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By Christine Richardson, Oxford University Press
Talk more in meetings. Shout louder to make your point heard. Be more assertive. You can’t succeed unless you’re more aggressive. Being nice won’t get you anywhere. While these aren’t the exact phrases that have been thrown my way in the past, they aren’t far off.
Over the years, I’ve taken part in many different tests that supposedly identify my strengths and weaknesses. And the results are always the same. I’m empathetic. I’m driven. I like to achieve – almost to a fault. I want to bring people on journeys with me, so they feel included. I’m a good listener, more introverted, and considerate of others’ feelings. But on the flip side, I’m not decisive or assertive enough. I can be perceived as a walkover because I don’t like confrontation. I’m stubborn.
We’re all human. We all have innate strengths, and areas that take more development. Yet throughout my many years in PR, there still seems to be the default opinion that you need to be a certain personality type to succeed, particularly in this industry—and especially if you want to progress into a leadership role. It’s something that we see reflected in the media; PR people are often portrayed as extroverted, pushy, ruthless, sometimes uncaring and lacking in emotional intelligence (even though good PR is all about understanding your audiences and what makes them tick).
Now, those personality tests I mentioned don’t capture the full breadth of my skills. But the themes they identify aren’t far wrong. I love working with people. There’s a reason my (joke) tagline at work is ‘ACHIEVE!’. I take the time to build up strong relationships, to understand what drives people and makes them tick. I don’t always shout loudest. I like to think things through. But that doesn’t automatically make me weak, or less effective at my job. It doesn’t mean I can’t be assertive or decisive when the situation demands it. It doesn’t mean I’m any less qualified to be a leader. I can still achieve the same result as someone with a very different personality—I’ll just take a different approach.
Yet all too often we define ourselves, and indeed are defined by others, by our perceived weaknesses, so we fixate on fixing them. The problem is, these preconceptions about who you are and, by default, your potential, often start early on in your career, when you’re still developing, learning, and finding your own style. Being told to try and fit into a particular box can knock your confidence, or encourage you to be someone you’re not.
Equally it diminishes the value of diverse thought and perspectives. The best, most productive teams are those that bring together a variety of complementary skills, from the most junior levels, right to the highest levels of leadership.
We also know that the very best leaders, and the ones who truly connect with people, are authentic and self-aware. This has been proven time and time again throughout the pandemic—leaders who have shown their true selves and shown empathy have been better at uniting and inspiring their teams or their countries. Jacinda Ardern is a perfect example here; she has been hailed for her open, authentic approach. While there will sometimes (and understandably) be an element of ‘fake it till you make it,’ eventually people see through this. And once the trust is gone, it’s hard to regain it.
Rather than spending all our time and energy on fixing our weakness and becoming someone different, let’s celebrate our uniqueness and our diversity. Let’s maximize our strengths. Because it’s these strengths that will help us to shine, stand out, and reach our full potential. This isn’t always easy. I’ve had many a crisis of confidence, thinking I need to be different, or comparing myself to others. But I can also see where my strengths have helped me in my career. For example, because I’m good at building trusted relationships, I’ve been able to bring people along with me on difficult or complex projects. It hasn’t stopped me being able to influence people—I just might approach it more subtly. I like to think it has made me a good manager, because I take the time to understand people, and their aspirations. I’ve also been told I’m a calming presence, particularly in a crisis (always helpful in PR). And my focus on achieving, and just getting things done, means I’m often complimented on my productivity.
The pandemic has in some ways been a great equalizer in the workplace. Introverts are thriving, having more time away from people to think, reflect, and embrace their creativity. Zoom and Teams meetings give people more opportunity to speak up—even if you can’t get a word in, you can put your hand up, or chat in the chat box. It’s also forced us to get to know people on a different level, as the line between our personal and professional lives blur. Simply put, these new ways of working give us more opportunities to be who we are, and truly demonstrate our unique talents.
I hope it’ll usher in a new respect for different strengths and personalities. This can only be a good thing in the long-term for the industry, for recognizing diversity—and for all of us as individuals, so that we not only can work as effectively together as possible, but be more confident in who we are, and the value we bring.
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