities.
Our dreams and aspirations can be fragile – tiny flickers that need space and courage to be fanned into bigger flames. The last thing they need is to be scrutinized by the diminishing voice from the naysayer who lives inside our head.
Even the most seasoned leaders can fall into the trap of editing their best ideas and keeping their best selves under wraps for fear of what others will think.
While all this self-editing may keep our inner naysayer happy, it does nothing to tap into our most creative, resourceful selves, or to enable us to lead well.
So, what can we do to shut the naysayer’s voice down?
Fire the Board Chair
One of the metaphors I use in my coaching practice is around the Board Table that exists in our minds. I ask clients to envision an overbearing Board Chair – someone who’s been given way too much power to dominate conversation and undermine creative thought.
Our inner naysayer is like that tyrannical Board Chair. Of all the viewpoints competing for attention in our inner dialogue, the Chair’s is often the most powerful. And it can shut us down when we dream of tackling a creative project, when we want to challenge the status quo, or when we long for a chance to throw caution to the wind and try something new.
By giving it a name, recognizing how damaging its voice can be, and beginning to notice it at work, we cut down its power.
Your Board Chair may sound like the voice of your boss, your colleague, your parent -- or even your second-grade teacher. Or maybe it’s a voice that developed and grew strong after some difficult experiences.
Wherever it comes from, it doesn’t need to be in charge.
Fire the Chair of the Board and invite healthier and wiser voices to take its place. The old Chair may still try to creep in, but if you’re onto it, it can’t get very far.
Go on the offensive
When your mind goes to the “what will people think” mantra, challenge the naysayer and ask it some tough questions. If the Board Chair still visits your boardroom table from time to time, force it to come up with evidence: Exactly who should I be worried about? Can you prove that they even care? What’s the evidence? Why should someone else’s viewpoint stop me?
Go on the offensive and channel your inner cross-examiner. Simply asking the naysayer voice some tough questions, and forcing it to provide proof might be enough to shut the voice down.
Who would you be without that thought?
This is the question Byron Katie asks as part of what she calls “The Work.” Now that you’ve named the voice and gone on the offensive to shut it down, move to a creative space. If you could let go of the negative and undermining thoughts, who might you be? What possibilities open up? And what might you do that the old voice wouldn’t allow?
If you’re finding your life and leadership diminished by the naysayer who lives in your head, shackled by fears of what others will think, it’s time to fire the Board Chair and open your mind to some new possibilities.