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What’s Holding You Back?…

This post is about the habits that are holding women back at work. But before you click away – because you’re not a woman, or because you are and you don’t like to be stereotyped – give me a chance to convince you that it’s worth your while reading on.

What's Holding You Back?
Sally Helgesen: “Women in male-dominated fields still encounter skepticism about whether they can do the job.”

Actually, I’ll let Sally Helgesen do it, because these ideas come from her book, “How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back From Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job.” This was co-written with author and management professor, Marshall Goldsmith.

Why Should Men Care About This?

“Understanding these behaviors can very much help men to support women, whether as colleagues, mentors or coaches,” Helgesen says.

“I’m also hearing from many men that they identify with some of the behaviors in the book. So, these are not necessarily women’s behaviors, they’re human behaviors. They are the behaviors that we find most likely to get in the way of women as they seek to rise,” she adds.

What About the Problem of Stereotyping?

Helgesen, a women’s leadership expert, says that the gender division is more about experience than biology.

“I do know that men and women often have different experiences, certainly in the workplace. These experiences shape and inform everything, from their confidence level, to how they build relationships, to how they negotiate. These experiences will also shape their expectations,” she says.

“For example, women in male-dominated fields still encounter skepticism about whether they can do the job. This can result in some of the behaviors we describe in this book, such as perfectionism, over-valuing expertise, and putting your job before your career. These come directly as a response to experiences many women have,” Helgesen adds.

Holding You Back: the Disease to Please 

Other limiting habits are rooted in how girls and women are expected to behave. These include the first two habits discussed in the book: reluctance to claim your achievements, and expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your contributions.

Then there’s the huge, familiar challenge of habit eight: the “disease to please.”

In our Expert Interview podcast, Helgesen says that this habit chimes with the themes in her co-author’s bestseller, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” (you can hear a podcast about that book in the Mind Tools Club).

“The motivating desire of the disease to please is really wanting everyone to think you’re a wonderful person, so that you meet their expectations and make life easier for them,” she says. “It can serve you very well earlier in your career, because everybody wants somebody working for them who is trying to please them.”

Leave Behind the Desire to Please

“But, as you assume authority, that investment in the idea that everyone thinks you’re a wonderful person can definitely hold you back. This is because you’re going to have a very difficult time setting boundaries,” she adds.

So, if you want to rise unhindered, “It’s really important to be able to think about letting go of every single person being thrilled at every moment with everything you do, or you are going to really get yourself stuck.”

What Else Is Holding You Back?

A couple of the 12 habits are a little more surprising. For instance, number nine is “minimizing” – physically making yourself as small as possible. This can happen when you squeeze up in a crowded meeting, so that latecomers can join the table. Or, worse, when you verbally reduce yourself. How often have you heard yourself say, “This will only take a second”?

“If you’re sending a message to others, ‘I’m not holding my space, I’m not firmly planted,’ then other people [find you] negligible. It’s not a good way of asserting your own presence,” adds Helgesen.

Too Much Information, Too Many Words

And the opposite is just as unhelpful, she continues. This is habit 10, which she calls “too much.” Too much what?

“Too much information, too much disclosure, too much background, too many words,” Helgesen explains, citing research which shows that “women use an average of 20,000 words a day, whereas men use an average of 7,000 words a day.”

This is fine if you’re bonding with a neighbor, or a parent at the school gates. But for women who aspire to be leaders, it’s not a great look.

“In professional situations and cultures where being crisp and concise and authoritative is valued as a leadership style, using too many words and offering too much information is not an effective way of communicating, and certainly not an effective way of positioning yourself as a leader,” Helgesen says.

“How Women Rise” is full of tips and advice on breaking these and other limiting habits. In this clip from our Expert Interview podcast, Helgesen tells us where to start:


Listen to the full 30-minute interview in the Mind Tools Club.

Which of these habits ring true for you? Join the discussion below!

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