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 Part 1 of this series, Break Your Own Rules, Part 1: Take Center Stage.
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, but the outcome could be life changing.
The Old Rule: Seek Approval
Sarah was a talented young attorney, quickly rising through the ranks at a white-glove law firm in the Washington, D.C. area. As one of only a few female partners, she felt pressure to perform.
Early one morning, both Sarah and her colleague Rich received an email from one of the firm’s senior partners asking if either of them had expertise in eminent domain. The senior partner was working on a complicated case with one of the firm’s largest clients, and he needed someone to help him prepare his legal brief.
Sarah was excited: she had recently written a research memo on this very topic. She acted fast, immediately sending an email to her manager, asking for permission to assist the senior partner with the assignment. She got the go-ahead within minutes and as she replied to the initial email, Rich and the senior partner walked by her office. They were elbow-to-elbow, deep in conversation.
Rich already had the job.
He had not stopped to ask for anyone’s permission; he walked right into the senior partner’s office and expressed interest. Rick spent the next month working closely with the firm’s senior partner, helping their prized longtime client. He was building a name for himself.
Asking for permission, not making waves, denying our career ambition, doing as we are told, following the rules. These are not punishable offenses, but they do throw a roadblock across our path to power at work.
It takes courage to act before getting a green light, but sometimes you just have to do it. Sarah felt the sting of the missed opportunity, but she managed to learn a difficult lesson about acting decisively and stepping up independently to take the initiative.
To overcome this Old Rule, it’s necessary that we command the respect of colleagues and shareholders by making the tough calls without second-guessing ourselves. That requires us to reexamine the following well-worn rules.
Women are consensus builders. Research shows that bringing people together and managing key relationships are tremendous strengths that women leaders bring to the table. In addition, many of us are pleasers who find creative ways to keep everyone happy. Although these are strengths in today’s highly networked, global environment, they can also be a detriment if we cherish popularity more than results.
In addition to the cultural norms and gender stereotypes, we’ve found two reasons why women feel the need to be liked at work more than men do:
- Lack of Confidence – Given the lack of representation at the top levels in companies, many of us still feel that we have more to prove than our male counterparts. In the same way that women are less likely to negotiate their salary offers, they often feel lucky just to have job opportunities—so we work harder to please and be liked.
- Few Role Models – Directly related to the confidence issue is the fact that there are very few female role models at senior levels in most companies. Consequently, we as women feel less entitled to go after senior positions and assignments, so we make sure that we’re liked and can use our popularity as an asset for advancement.
In our coaching work, we’ve discovered that many women, particularly working mothers, feel very uncomfortable verbalizing their desire to prioritize work and career advancement as highly as they value personal pursuits. It’s easier for men to continue to perceive success outside the home as something that is expected of them. That leaves women, the traditional caregivers, with a heavy burden logistically and psychologically.
Despite record levels of advanced education attained by women today, and greater opportunity to take on higher-level roles in a business setting, it’s difficult to create a work-life blend that allows us to own our ambition.
As a result, some of us still think of ambition as self-centered and narcissistic. If a woman puts her career ahead of all else, she feels as if she’s being selfish. One woman we work with put it this way, “If I step up and win a spot on the executive team, that role comes with greater prestige and a bigger salary. But it also brings with it assignments that require longer hours and much more travel. I have to decide how much I want those things and how to make them work.”
We’ve found that, all else being equal, women are more likely than men to ask for permission. We’ll ask our boss for buy-in before going after a major assignment. We’ll take a poll before we put ourselves in a situation that is beyond our comfort zone. But, as Sarah found out, our need to ask permission can put us at a disadvantage.
Asking permission can also be perceived by men as “avoiding responsibility” or an “unwillingness to make the tough decisions.” And even beyond the negative perception it creates, our need for approval means that we can’t act as quickly as other colleagues who move without hesitation.
A male colleague in the HR field once told us, “Men hear the word ‘no’ as an invitation to start a conversation. It’s a challenge. Women hear ‘no’ as a dead end. An end to the discussion.” After working with thousands of women on this particular issue, we know this assessment to be true. These are some of the reasons why women choose to accept no for an answer:
- We’re efficient – If someone says no to us, we often nod and move on to the next topic or agenda item. Win some, lose some, right? There’s no sense in wasting our limited time and energy endlessly debating a topic that may prove to a be a lost cause.
- We take things personally – It makes us angry to be dismissed or outvoted. A “no” can be embarrassing. It feels easier to bide our time in these cases, to prepare for the next round, rather than to come out swinging when things aren’t going our way. We’ll wait for a time when the emotions are not so strong.
- We like to be liked – As team players and consensus builders, we tend to be the positive force at the table. If we act like a pit bull, it won’t reflect well on us in the long run.
These reasons have merit, of course, but they don’t change the fact that accepting a “no” without further discussion means we’ve missed an opportunity to stand up for ourselves and build a reputation for being smart and assertive. We must overcome our fear of hearing “no” and proceed toward our career goals.
The New Rule: Proceed Until Apprehended
While it may seem obvious that we need to step forward and lobby for the opportunities we want, the reality is that many of us expect doors to open based on our hard work and track record. Not so.
There are Old Rules in place that we subconsciously follow that must be replaced with the following New Rules.
Don’t wait for permission
Being bold and resolute takes practice. The best way to add assertiveness to your repertoire is by looking for opportunities to flex your muscles. Here are some hints to help you proceed:
- Act like you mean it – It’s not just what you say but how you say it that causes people to take your authority seriously. Speak honestly and directly with a minimum of “in my opinion” qualifiers and keep your voice on an even keel.
- Break a few rules – In business, you have some latitude to do things differently, so do things your own way once in a while to show people that you are your own person.
- Be the dissenter – Being assertive means you need to learn to be comfortable delivering bad news or an opposing position. It’s acceptable to be the dissenter or devil’s advocate as long as you have the ammunition to make a good case. Do so in a firm, non-emotional way and people will respect you for it.
- Don’t overdo it – Assertiveness and aggression are two altogether different things. Being assertive means that you effectively stand up for yourself, your point of view, and your interests. But being labeled as aggressive, especially as a woman, will have the opposite effect: you’ll lose credibility, and colleagues will stop listening.
Make things happen
Research on what it takes to be a senior leader points to a number of key competencies, one of which is the ability to create a vision for change. Unfortunately, many accomplished women who have made it to midcareer status are not perceived to be good at managing change.
In fact, we worked with a group of 21 high-potential women leaders whom we coached and trained for 18 months. During the initial 360° feedback sessions, the lowest score for each of these women leaders was related to the ability to drive change and make things happen. By the end of our engagement, this perception had completely turned around. The CEO recognized several of the high-potentials’ visions for change and assigned them to critical task forces tackling tough issues for the company.
Visionary leadership and the ability to drive change do not come easily or naturally to most of us. But as the women in our coaching program learned, leadership skills can be honed and improved. If you want to be viewed as senior leader material, you need to demonstrate that you can inspire others and make change happen.
Proceed with confidence
Sometimes, you just need to take a deep breath and put on your game face. Cathy Bessant, vice chair, global strategy at Bank of America, shared a valuable experience she had in her career.
After her CEO called to ask if she would take the chief marketing officer position for the company, she had mixed feelings about the offer. She hadn’t worked in marketing before and felt she wasn’t equipped for the job but took it anyway.
In this new role, she was overly transparent with her colleagues, openly discussing the fact that she had very little experience in marketing. As a result, she realized that she was never able to behave with confidence. She never pondered the transferability of her general management skills, and instead, tried to live up to everybody else’s definition of a great chief marketing officer.
“I came extremely close to derailing because I was so transparent about my own self-doubts,”
she told us.
Following that experience, Cathy now presents her knowledge in a very different manner. Instead of saying “I don’t know anything about this; you are going to have to teach me,” she now shares how she can help, what strengths she brings to the table, and how her diverse background benefits her team and the organization.
Being assertive and having enough presence to stand up and lead with confidence requires courage. The women we work with every day strive to find the right balance between being too deferential and too aggressive.
It takes a while to figure it out for yourself, but one of the most important takeaways we have for women is to exhibit confidence and take initiative without becoming aggressive in terms of style.
In part three of this series, we’ll look at Rule #3: Project Personal Power. In this article, we’ll unwind the self-limiting beliefs that cause women to distance themselves from projecting personal power at work, and then we’ll tell you how to adjust your thinking and dial up your comfort level in order to feel at home in a position of power and authority.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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