How Female Leaders Accidentally Hold Themselves Back

One of the aspects I love most about my work is witnessing executives rise into their full potential.

Though the bulk of my clients are male executives, I’m also fortunate to work with an impressive array of female leaders. And when I say ‘impressive,’ I truly mean … some of the smartest, sharpest, technically strong professionals you could ever hope to work with, leading teams and projects at top companies most people only ever dream of working for.

I am constantly in awe of these women.

They hold their own, they’re transforming the industry,  and one would think they are the ultimate personification of authentic ‘confidence.’

But, that’s rarely the case. What I’ve found, when behind closed doors with female leaders, is that while others are marveling at their accomplishments, these women are endlessly focused on their areas of improvement, where they feel they still need to grow.

Externally, they’re killing it in their careers. But, internally, they’re telling themselves a different story … and it’s not a favorable one.

So, what’s going on with strong women that, despite all they’ve achieved, they constantly focus on their own perceived shortcomings?

Well, let’s be real. Nearly every professional I work with (male or female) suffers from doubts and insecurities on some level. We could all stand to get out of our own way a little more in that regard.

But we also know women navigate an often unfriendly climate in the corporate world.Study after study reveals myriad ways that women are held back in their career growth, silenced in the workplace, and straight up discriminated against. Feeling regularly undermined by unfair pay gaps, unconscious gender bias, and the like would reasonably make any woman feel cautious and not entirely confident.

Yet, I’ve also noticed something else … a way that women undermine themselvesat work without even realizing it. Accidental self-sabotage, if you will.

What I see, time and time again, are strong, female leaders telling themselves a story about their skillsets, competence, and workplace interactions that isn’t accurate or empowering.

Often, the story is so ingrained that female leaders go straight from a situation to a reaction, and do not step back to assess the validity of their self talk.

So, to that end, here are five ways women can challenge their own self-critical inner narrative, own their accomplishments, and ensure they’re not hindering their own career success:

  1. Pull that dark story out into the light.

    Whether it’s Imposter Syndrome that haunts you, fear that you’re perceived as ‘less dedicated’ to the job because you’re a mom, or some other persistent insecurity, it’s time to pull that hindering story out into the light.

    Before you take action in any other way, first conduct an internal, systematic hunting down of the specific narrative that loops so automatically through your mind that you don’t even stop to challenge it.

    Track the number of times that story (or a similar one) shows up in the course of a week. You’ll likely notice a pattern, that it pops up in specific situations or around certain people over and over again.

    Not until you identify that narrative and look it directly in the eye can you deal with it and re-script a more effective and empowering story.

  2. Don’t cast a shadow with your own words.

    Many female executives tell me that they don’t feel recognized for their professional achievements (and even feel slighted by bosses who fail to give them proper credit).

    There is ample research proving the validity of these concerns. Yet, many of these women admit they also don’t speak up about or draw attention to their own accomplishments. And, when they are praised or recognized for their work, they quickly dismiss the praise or redirect that praise to someone else (i.e. their team members).

    Ladies, stop doing this! It’s wise to avoid brazenly bragging about your big wins, but straight up dismissing praise that comes your way is a mistake. Don’t diminish the story of your success when it’s favorable.

    If someone praises your work, say “Thank you.” Perhaps mention something you enjoyed about the task (i.e. “I really enjoyed the challenge of winning these reluctant customers over. Now they’re thrilled and our bottom line looks better for it!”).

    It’s fine to give recognition to team members or other colleagues who helped, but not before taking a moment to tactfully let YOUR accomplishments have their moment in the sun.

  3. Help other people tell your story well.

    What are the three adjectives you want people to use when describing you professionally? If colleagues aren’t using those words now, start using them yourself to help steer people’s perception of how you contribute. (Watch this video to hearMorgan Stanley’s Carla Harris explain this strategy brilliantly.)

    Do women often need to repeatedly prove themselves in the workplace? Unfortunately, yes. But don’t expect people to notice your ‘potential’ without your help.

    Actively document your own successes (big and small, technical skills and people skills) make a point to use the adjectives yourself that you want others to use when talking about you when you’re not in the room.

  4. Honor your successes before you ‘improve’ yourself further.

    The mark of a great leader is their willingness to self-reflect and grow. Your desire to strengthen areas needing improvement is honorable, but not if you focus so much on those areas that you convince yourself you’re not as capable as you really are.

    Keep things in perspective by regularly celebrating your successes. The story you choose to focus on is the one that becomes true.

    As New York Times best selling author Don Miguel Ruiz said: “Surrender all those ideas about being what you are not, and become what you really are.”

  5. Create a safe zone.

    Look, you’re allowed your human moments. We all have them. But a moment of self-doubt does not define your story. So, identify a few trusted people who can know the truth, the whole truth, about your doubts and insecurities, and limit sharing your vulnerable moments with those few who have earned your trust.

    Having an outlet already in place helps you keep your professional game face on in difficult moments without letting those difficult moments define you.

Believe me, I can relate to women who undermine their professional accomplishments by overly focusing on where they ‘need’ to improve. 

Though “fake it ‘til you make it” is a popular mindset in the United States, I’m French! And in France, we believe one needs a Ph.D. before daring to speak a word on a relevant topic (thereby disqualifying ourselves from the start).

But I learned to speak up anyway, to trust my experience and my instincts.I learned how to silence the chatter that holds me back from bringing my professional best to the table.

Ladies, I encourage you to do the same. Women have enough authentic obstacles to overcome in the workplace without accidentally getting in our own way.


This article originally published on LinkedIn

Categories: Career Happiness, Leadership, Women at work

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