Never Let 'Em See You Sweat
“Never let ’em see you sweat”. It’s a classic line — and if you’re anything like me, you’ve uttered it to yourself many times throughout the course of your career. And if, like me, you’re a woman who has spent her entire career in male-dominated fields, you might utter that phrase on a daily basis. It’s not a recommendation, it’s a necessary survival tactic. Only woman in the room? You need to be twice as good and twice as confident. Dealing with so-called jokes that make you cringe? You need to be twice as witty, twice as ready to cut someone down to size. And you need to make it look easy.
So, imagine my surprise when I landed at a company that uses the word “vulnerability” as a positive. The very idea of introducing more humanity in the workplace is contrary to the American working system. Do your job. Be just the right amount of nice. Never let ’em see you sweat. While there is a certain stigma around women being emotional, I would argue that men face that same stigma, if in a slightly different way. What could possibly be more emasculating in our culture than admitting that you need help? That you’re overwhelmed or have personal things going on and need to take a day off to collect yourself?
The result of all of this is an emotionally stunted workforce. And since it’s impossible for who we are 5 days a week, 8 hours a day not to affect who we are in our personal lives, that leaves us with an emotionally stunted population. The prospect of genuine transparency and vulnerability with another human being — let alone someone you work with everyday — becomes impossible to comprehend.
But that exact thing, vulnerability, leads to authenticity. And people love authenticity. To put a business spin on this, authenticity sells. Everyone loves to feel like they’re working with a person or company that a kindly midwestern farmer would describe as “the real deal”. Yet our working environments and working relationships promote the antithesis of that. Then we wonder why our messages don’t resonate. Why our campaigns don’t succeed. Why we’re not connecting with our audiences.
Building vulnerability and transparency in the workplace isn’t easy. It’s hard enough in an environment that promotes openness, let alone somewhere that doesn’t. The very attempt is fraught with pitfalls, both risks for women in being unfairly labeled emotional and risks for men in being unfairly labeled weak. And that’s not even getting into the personal struggles that come with trying to get comfortable enough in your own skin to be yourself (anyone for an existential crisis?)
So, what’s a professional to do? The short answer: try. The slightly longer answer: try some empathy. Try to be the sort of person who makes others feel comfortable enough to be themselves. Have empathy, have compassion, look at your coworkers as human beings and behave yourself like a human being, not a robot. This isn’t about throwing boundaries out the window or abandoning professionalism. It’s about humanizing professionalism. From interns to managers to executives, no matter the industry. And it might just benefit every aspect of our working relationships.
Never let ’em see you sweat. But it’s okay if, occasionally, you do.