I Learned To Thrive Silently At My Own Expense
I am planning a trip to Brazil in July.
One of the excursions I booked is a visit to a gorilla’s nest in the rainforest. These excursions are hosted by unarmed guides, and you must review a lengthy disclaimer before booking. One of the disclaimers is: if a silver back approaches you, make yourself small; curl up into a ball if you have to; sit on the floor; do not make eye contact. Do everything you can to make sure the silver back does not see you as a potential threat.
Making myself small. Moving through my career in a way that doesn’t threaten others. Knowing where it’s safe to take up space and where it’s probably best I don’t. These are habits I have learned over the last 15 years building my career. Silently thriving has protected me from being ‘tall poppied’ — cut down, resented, criticized, and disliked because of my achievements and/or success. I have been able to move through the world mostly unscathed, but at the cost of having an underlying feeling of self-betrayal; feeling like I am not reaching for my full potential, or sharing the best version of me with my teams, and doing my best work.
I, like many women, have celebrated several professional milestones and accomplishments solo and silently. I learned very early on that the highest treason a crab can make is to leap for the rim of the bucket. When I leaped — got into one of the country’s best business schools, built a thriving business from the ground up, won national industry awards for campaigns I strategized, planned, and executed — I was dragged back down. My accomplishments were downplayed. The legitimacy of them was questioned. I was cut down for standing out, time and again.
Moments and milestones that should have been cause for celebration made me a target instead.
What does it cost to be a woman with ambition?
Being an ambitious woman comes with its own set of consequences. Despite progress being made in the fight for gender equality, many women still face discrimination and biases in the workplace.
One consequence is the “double bind” phenomenon, where women who exhibit traditionally masculine traits, such as ambition and assertiveness, are often viewed negatively and labelled as “bossy” or “aggressive.” On the other hand, women who do not exhibit these traits may be seen as weak or lacking leadership potential.
Women who are ambitious may also face backlash from their peers and colleagues, including gossip, exclusion from important meetings or projects, and even harassment. This is Tall Poppy Syndrome, and it occurs when a person’s success causes them to be attacked, resented, or criticized.
Cutting people down devalues someone else’s achievement by suggesting they did not deserve the attention. And it can discourage a person from striving for future achievements that would attract further attention to themselves. Enter silent thriving. Most times, these individuals thrive silently and secretly, but the cost is a feeling of loneliness, self-betrayal, and feeling like one isn’t reaching for their full potential.
Silent thrivers — an untapped source of remarkable talent
Silent thrivers have a lot to offer: experience, expertise, envelope-pushing ideas, measurable success — but they need is a safe place to shine unabashedly. By creating a work environment where ambition is treated as a precious resource and not a threat, businesses and organizations can unlock the potential of employees who are sitting on game-changing ideas, who are ripe for leadership positions, and who have more to give than meets the eye.
As industries become increasingly competitive on a global scale, it is crucial for workplaces and society as a whole to work to dismantle the systemic biases and discrimination that hold ambitious women back. This includes creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace culture, pushing for policies that support the advancement of women in leadership positions, and creating a culture that fosters the celebration of ambitious, high-performing women.
Silver backs don’t just exist in the animal kingdom; we work with them, we live with them, we may see them in yoga class. They are bosses, colleagues, and peers. Sometimes, they are family members, friends, and associates. But, the workplace isn’t the Amazon jungle. Our playing small serves no one, especially ourselves.
The cost of silent thriving isn’t just to the person experiencing it. Now, more than ever, we need to showcase and celebrate the diversity and intersectionality of success; show the different forms it can take in the business world and the different paths others have forged to get there.