The Twelve Behaviours That Hold Women Back

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I had the opportunity this past year to attend a lecture given by Sally Helgesen, who is a leading authority on women's leadership and has consulted to top companies and organizations, including the United Nations. Her lecture was on how many of the behaviours that have led to a woman's successes will actually get in the way of further advancement. In her book, How Women Rise, she outlines the twelve specific behaviours that hold women back.

What I found interesting was her explanation that each of these behaviours has a positive side and are rooted in strengths—such as generosity, loyalty, and conscientiousness—but that when you look through the lens of culture and structure and the impact this has on how women in leadership are perceived, it becomes clear that these generally positive behaviours are, in fact, career detractors.

An important distinction to hold in mind as you read through these twelve behaviours that might be holding you back is that it is in your control to notice your habits, adjust your behaviour and choose tactics that will prove more beneficial to you and your career.

Here are the twelve behaviours that Sally Helgesen outlined:

1. Reluctance to claim your achievements

Women have a habit of wanting to share the glory, which is a lovely team-building attitude to take, but when it comes to being seen for your actual capacity and potential, this will work against you. When you are praised for an achievement, own it. Make sure you accept the recognition rather than deflecting it to others. Just say "Thank you." If an achievement you made has been overlooked, bring it up and claim it.

2. Expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your contributions

You might have a story going on that has you believe that if you do good work, it will be noticed, or you may believe that to pat yourself on the back publicly is the equivalent of acting like a jerk. The challenge is that we live in a very distracted world, so you need to choose a new perspective: that drawing attention to your strengths and achievements is a way of providing people with needed information. Your strengths will be overlooked if you aren't vocal about them.

3. Overvaluing expertise

Women tend to be on a quest to master the details, but expertise only takes you so far, and if you are too focused on expertise mastery, you are limiting yourself in terms of the contributions you could make if you just stopped hesitating and bogging down in the details. This shows up with job opportunities. Women will hesitate in applying for job openings unless they feel they meet 100% of the job qualifications, while men will apply knowing they don't meet the qualifications, but trusting they will learn what they don't know on the job.

4. Building, rather than leveraging, relationships

Women are great at developing close relationships, but we tend to keep it safe and friendly. Where we fail is in strategically developing networks beyond our immediate spheres of influence. A diverse and broad network that you can call on for support, information, ideas, entrance and advancement is an important career-building strategy because it helps you advance and it helps you help your company achieve an objective. You are also a resource for others, so this strategy becomes win-win.

5. Failing to enlist allies from day one

Allies are trusted people who can give you honest feedback and point out your blind spots to help address the behaviours that are not supporting you. Allies help you navigate some of the gender bias realities that might show up and impede you in being heard and respected. When you first come into a new job, you should be asking, "Who do I need to help me be a success here?" This ensures you get more support up front, it increases your visibility because more people will be aware of who you are, what you are doing, and it reduces the amount of work you have to do to get up to speed.

6. Putting your job before your career

Women, more that men, put too much focus on doing a really good job. This is commendable, but this will slow you down in your development because it means you hesitate in bringing ideas to the table, you slow down productivity and you don't have the time or energy to be strategically focusing on your career development. You don't need to have 100% quality. If you instead invest the time you spend aiming for perfection into your career development, you will grow in the areas that actually support your leadership advancement.

7. The perfection trap

Perfectionism is holding you back and it holds back your team. You set yourself up to be overly risk-averse and overly judgmental of others. Perfectionists tend to be overlooked for promotion. The reality is that mistakes will occur and none of us are immune to imperfection. Perfectionism is soul-crushing and time consuming. Stop wasting your time trying to be perfect and expecting perfection from others. It's not going to happen. Learn to delegate and trust others to do the job. Become better at enabling people rather than micromanaging.

8. The disease to please

Are you overly invested in what others think of you? If so, you will have difficulty setting boundaries and holding others accountable. This doesn't serve you or your team members. Tell yourself you can't make everyone happy all of the time. Aim for respect, and learn to hold others accountable. It will improve your effectiveness and improve team productivity and culture.

9. Minimizing

Women tend to choose body language that takes up less space, which has others perceive us as submissive. We can also be guilty of using hedging, apologizing and hesitating when we speak, which minimizes what we are going to say. Instead, hold your space. Choose power postures to increase your presence and choose direct language that garners respect. And please stop the upspeak – if you are not asking a question, then don't end your statement sounding like a question.

10. Saying too much

Do you have the habit of saying too much, providing too much information, disclosing too much? You may feel this is how to live into your value of honesty, but this is a habit that works against you in two ways: it has you perceived as nervous or uncertain, and it frustrates people because you are not getting to the point. So get to the point. You can be concise and you can be authentically honest without full disclosure.

11. Ruminating

Women ruminate more than men. Do you go over and over an incident from the past, trying to figure out what you did wrong? This prevents you from focusing on the present and on solutions. It is very unproductive to blame yourself and cling to the past. This keeps you stuck and it has a negative impact on your sense of confidence. Let it go.

12. Letting your radar distract you

Neuroscience shows that women's brains are more broadly engaged at any given moment. We notice more. This is a tremendous strength that women bring to our workplaces—if managed appropriately. However, it can mean that you become distracted by small details that then have you question yourself or become too engaged in what you are 'sensing' in other people. This slows you down, especially when paired with a tendency to ruminate and worry. Make your radar work for you. Discipline it and filter information and use that information in a more laser-like fashion.

In her book, How Women Rise, Sally Helgesen provides many more detailed examples and proven strategies to help women avoid inadvertently hindering their abilities to lead well and advance in their careers. I highly recommend this book for women who want to ensure they are showing up in ways that will only advance their leadership.

Coaching Enquiry:

  • What is one behaviour that you will bring your awareness to?

  • What would be a good place for you to begin to make a shift?

Delaney Tosh