Thinking Patterns that Hold Women Leaders Back (and How to Replace Them) 

By Jill Flynn and Kathryn Heath, Ph.D. 


As women, we face many challenges throughout our careers. We can’t fix all of them but there are many we can. In this six-part series, we examine the Old Rules, or limiting beliefs and assumptions, that prevent many women leaders from achieving the level of success they’re destined to reach. We then outline the New Rules, alternative thinking patterns, and behaviors to adopt instead. 

If you haven’t already, check out parts one through five of this series:

Break Your Own Rules, Part 1: Take Center Stage 

Break Your Own Rules, Part 2: Proceed Until Apprehended 

Break Your Own Rules, Part 3: Project Personal Power

Break Your Own Rules, Part 4: Be Politically Savvy

Break Your Own Rules, Part 5: Play to Win 

Out with the old, in with the new

Change is uncomfortable; there’s no doubt about it. But what’s even more uncomfortable is allowing limiting beliefs to block your path to power and the career of your dreams.  

We focus on limiting beliefs and thought patterns because the thinking that motivates behavior is the fuel that sustains the behavior. We must address the underlying assumptions and stories we tell ourselves to overcome them.  

And while there are many conditions that are important to advancement, some are within your control, and some are not. This article series and the book on which it’s based, Break Your Own Rules, focuses on the areas you can change and control. But know that there is no magic bullet for this work. Changing old thought patterns requires time and effort, and the outcome could be life changing. 

The Old Rule: It’s All or Nothing

Allison drove herself hard for her success. As the brand management executive for a consumer products company, she was “on call” at all hours of the day and night—always ready to talk with board members, outside retail buyers and the various product developers and sales directors.  

There were fires to put out and decisions to be made. There were early morning breakfast meetings, after-work drinks with retailers, and even weekend-long pitch meetings.  

Life in the fast lane was exactly what she had signed up for. To Allison, the perks of power were well worth the sacrifice. Traveling was her favorite pastime, and she was on the road for several days every week. Her job title was a status symbol in her social network. And she was one-half of a power couple: her husband worked even longer hours than she did. He’d made partner in record time at a brand-name management consulting firm. Work was their life, and Allison couldn’t imagine any other lifestyle. 

So why did Allison come so close to walking away? 

It happened when she received some surprising and disappointing news. It was the usual story: she lost a promotion that she felt she unquestionably deserved. The CEO brought in someone else to fill the executive slot she had been gunning for.  

Without skipping a beat, she called a friend who is a headhunter and told her she was updating her resume. Get me out of here, she said. 

She was angry and emotional: ready to leave behind the perks she loved, the colleagues she considered family, and a salary that was pretty extraordinary. The burnout that she’d kept at bay for a while now was starting to show. 

After Allison had taken a few days off, one of her mentors was able to talk her off the ledge. Did she realize what she would be walking away from? Her husband, too, encouraged her to go back and figure out what had happened.  

So, Allison sat down with her CEO and shared her disappointment. She asked what she could have done to win the role. Wasn’t she already giving everything to the job? she wondered. 

Part of the problem, he told her, was that she saw everything in black-and-white. She had a difficult time listening to opposing perspectives. Apparently, some of her peers had complained about her demanding style and “my way or the highway” attitude.  

Given that their industry was in a state of constant change, the CEO was looking for her to demonstrate that she could deal with ambiguity. He reminded her, leadership is about people’s goals and desires; it’s about the market and the economics of a business. There are so many factors. Allison, it is not about being perfect. There is always more than one answer, not one perfect way. 

These were the same things he’d been telling her for years in their performance discussions. He did not want to lose her, but she had some work to do if she wanted to land the next-level big job. 

Allison’s reaction to disappointment was indicative of her extreme style. Her all-or-nothing demeanor had been a net positive so far in terms of career advancement, but her tendency toward black-and-white, perfectionistic thinking was working against her. She didn’t seem to be able to grasp that there could be two “rights.” 

This is about the time we started working with Allison. It was difficult for her to hear the negative feedback, but the experience made her realize that she needed to get her life in perspective. And, as always, she put her whole self into it. 

It’s easy to fly off the handle and walk away when the going gets tough, but it’s seldom the right move. The ability to deal with disappointment and frustration and remain calm amid the constant change has become a skill that leaders need to master. 

Business is changing faster than ever before, making resilience a primary leadership trait. This is not exclusively a women’s issue—dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity is no easy feat for anyone. 

Although extreme behavior, such as perfectionism, can be a conduit for ambition, studies indicate that this also leads to dissatisfaction and burnout. 

Susan Ivey, retired CEO of Reynolds America, said to us,  

“We women develop this superhero mentality that we have to be able to do it all, that we need to know it all and have all the answers.” 

This tendency to believe that we need to do it all—and to feel like a failure when we realize it’s impossible—may emerge from the stress of our busy lives. Or perhaps it is a result of the unrealistic expectations we’ve set for ourselves and others. Regardless of the source, this distorted thinking is harmful. 

This all-or-nothing trap robs us of satisfaction and success. Luckily, it is a great place to start to break your own rules. Success looks different to each of us, however, so it’s up to you to figure out creative solutions for yourself. Here are a few of the Old Rules for you to examine. 

I’m prone to negative thinking 

According to David Burns, author of The Feeling Good Handbook, extreme thinking can lead to depression and anxiety. Certain specific exaggerated or irrational thought patterns, called “cognitive distortions,” are the culprits that reinforce harmful emotions and get in our way.  

Here are a few of the negative thinking patterns that keep us feeling bad about ourselves:  

  • All-or-nothing thinking. We see things in absolute, black-and-white terms. This type of thinking causes us to feel the sting of failure unless we are entirely perfect. 
  • Overgeneralization. One small setback causes us to feel that all is lost. We see a single negative event as a total defeat. 
  • Mental filters. We pick out one negative detail and focus on it to the exclusion of all else. Imagine that you just received a promotion and pay raise, but your new job title isn’t what you were hoping for—and that’s all you can think about. This type of preoccupation blocks out the positive details associated with a situation. 
  • Disqualifying the positive. We discount or filter out positive experiences by insisting that they don’t count. This leaves room for only negative thinking. 
  • Personalization. We see ourselves as the primary cause of negative events that are not, in fact, our fault. If we lose a client as a consequence of poor economic conditions, for example, we may blame the loss on a perceived shortcoming of our own.  

Everything is black and white

There is no one right way to succeed but refusing to be flexible is a sure way to fail.  

Black-and-white thinking prevents you from finding the middle ground. We know—shades of gray are not as bold and exciting as black and white, but inflexible thinking can hurt relationships and also cause you to miss opportunities. Here are some warning signs that you aren’t seeing the gray zone: 

  • You get locked in. A refusal to consider alternatives means you may fail to anticipate a major wave of business change. This is what Allison’s boss was concerned about. The most successful women leaders we know are flexible enough to deal with complex situations that don’t have concrete answers.  
  • You micromanage. There is more than one way to do almost anything. Managers who suffer from black-and-white thinking drive their teams to distraction because they can’t bear to see their rigid plans altered. Assuming that no major rules are being broken, manage the end goal rather than dictate the exact route taken to get there. 
  • You don’t see the gray areas. Most times there’s no clear right or wrong answer to a problem or question. As difficult as it may seem, sometimes we must hold two opposing ideas in our minds at the same time in order to remain flexible. 

Success means doing it all

The author and journalist Gloria Steinem once told a group of clinicians at their annual meeting that women still believed the dangerous myth that they can be superwoman: 

“Women are told they can have it all, that they can do anything… as long as they also keep doing everything else they were doing before.” 

Steinem was making the point that society perpetuates the drive for perfection and super achievement.  

We’ve seen it many times in our coaching work: women leaders set themselves up for failure by striving to do it all and make it look easy. We’ve seen women who end up in the hospital because they think they should be able to have a high-pressure job and a high-demand family—and manage everything without any help or accommodation. That’s a lot to expect. It’s unrealistic and unfair to place those demands on yourself. 

The problem with setting impossibly high goals for ourselves is how we feel when we can’t achieve them: demoralized and disappointed. Perhaps it’s time to get real and give ourselves a break.  

Although society may deserve some of the blame for our burning desire for high achievement, the reality is that we are the only ones who can fix the problem. Set priorities around what makes you feel most fulfilled and have realistic goals that you can build on. 

I’ll opt out

There are a variety of reasons why women leaders, including women we’ve coached, consider leaving their careers. For some of us, it is a very deliberate lifestyle choice that suits our needs and values. For others, the reasons are less positive. In some cases, an unrealistic or extreme desire to overachieve results in disappointment. In other cases, a failure to prioritize tasks may mean that we are simply spread too thin. Finally, sometimes it is a lack of support at home and work, which causes us to burnout and give up our careers. 

Stressful situations have a way of causing us to make extreme decisions that we might regret later. In a highly publicized 2003 New York Times Magazine article by Lisa Belkin, who coined the phrase “the opt-out revolution,” argued that mothers were choosing to stay at home in greater numbers because the pressure of balancing work and family was so intense.  

The argument was later challenged with the assertion that a more pressing reason women opt out is that today’s companies are not appropriately structured to allow working mothers to succeed.

Today, twenty years after the article was originally published, we still find ourselves in this same situation, though the status quo seems to be correcting itself, albeit slowly. 

Although we can’t control all the systemic realities that create an uphill climb for women leaders, we can stand together and look for creative solutions that will help us have the lives and careers we want. There’s clearly nothing wrong with making the choice to put a career on hold as a part of your bigger plan. However, it helps to put the situation in perspective. 

The New Rule: It’s Both-And

Adopting a “Both-And” mindset requires us to break away from negative and extreme thinking. In our coaching work, we’ve found that it takes effort and commitment to rid ourselves of negative thoughts. Here are some new rules that will help you to reorientate to a Both-And mindset. 

Don’t limit yourself

The first step is identifying that you are prone to extreme or negative thoughts. Not all of us are natural optimists, but it’s something we can work on.  

The next step is to remember to correct yourself in real time—question your negative thoughts as they occur and determine if they are valid or a result of cognitive distortions. 

If this is hitting home for you, take a look at Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness. Seligman’s work in the science of positive psychology suggests ways to be more of an optimist, be more positive and hopeful in your outlook, and manage your negative thinking. In short, with practice, natural pessimists can learn to be optimists. 

Beyond dispelling negativity, another way to change your mindset for the better is to practice integrative thinking. The ability to consider opposing ideas simultaneously helps us find creative solutions to complex problems.  

According to Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, in his book The Opposable Mind, integrative thinkers search for creative resolutions of tensions, rather than accepting unpleasant trade-offs; they keep the entire problem in mind while working on its individual pieces; and they take a broader view of what is salient. 

Just get over it

We’ve found that women prefer everything to proceed along smoothly; we are more bothered than men by the little bumps in the road. Although it is easier said than done, sometimes we’d be a lot happier if we simply decided to let go of the little things.  

One way the desire to maintain perfect order manifests itself at work is our need to close the loop on everything. Many times, even when a woman is promoted, she continues to finish the assignments associated with her old role. I don’t want to disappoint my team, they say. Or People are counting on me to finish this up.  

Give this a try: let it go. 

Be an entrepreneur

Being able to adapt to adversity and thrive in ambiguous, uncertain situations has become a primary career survival skill. Change, as they say, is the new normal.  

Paradoxically, many organizations themselves are ill-equipped or poorly structured to deal with uncertainty; they require consistent and reliable results to please shareholders, but still want a nimble and innovative workforce.  

Given these challenges, we find ourselves coaching women leaders to have an entrepreneurial perspective. Even in big-business settings, being an entrepreneur opens you up to a world of possibilities. Here’s how:  

  • Be nimble. An uncertain world requires a willingness to experiment. By “nimble,” we mean being open to new ideas and ready to respond if an opportunity emerges. The desire to gravitate toward what’s new may seem like a personality trait one is born with, but putting yourself in new situations gets easier with practice.  
  • Be innovative. Innovation is another tool of choice for harnessing new opportunities in uncertain environments. People who can spot trends and see beyond the obvious context are the ones who—along with the lucky organizations they work for—will benefit from uncertainty. Look for a novel way of doing something or bring an idea from another industry and use it in your own way. 
  • Be optimistic. Out of fear of the unknown, many of us try to hide from change and uncertainty. A great way to mitigate our fear is to look at the upside of the situation. Turn it around and see what opportunities you find.  

Get centered

Maintaining a satisfying work-life balance sometimes feels like a hopeless struggle. But even if genuine work-life balance seems like a myth, the kind of balance we’re talking about is emotional—being on an even keel and having a handle on the priorities in your life.  

A life in sync will look different for each of us, but there are ways you can help yourself get there:  

  • Take baby steps. There’s nothing like actively taking charge of a problem to make you feel empowered. If something isn’t working, try something else. Nothing major; just take baby steps. Be agile. Continue to tinker with your routine until you solve the problem. It’s a simple way to incrementally improve your day every day.  
  • Make a case for what you need. If you want or need a level of work flexibility that’s beyond the organizational norm, step up and present a business case. If rearranging your work schedule means you’ll be more productive and less stressed, chances are you’ll make a persuasive case.  
  • Take time to think. Schedule some regular time for yourself—go for a run, take a class, do some gardening, meet a friend. Do whatever helps you recharge and reflect. Allowing yourself to reserve this little bit of personal space will help you clear your mind for more strategic thinking. 

Call in reinforcements

One of the great things about being human is that there are more than 7.5 billion people having some of the same experiences as you. So why try to figure everything out all on your own?  

Having a solid support network is a prerequisite not only for career success, but also for maintaining that blend of work and home that allows you to have a well-rounded life. 

Start by finding support at work. As we’ve discussed, it’s vital to recruit sponsors who will help pave the way for your career opportunities within the organization. We also recommend assembling a group of supporters who will make up your personal board of directors. 

Beyond these mentoring roles, it’s just as important to surround yourself with a few trusted peers—professional friends who complete your professional support network. These are individuals to whom you have a personal connection. They have your back in a crisis, and you have their ears when you need to vent, share a war story, or ask for advice.  

Also make sure you have support at home. Your partner, friends, and family serve the same function on the personal front. They not only offer moral, emotional, and financial support but also pick up the slack when necessary. 

Finally, reach out and support the women around you. It goes without saying that you’ll support your family. But it is also your responsibility to reciprocate at work by supporting and mentoring other women who are making their way up in the organization. 

Shift to a Both-And Mindset

Are you an all-or-nothing thinker, or can you keep things in perspective? We’re asking you to look for solutions that are not always obvious or perfect. We women (more often than men) must make tough choices that result in feelings of guilt—whether relating to family, work, or both. With practice, we can overcome this. We simply need to stand up, stand together, and own our choices.  

In the final part of this series, we’ll take a look back all six of the Old Rules and how women can come together and close ranks. We’ll examine how to approach change, to successfully shift your mindset from the Old Rules that hold you back to the New Rules that propel you forward.  

To be the first to read the final part of this series, follow us on LinkedIn and subscribe to our newsletter via the widget to the right. 

An Important Note: Employers Must Break Rules Too

While the focus of this series is on the limiting beliefs and thought patterns women must address in their own career journeys, it cannot be overstated that the bulk of responsibility for change falls on the organizations that employ them. For every Old Rule a woman can change for herself, there are dozens of Old Rules that organizations must change. From outdated policies and work/life imbalance to inherent bias and lack of development opportunities for women, there are many ways employers can—and must—break their own rules.  

For a more in-depth analysis of these Old Rules and our recommended New Rules to replace them with, check out our book Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power. 

About Jill Flynn

Jill Flynn is Managing Director in the Leadership Acceleration practice at Bravanti. She is a co-author of Break Your Own Rules, How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women’s Paths to Power and The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power for Women Leaders. Jill is a founding partner of Flynn Heath Leadership, which was acquired by Bravanti in 2020. She specializes in partnering with corporate clients to design and implement tailored strategies that result in higher retention and promotion rates for their women leaders. Read more > 

About Kathryn Heath

Kathryn Heath, Ph.D., is a managing director of the Leadership Acceleration practice at Bravanti. She was a founding partner of Flynn Heath Leadership, which was acquired by Bravanti in 2020, and co-author of Break Your Own Rules, How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women’s Paths to Power and The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power for Women Leaders. Kathryn serves as a coach, a researcher, and a developer of leadership programs. One of the hallmarks of Kathryn’s work is addressing organizations’ specific business targets through customized programs that move leaders forward faster. Read more > 

About Bravanti’s Leadership Acceleration Solutions

Bravanti’s Leadership Acceleration practice offers customized skill development sessions combined with individual coaching, cohort support, and targeted feedback, equipping your leaders with the necessary skills to realize their potential. Our programs include customized approaches for women leaders, underrepresented groups, and high potentials. For more information on our Leadership Acceleration services, contact Brenda Wensil, Managing Director & Practice Leader, Leadership Acceleration, at  

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