At The Marketing Society's Bravest Conference in November, Tesco chair and Confederation of British Industry president John Allan explained his own interpretation of bravery at work. Commenting that risking unpopularity by disagreeing with the status quo didn't require the same bravery as a firefighter, Allan talked about his early experiences of standing up and being counted. In his first role as a junior brand manager, it was business practice for the most senior people in the room to comment on work last. There was nowhere to hide and it wasn't possible to just agree with the highest-paid person in the room.
Allan said that he has learned more from his failures than from his successes – something that is clearly true generally.
It is hard though to talk about failures. It is difficult to speak about detours and twists in the road, even wrong turnings, when so much of business culture is about continuous fast improvement and showing no weakness.
That's why at our Glass Wall Network event recently, we invited panellists to talk about times when they were up to their necks in hot water and how they got themselves out of it. The Glass Wall Network is open to everyone, but is named after our book about diversity at work. As women are sometimes stereotypically characterised as less strong, we asked three extremely strong women to talk about how they became this way. Eleanor Roosevelt (former American first lady, not a panellist) once said: "Women are like teabags; you don't know how strong they are until they are in hot water."
What's clear is that strength often comes from getting really pissed off, from intransigence. Claudine Collins, MediaCom's chief client officer, told us where her bravery in the face of difficulties came from. She mentioned a time during her first job in media when she was shouted at by an irate boss for something she hadn't done. She told him that if he didn't stop shouting at her, she would walk out. He carried on shouting, so she walked out. And didn't go back the next day. Didn't go back, in fact, until he'd apologised and properly listened to her demands for better behaviour.
As we wrote in The Glass Wall, anger can often be very nuanced for people. Some people are very worried about expressing their anger. It can make you unpopular. It can show that you are emotional. Bottling it up, though, is one of the worst things you can do in terms of generating unhelpful stress in the workplace. And faking forgiveness is bad for you too. A Harvard Medical School study followed more than 800 people over 40 years and concluded that taking action about something that matters enough to you to make you furious will be better for you and your career – and, actually, I'd say for the business you work in too. It's much better than simply sucking it up and swallowing the frustration.
Many people prefer to sit on their anger rather than find a way of expressing it. But anger is an energy and it can propel positive change. Continually swallowing your anger will sap your strength and contribute to making your business slow to transform.
Use your anger to fuel bravery. Don't put up with unfairness, challenge the status quo and drive your career.
Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom
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