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The Silent Struggle to Maintain Appearances

Earlier in the semester, a sectionmate and I were reflecting on a particularly confusing RC case study. After class ended, my sectionmate said, “I still don’t understand how we came up with that answer.” Neither did I, and I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one who was confused. Everyone else in the section seemed to be nodding along and adding to the discussion, so I thought I was the only one who didn’t understand. Unfortunately, neither my sectionmate nor I had asked the professor for clarification, disservicing not only ourselves, but perhaps the rest of the class.

You have probably been in a similar situation and know very well why I didn’t raise my hand: I didn’t want to ask a “dumb” question and therefore be perceived as “dumb.” I realize my logic was terrible, but at the same point, this could be said of my sectionmate. This is a simple example, of course, but one that seems indicative of a trend at HBS: a silent struggle to maintain appearances.

It is not as though we don’t recognize the need for help in other aspects of our personal and professional lives. We work as, or perhaps hire, consultants to solve strategic problems; we seek tech support for computer troubles. When it comes to personal help, however, there seems to be a stigma in our culture that expects the exceptional and leaves little room for queries that could potentially aide us in our progression to the top.

This problem is not unique to Harvard Business School. It can be seen in the military, where accepting treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder is often perceived as a sign of weakness. It is also common in businesses where long hours are common and employees must grin and bear it or else seem uncommitted. Perhaps most relevant, though, are the findings of a 2003 study by the Women’s Institute at Duke University. The undergraduate women who were interviewed for the study cited enormous pressure to be successful, smart, beautiful and fit, and to do so without breaking a sweat. This quest for “effortless perfection” transformed confident students into ones who left the university with newfound insecurities and self-doubt. Given the competitive environment we live in at HBS, I imagine that this quest for effortless perfection is more common than we let on.

The inherent danger in this silent struggle is that people slip through the cracks. Those individuals who are not proactive in seeking help or counsel run the risk of a hard fall. While I understand that a majority of the problem lies within the student and his or her approach to life, we should try to put things in perspective and allow more objective people weigh in before we rush to conclusions. Am I really the best person to decide whether or not my question is a “dumb” one, or would the professor or even a “Participation Buddy” be a better judge of that? Luckily there is no shortage of opinions or resources at HBS, so it becomes a matter of how we choose to employ those.

We spend our days studying successful business leaders and case protagonists who sometimes make mistakes. We openly discuss the shortcomings of these men and women, and formulate action plans for how they can improve. If we hope to improve our own leadership throughout this “transformational experience,” we need to be open to identifying, addressing and tackling our own difficulties without fear of how we will be perceived. It is a sign of maturity, not weakness, to be so bold.

November 24, 2008
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