Brave, Not Perfect

April 4, 2019

Half your staff is holding out on you. Oh, they’re coming to work, they’re doing their jobs; they’re even staying late to finish assignments. But if you’re looking for breakthroughs, cutting edge risk-taking, you’ll find that part of your workforce would rather try to be perfect than brave.

That’s the message in Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less. Fail More, and Live Bolder, by Reshma Saujani. Saujani writes that women, almost from birth, are subtly trained to work toward becoming perfect. “From the time they are babies, girls absorb hundreds of micro-messages each day telling them that they should be nice, polite, and polished. They are praised mightily for being A students and for being helpful, polite, and accommodating and are chided (however lovingly) for being messy, assertive, or loud.”

She goes on to say: “Well-meaning parents and educators guide girls toward activities and endeavors they are good at so they can shine, and steer them away from ones they might find frustrating, or worse, at which they could fail. … we instinctively want to protect them from harm and judgment.

Our boys, on the other hand, are given freedom to roam, explore, get dirty, fall down, and yes, fail—all in the name of teaching them to ‘man up’ as early as possible.”

Girls gradually absorb these messages and begin to avoid classes, activities and challenges they might fail. It’s more than simply fear of failure; it’s also about not wanting to disappoint their parents, their teachers, their coaches, and eventually their managers.

HP did a now-famous study on internal candidates for promotions. They found that men apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. Surveys show that when women do take on more challenging roles, their perfectionism makes the new role much more stressful than it would be for their male counterparts. These factors could go a long way toward explaining the persistent gender salary gap and shortage of women at the C- level in corporate America.

Girls are also trained to play nice. Don’t lose your temper. Don’t brag – it’s not attractive. Give credit to others. Share your toys.

Saujani writes about her experience at a local park, watching children play.

“A group of boys were play-fighting using sticks as swords and chasing one another. Lots of happy hollering and a sea of dirty, scabby knees and elbows: a classic case of grade-school boys at play.

Meanwhile, over at the sandbox, five girls who looked to be around three years old were playing quietly. Wearing cute coordinated outfits, they took turns scooping piles of sand to make a pretend cake, while their moms watched intently from a few feet away.

In a ten-minute span, three of the five moms jumped up from their perches and climbed into the sandbox—one to straighten her daughter’s headband and another to reprimand her daughter for being “rude” by taking the shovel from another girl. The third mom rushed to her daughter’s aid after her sand “cake” fell over and hurriedly helped her daughter rebuild it while making soothing noises and wiping the tears from the girl’s face. When the cake was fixed, the little girl smiled and her mom beamed with pride, ‘There’s my happy girl!’”

Those lessons will still be in force for those girls 30 years from now – embedded at the cellular level.

Let’s face it; real progress (and joy) comes from taking risks. If you’d like the women in your life and on your team to feel bold, watch for and quash subtle messaging that reinforces the ideas we learn in the sandbox.

Kate Mays leads CSI’s Healthcare IT Division. As the youngest President in The CSI Companies’ more than 20-year history, Kate has had her fair share of risk-taking.


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