Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

May 25, 2009

I am the oldest of four children.  I have one sister who is three years younger than I am, and two female cousins, one 4 years and the second 10 years younger than myself.  I say that I am one of four because in grand, old school Italian style, our families (my mom and her sister) lived very close to one another and my grandparents.  We were raised as a four-pack and did everything together – vacations, birthdays, weekends, weekdays, after school, Sunday dinners, you name it, we did it together.  When I was 13 our grandmother moved into our house and still lives with my parents.  Us kids thought this was great because now we had Nannie’s cooking every night and she dropped us off and picked us up from school – no more bus.  This also meant that at any given time there were 5-8 people in our house.  It was fun, but insane, and very, very loud.

Sometimes stereotypes are so dead-on that you laugh when you read about them or see them portrayed in movies or on television.  The stereotype of the loud, everyone talking at once, everyone has an opinion, everyone’s opinion is correct, and whomever is the last one talking wins all happening around a table of food is very true, at least it was in my house.  If you put any stock in birth order, you’d know that first born children tend to be more conscientious, more socially dominant, less agreeable and less open to new ideas than later born children.  Add a huge dose of Italian upbringing and this pretty much summed up my personality up until I was 22 years old.  You could not tell me anything.  I had an opinion and you were going to hear it.  I was right, you were wrong and that was the end of the story.  It was my way or the highway.

I took this personality to college with me and surprisingly did very well.  I had my mind opened much more than I had before and became a more tolerant person.  I began college as pre-med.  I wanted very much to be a doctor, but life had other plans for me and after my sophomore year, I transferred schools and found myself as a history major.  I graduated and then on the suggestion of a librarian I worked with, decided to go to library school.  She swore up and down that I would be a “fantastic librarian.”  I am still not sure if she was correct, but I am enjoying figuring it out.

This seems like a very long winded story and way to talk about stepping outside your comfort zone, but there is a point I promise to make.  Being a doctor would have been a great job for me and my domineering personality.  I wanted to be an ER doc, which would have been fantastic since I could bark out orders and work in a high stress environment.  But, that did not happen.  What did happen was during my first year of graduate school I accepted a management position at the library.

Looking back on that time, I can safely say that I was not a glowing success in that position.  I actually had a supervisor tell me that they thought my personality was not suited for management and that I tended to get very upset when I did not get my way.  I wish I could say that I disagreed with that assessment, but I knew then and I know now, that was a dead-on appraisal of my management skills.

When I accepted my first professional position I made a promise to myself that I would work on developing my management skills.  There was not a lot of opportunity to attend formal professional development classes for this, but I found ways that I could improve my skills.  I started very simply, I listened to other people.  I really listened.  I considered other people’s opinions.  I worked on having better discussions about projects or issues.  I engaged others.  And, more often than not, I took their advice or suggestions and put them into practice.  I also learned how to accept criticism and feedback.  I learned to listen to it and accept it with grace and then work on improving the problem.  When receiving criticism and feedback I practiced what I like to call “generous listening.”  To me, that meant remaining calm, not interrupting, not arguing, asking for clarification or suggestions, and then thinking about what I was just told.

Do I need to explain how difficult this was for me to do?  Me, the gal who won every argument by yelling the loudest.  The one who would sit at a table of 10 people who were all talking at once and was still heard.  The oldest child who’s way of doing things was always the right way.

The point I am getting at, rather circuitously, is that doing that self-reflection and work was difficult and at times extremely uncomfortable.  Being honest with yourself, the type of honest where you admit you have faults, is painful.  However, it is also invaluable to our development and improvement and when you are committed to changing, the results can be life changing.

Being a good manager requires constant self-assessment.  It requires adapting to your environment and those who you are interacting with on a daily basis.  Learning how to communicate.  Discovering how to motivate people.  Realizing what you are doing that may be ineffective and sometimes damaging.  In short, it requires you to go outside your comfort zone on a continual basis.

The good news is that once you regularly go outside your comfort zone it starts to become familiar and comfortable.

An interesting side note: the three remaining in my four-pack (my sister and two cousins) all became teachers….and married teachers.  I find it funny because the classroom, at least as I remember it, is not a democracy.  You do what the teacher tells you.  This is even more funnier after I tell you that they are all math teachers.  There are no gray areas in math. The answer is either right or wrong.  This is the perfect place for our types of personalities.  I’ve been a manager for almost ten years.  When I come home for holidays, events or vacations and we are all together (now our numbers seem to have doubled) I get teased because I am the “quiet one” who “never argues” anymore.  I just smile and tell them that I am listening to them. 🙂

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7 Responses to “Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone”

  1. Karen Ciccone said

    This is an awesome post. I grew up in a very quiet household (dad worked a night shift), but I can relate to the oldest child thing. Those types of things can explain a lot. Now I understand a bit more what makes you such a great manager.

  2. marycarmen said

    Thanks Karen! I think you’re pretty great yourself!

  3. […] she’s just one of my heroes. (She’s also a fellow Dragon!) Recently she blogged about stepping outside your comfort zone. The thrust of the post is that sometimes you need to be uncomfortable to be a better professional […]

  4. Anne said

    Every once in awhile I come to your site and read your thoughtful posts. I am in a position of management in public services and have found your blog very thought provoking. Contemplative thinking is not something I have much time for on the job – much to my chagrin. Do you have any readings you’d recommend for someone trying to jump start self-reflection in a library setting? Thanks!

  5. Mary Carmen said

    Hi Anne, thanks for your comment. I don’t have any recommendations for books with the library setting in particular, but here are some of my favorites about leading and managing and creating successful work environments. A lot of these books had me thinking about myself and what I need to change.

    Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin

    The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You by John C. Maxwell

    Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham

    The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins

    First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham

    Developing the Leader Within You by John C. Maxwell

    Not Everyone Gets A Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y by Bruce Tulgan

  6. Great post Mary! I’ve had some similar issues transferring from a bossy-only child into a somewhat successful management type… it took a lot of soul searching, good listening and occasionally some pretty brash broadside reckonings… and continues to be a work in progress. Your recommendation on the 21 Laws book is a perfect one. So many angles and aspects to draw from there. Since receiving my first copy from one of my most influential mentors, I’ve been lucky enough to host several training courses with it as the primary text. Good stuff.

    Look forward to reading more of your stuff now that I’ve got it plugged into my GReader. 🙂

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