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.
Check out all six parts 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 4: Be Politically Savvy
Break Your Own Rules, Part 5: Play to Win
Break Your Own Rules, Part 6: It’s Both-And
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: Be Modest
Kerri worked on the Wall Street high wire. When we first met her, she was one of the senior-most people on an elite team of math-savvy quants who designed financial instruments for high-net-worth investors. You don’t find any slackers in a group like that. Finance top guns, every one of them.
Kerri had been a team member for more than two years when her dream job opened up. It was a senior-level team leader spot that involved important responsibilities at the company. The position called for someone with her type of technical background and financial smarts. But Kerri never had the opportunity to apply for the position because it was quickly awarded to a male peer.
She shared her frustrations with her boss who seemed genuinely surprised that Kerri was interested in the role. He had no idea that Kerri wanted to advance within the company and, in his parting words, expressed that Kerri wasn’t viewed as having the right “executive profile.”
She never shied away from work and did her best to get along with everyone. Her department was making its numbers and she had the functional skills down cold. Yet, she didn’t have the right “executive profile?” It was maddening.
We started working with Kerri shortly after she lost the promotion. As part of the coaching engagement, we conducted 360° interviews with several executives who were senior to Kerri. Much of this feedback was about a perceived lack of presence and interaction with senior executives.
Kerri’s circumstance is not atypical of women leaders. We can’t tell you how many versions of Kerri’s story we have heard over the ten years that we have been coaching high-potential female executives. From our research and from our own years in corporate life, we have observed that when a senior woman does not project an appropriate executive profile, it can derail her career.
Taking into account our biological role as nurturers and our propensity for collaboration, it’s no surprise that women are willing to share the credit and play down our own accomplishments. In fact, if we feel inclined to discount our accomplishments, as the Old Rules indicate, being modest may be due to self-preservation.
In their book Through the Labyrinth, Alice Eagly and Linda Carli say:
“People may accept boastfulness in men but, as demonstrated in several studies, they more often dislike boastful women… As a result, self-promoting women risk having less influence than women who are more modest, even though people who self-promote are considered more competent.”
It’s a classic Catch-22 predicament. If we aggressively advocate for ourselves, we risk being disliked; but if we frequently defer, we are viewed as weak.
Even when we succeed beyond expectations, some of us fail to internalize our success. Impostor syndrome is a great example of this. Interestingly, while many successful women fall victim to impostor syndrome, it is a somewhat rare phenomenon for men.
According to the evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa and the editor in chief of Psychology Today, Kaja Perina, one reason women often experience impostor syndrome is because “the definition of success in contemporary society is biased toward males.” This results in women being held to a standard designed by and for male leaders.
Ambiguity also applies to another stereotypically female trait, namely the tendency to apologize. As Deborah Tannen states in her book You Just Don’t Understand:
“There are many ways that women talk that are effective in conversations with other women but appear powerless and self-deprecating in conversations with men. One such pattern is that many women seem to apologize all of the time.”
According to Tannen, this is more a style difference than a power trap, as she shares that when saying “I’m sorry,” women are often trying to express sympathy or concern, rather than an actual apology.
All of these, and many others, are reasons why women are often perceived to lack a certain executive presence that is desired for senior-level roles. To overcome this, women must address the old thought patterns that give the perception of lack of personal power.
I feel ambivalent about power
Some years ago, we led a seminar attended by 150 businesswomen. The topic for the morning was “Power: Do Women Really Want It?” Just imagine the noise level when so many smart and engaged female executives divided into small groups and debated the pros and cons of power in the workplace.
As the session ended, we asked for a tally of how the small groups had answered the question at hand. Their answers were unanimous.
Do women really want power? “Yes and no.”
Many of the women already held impressive leadership positions in large companies or were identified as high potentials. Still, they could not fully come to terms with their desire for power. Either they were undecided, or they were uncomfortable admitting their dream to become powerful decision makers.
The top reason for many women that day was a scarcity of effective female role models. The other list topper was plain old exhaustion. If our lives are out of control now, they reason, just add the burden of power, and the entire house of cards will collapse.
Regardless of the reasons for their ambivalence, women who aspire to lead must get comfortable with projecting personal power.
I need to be modest
Modesty as a career strategy is overrated. If we hear another smart woman say “It’s all in a day’s work” or “It was nothing,” we may scream.
It’s fine to say those things as long as everyone around you knows very well that you’re not serious. The danger in not taking credit for your accomplishments is that someone else will gladly step up and do so.
In our conversations with women, we’ve noticed that they’ve found a variety of ways to fly under the radar. Each one is potentially hazardous to your career.
- Being modest – It’s naïve to believe that your boss, clients, colleagues or even friends have the time or patience to recognize your many accomplishments if you continually underplay them. We’re not suggesting that you become a bore or a braggart; we’re merely advocating assertiveness.
- Not asking – This is common. It takes confidence and courage to put yourself out there. It feels personally risky, but there’s no other way. By failing to ask for a project, promotion, or raise, you’ve lost the chance to influence the outcome. You’ve just given your power away.
- Blending in – Some women go to great lengths to avoid attention. They do not want to stand out—in meetings, in a team setting, in the boardroom. Blending in means you may be missing opportunities—large and small—to demonstrate how great you are at your job.
- Remaining silent – It’s not easy to get a word in sometimes, especially when a bunch of colleagues are all fighting for the floor. But failing to express yourself and share your ideas when you have something relevant or valuable to add amounts to yet another missed chance to get in the game.
I feel like an impostor
Gina was accomplished. For three years running, she brought in more business at her start-up firm than any other associate. She had one master’s degree and was working on a second. If you asked around, you’d find that she was quite a problem solver. When there was a conflict or issue, she could find a solution. You just knew that Gina would be running a major company in fifteen years. No two ways about it.
The strange thing about all of this is that Gina constantly felt as though she was about to fail. At any moment, she thought, they’ll realize that I’m not as good as they think. They’ll know I’m faking it—and that will be the end.
Gina felt like an impostor, and it was weighing her down.
Does this sound familiar? Many of us feel insecure about our accomplishments at one time or another, but in some cases the feeling becomes overwhelming.
Although overconfidence may not be entirely beneficial, feeling irrationally insecure will make it impossible to feel comfortable in a position of power.
The New Rule: Project Persona Power
Personal power is a unique type of power. The women we coach are all very comfortable with what’s known as expert power, or being an expert in a certain field and knowing your content hands down. Expert power is very valuable, and without it, most women will not reach as high on the career ladder.
A second type of power is position power. We have position power when we know all the ins and outs of the position we occupy in the chain of command, and we exercise that power appropriately and within expectations.
A third type of power is personal power. Simply put, personal power is showing up with confidence, poise, and energy—on the phone, in meetings, giving presentations, interacting with clients, and so on. Many executives consider personal power to be one of the top requirements for senior positions.
Most women leaders already possess both expert and position power, but lack in personal power thanks to societal expectations and old thought patterns. Here’s how to project your personal power in the workplace.
Exude presence, confidence, and power
To exude presence, confidence, and power, we have to pay attention to our verbals and nonverbals. We’ve conducted a lot of research on what are known as confidence markers. These are the behavioral indicators that a person is projecting confidence, presence, and power. Here are a few examples:
- Posture – Stand at full height, erect with back and shoulders straight without being rigid. Chin straight and slightly forward. Weight resting evenly on both feet; feet kept directly under shoulders, projecting an impression of balance and relaxed energy.
- Speaking volume – Vary volume as appropriate to intention and content, but stay mostly in the moderate range. Avoid sounding weak or strained. Eradicate any tendency to drop voice at the end of sentences with the last few words trailing inaudibly.
- Muscular language – Intensify statements to make a point. Employ words that are definite, reflecting your decisiveness. Use adverbs and phrases that increase or emphasize the certainty of a claim. When offering counsel, use such phrases as “I recommend” or “I strongly suggest” or “My advice is…” Avoid empty adjectives and adverbs, such as “interesting,” “rather,” or “quite.” Use simple language with a wide vocabulary, employing synonyms to ensure that meaning and nuance are conveyed.
Take credit for your hard work
When Sharon Allen became chairman of Deloitte & Touche USA in 2003, she became not only the highest-ranking woman in the firm’s history but also the first woman to hold that role at a leading professional services firm. However, as a rising manager in the firm, she learned some of the same everyday lessons that the rest of us grapple with.
“Early in my career, I remember being passed over for a promotion. I went to my boss and expressed my surprise. After all, I had performed very well, and I laid out for him a list of all of the things I had accomplished. You know what he told me? That he didn’t know I had done all of those things!”
When Sharon tells the story today, she laughs and shakes her head. “That’s the very last time I ever let that happen,” she said. Even on-the-rise super- performing women forget that they need to promote their accomplishments.
Sharon said, “Through my experience, I’ve realized that many women think if they work hard, others will recognize their accomplishments and they’ll be rewarded. What I’ve learned is that it’s important to ensure that those around you recognize your accomplishments and the contributions you’ve made. And there are ways to do that without being a braggart.”
Don’t confide your insecurities
Grace under pressure is not the easiest thing to achieve. We like to tell our clients to think of a swan gliding across the water: majestic and graceful above the water, but chaotic underneath—pedaling its feet fast and furiously to keep forward momentum. It’s fine to feel the chaos, but best to try to display that outward calm.
Bonnie St. John, Olympic champion, motivational speaker, and the author of Live Your Joy, is a woman who makes personal power look easy. Here’s what she told us about the challenges she’s faced being taken seriously:
“I’m five-feet-two, so I was the short young black woman coming into the room to present to all these senior executives. I told people when I walked into the room, I felt like Mickey Mouse: I’m shorter, darker, and cuter than everybody else in the room… I had to find the inner strength to overcome my ‘differences’ and to be very prepared with my ideas, and with knowledge about their company… I think part of the training that helped me do this was growing up with a disability, and having people question me about my ability, my strength, my normalcy. I had to learn to look people very directly in the eye and connect with them until they understood who I am.”
Practice your power skills
Changing our “natural” ways of behaving can be a challenge; however, learning how to project personal power is a must if we want to succeed at senior levels.
We started coaching Meredith shortly after her promotion to manage a professional services firm in Atlanta. This role meant that she would be the managing partner of about 25 seasoned partners, most of whom were male and older than she was. It also meant that she would need to run partner meetings on a regular basis.
As part of this work, we conducted 360º feedback sessions for Meredith with key partners in the office. As it turned out, the partners had a number of complaints about Meredith:
- “She’s disorganized in meetings. We never get an agenda ahead of time; she just gives it out at the meeting.”
- “Meredith is wishy-washy. She always says she wants us to come to a consensus. After we have discussed an item, she needs to weigh in and make a decision.”
- “Meredith may be too young to be in this role.”
After Meredith received this feedback, she realized she had a lot of work to do to improve her power skills. She hired an assistant to help her prepare for and run the partner meetings more effectively. She also worked with a professional image consultant and purchased a new wardrobe that made her look more professional.
But most importantly, Meredith worked on her language. Her natural tendency was to be informal and spontaneous; however, she realized that these male partners need more structure and decisiveness from a person in her position.
After committing to hours of practice and focus, Meredith learned how to project personal power and was taken seriously by her colleagues. Her new and powerful modus operandi gave her a great deal of confidence and was one of the things that helped her succeed in such a big role.
Harnessing our personal power is more important that most of us realize. Exercised properly, it helps to demonstrate our ability to handle ourselves in tricky business situations. Handled poorly, it can close doors professionally and set us back.
We hope these stories and tips will help you to unwind the self-limiting beliefs that often cause us to distance ourselves from projecting personal power at work. Employ these tactics to adjust your thinking and dial up your comfort level to feel at home in a position of power and authority.
In part four of this series, we’ll look at Rule #4: Be Politically Savvy. In this article, we will demonstrate how to build your career as if you are running for office—creating a platform, lining up sponsors, putting a coalition together—and then do it over and over again as your career goals change.
To be the first to read part four, 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 a former 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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