Why Ambitious Women Hold Themselves Back

Over the past years working with men and women in tough industries for women to get ahead, I have constantly been on the look-out for the reasons why more women don’t succeed in landing top jobs. I have found one signature work by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith that explains a lot.

Their book How Women Rise has become my favorite book to recommend to ambitious women. Helgesen and Goldsmith identify 12 habits that hold women back in their leadership careers.

In this article I will flesh out some of the habits and offer examples of how I have seen these hamper my clients.

Helgesen and Goldsmith’s list is as follows:

  1. Reluctance to claim your achievements
  2. Expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your contributions
  3. Overvaluing expertise
  4. Just building rather than building and leveraging relationships
  5. Failing to enlist allies from day one
  6. Putting your job before your career
  7. The perfection trap
  8. The disease to please
  9. Minimizing
  10. Too much
  11. Ruminating
  12. Letting your radar distract you (1)

Most women I have spoken to about these habits identify with many, if not all of the habits. Men do not understand the logic behind why women approach their work in this way when they want to compete for promotions.

By becoming familiar with these habits, there is an opportunity for men in leadership positions to support their women counterparts succeed without a struggle. They can help women to identify which habits they employ and possibly help them understand ways to minimize these habits.

The first step that ambitious women can take is to be clear about where they want their career to take them. This is done by identifying a clear purpose for themselves in the world and in their work. This purpose can help you lift your energy, motivate you and keep you focused when things are tough. It also helps to be realistic about your practices and help you see when you engage these habits. Knowing your purpose will help to give you clarity about what behavior you want to change.

Reluctance to Reveal and Claim Your Achievements

With regards to the first two habits, many women talk about their internalized, cultural expectations for them not to be seen as “pushy” or self-promoting. Most women I encounter identify very strongly with the sentiment of reluctance to claim their contributions and expecting that their hard work and contribution will be noticed and valued. They don’t want to be seen as the heinous she-devil, which is how they view someone who may have overcome these two habits.

I met one woman who diligently supported a colleague to succeed in his work by feeding him useful information and making suggestions for where he could add value. Her motivation was that their whole department succeeds. Yet, when she went to her boss to ask for a new position, she was told that her colleague was first in line, since he was doing such a good job.

The Lesson: Be generous and reveal to your boss how your motivation and contribution has achieved the success of the department.

Being the Best at Your Job is a Trap

The perfection trap

Many women I coach have a desire to compete with their colleagues and be seen as contenders for the next promotion when it emerges. Most women get left out of the running in spite of their efforts.

They tell me how hard they have worked to gain a good understanding of their jobs and to learn everything that they can to become experts in their departments or field. They know that they can do things better, with more accuracy and attention to small details than their counterparts. They are good at their jobs so are at a loss as to why they didn’t get the promotion.

What is going on?

Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith blame a group of habits for this:

Habit 3 – Overvaluing expertise

Habit 6 – Putting your Job before your Career

Habit 7 – The Perfection Trap

You want a solid foundation; want to understand all the expectations of your job so that you can shine. So you keep your focus on learning all you can, succeeding at the immediate tasks, never looking up to see the real expectations of you in your new role.

I had a client who was being held hostage by this behavior. She had been promoted to a higher level of management in a field that involved systems she was not familiar with. She had experts on her team who were capable of dealing with any breaks in the system, yet she chose to be woken in the middle of the night when the system failed, so she could learn. She wore herself out trying to learn the technological aspects of the work in her department and failed to support her staff by learning what other resources were available in the company. Her efforts to “be there” for her team by understanding what they were dealing with resulted in low morale and an overall sense of overwhelm.

When she looked up and around at what other departments were doing, she found resources that already existed to prevent the system from breaking down.

The Lesson: You have to learn what to stop doing and identify what is keeping you on the hamster wheel of perfection.

Look up and out at the thousand-foot view of what the job entails. Seeking perfection has you looking at the minute details and only seeing things microscopically. It is time to look up at a telescopic view with all the dimensions that you bring to the job, including your connections and past experience. Ask yourself: How can you leverage these?

Knowing and Being Liked by Lots of People at Work Isn’t Enough

The women I encounter in my work are really nice people – friendly, willing to help, no matter what. They know lots of people and often feel unsatisfied with where they are in their careers. They often feel overwhelmed with the demands being made on them, unable to see how their network can help.

Habits 4, 5 and 8 are the trap here – building and not leveraging your relationships or enlisting your allies and the disease to please.

Women are natural givers and typically reluctant to ask for anything for themselves. In positions of power, you need allies and others who have knowledge and experience you could benefit from. Leverage that.

The Lesson: The people you know will be delighted to be of service to you, so please ask!

  • Look at what you need in your job and look who already knows more than you.
  • Leverage that expertise to build on your knowledge and confidence.
  • See your relationships as opportunities to align with others who want to get ahead too.
  • Discuss ways you can help each other.

Being Too Small or Too Much Don’t Lead to Promotion

When in crowded work spaces, women typically will try to accommodate others by minimizing the physical space they take up. By drawing in their belongings and even their arms, women who do this diminish their executive presence and credibility significantly. When appearing to be small, the subconscious perception is that of insignificance.

You want to be seen as a credible leader or representative of an opinion, so you have to learn to own your space. This will not reduce your capacity to be inclusive and considerate.

The opposite of minimizing yourself is being too much.

Can you think of someone who talks too much or laughs too much in meetings?

Do you know a braggart who talks about what he knows too much?

Do you know anyone who is too sensitive or too emotional to be taken seriously?

Do you know someone who reveals too much about his or her personal life at work?

Many work cultures encourage authenticity and transparency. People with the habit of too much can misinterpret this culture. The result could be poor boundaries and unprofessional behavior.

Another example of too much is a client who is very skilled. It pains her to keep quiet about her knowledge when she sees others derailing a process. She wants to develop others, so even though she knows it all, she has to contain her over sharing if she is to reach her goal of having an expert team.

The Lesson: Neither being too small or too much will promote your career. Achieving the right balance may cause you some discomfort. Choosing conscious discomfort will help you overcome these two habits.

The Past Will not Set You Free

The habit of ruminating, for leaders, is like a freight train speeding down the tracks – unstoppable, unless the engineer becomes aware of an imminent danger. Clinging to, or mulling over a recent past event or outcome can be the biggest obstacle to progress.

When men cling to the past, they often blame others and resort to anger, according to research done by Marshall Goldsmith and outlined in his book Triggers. We know displaying anger is not a productive leadership behavior.

When women ruminate, they second-guess themselves, turning their frustration inward and become anxious, according to Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith in How Women Rise. Appearing to be fretful and apologetic does not enhance the perception of you as a strong leader either.

The Lesson: The past is the past, reliving it will not change it and interferes with successful leaders’ ability to get to their next project during the day and from peaceful sleep at night.

The best way to stop this habit is to recognize it AND to find a way to distract your thoughts away from it by using a powerful replacement thought.

Visualize yourself driving a freight train down the tracks; what would make you stop the train?

Dwelling in the past is that train, the distraction to pull you away from ruminating has to be powerful enough to stop you from this thought pattern. You will need a lot of practice to break this one.

The Next Shiny Thing

The office can feel chaotic. The trouble with too many distractions is that you cannot focus. This is Habit 12 – Letting your radar distract you.

Leaders have a world of distraction with social media, interruptions and hundreds of emails bombarding their senses all day. As a result, they have to have strategies to control where they place their attention.

The Lesson: You have to be aware of your radar and what it is sensing and you need to know when and what to focus on. Not every distraction has value.

Having a clear purpose for your daily work with clear goals and scheduled times for the work will help.

You will be able to keep your passion and ambition strong when you diminish the habits that hold you back.

Contact me at lyn@lyncikara.comfor more success strategies to help you get ahead as a leader.

References: (1) Sally Helgesen, Goldsmith, M: How Women Rise: Hachette, New York 2018 – page 60.





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