Defying Social Norms: Taking the Risk of Losing Your Tribe

Making other people uncomfortable can be one of the most challenging things we do—especially as women leaders. It often feels like we’re just not wired that way. . . and certainly, we’re rarely trained or taught to do that.

But leadership requires making people uncomfortable. . . whether you’re leading a team or leading yourself.

Defying cultural, corporate, or familiar norms is one way we can make other people uncomfortable, including ourselves. But it’s necessary if we want to grow. It’s necessary if we want to see change.

My brother’s girlfriend Laura is someone who is willing to make other people uncomfortable. Not because she likes to upset people. In fact, she’s one of the nicest people I know. She’s willing to make other people uncomfortable, along with herself, because she is willing to stand up for what she believes.

At one family Thanksgiving dinner, many years ago now, Laura announced that she was no longer eating meat. My brother had warned us, so my husband (who prepares our annual feast) prepared alternative dishes for Laura. (Not that she asked for that.)

Well, my family are all meat-eaters. My father and brother especially. Plus, my father—who had strong opinions about almost everything—believed firmly that eating meat is the best way to get the protein and amino acids that we need for our health.

When he saw that Laura wasn’t eating the turkey, well, you guessed it, he wasn’t very happy and started giving her a very hard time.

Laura, to her credit, explained her reasons (she’s a passionate animal lover), calmly held her ground, and listened patiently to my father explain all the reasons she was wrong. She got little support from anyone else at the table, except perhaps my husband.

I’ve always admired how Laura handled herself in that situation. She regularly joined our family for holiday meals, and I’m sure there was a part of her that felt she might not be welcome if she took such a stand that was so in opposition to the family’s norms.

She did it anyway.

I’m sure she was uncomfortable because she doesn’t like to upset people, and she loved my parents.

She did it anyway.

Why? Because her love of animals was stronger than her fear of any consequences of her actions within the family.

So, why was it so difficult for my father to accept her position? Why was HE uncomfortable? Well, for one, he loved Laura, and I know he was genuinely concerned for her health. I suspect he was also afraid that she wouldn’t come to family dinners anymore because she didn’t want to be with people who were eating meat.

And finally, I think he was afraid, and we probably all were, that she would try to convince us that we needed to become vegetarians too. That’s often what we’re afraid of, isn’t it? If someone else changes, they might make me change too. Right?

She didn’t.

She simply respected that we were going to make our own decisions and asked us to respect hers. She set a boundary.

After his blustering was over, we all settled down and enjoyed the delicious meal that Reed had prepared. And while my father still challenged Laura’s decision from time to time, he did accept her dietary change.

Laura still joins us for family meals. Reed still accommodates her when he’s cooking. And the family tribe is as intact as it can be with my parents gone.

True leadership requires un-comfortability both within ourselves and for the people around us—especially when it comes to defying social norms.

We’re all better off for it in the long run.

What social expectations have you defied? Were they with your family? Friends? At work? I’d love to hear your story.


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