Thinking Patterns that Hold Women Leaders Back
(and What to Do About 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’ll 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’ll 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 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
Break Your Own Rules, Part 6: It’s Both-And
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 it’s based on, 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: Focus on Others
Through our work coaching thousands of women leaders over the years, we’ve discovered that many talented women find it natural to focus their attention on helping others succeed instead of spending their precious time nurturing their own success. They feel selfish and self-centered saying no when people all around them ask for help or assistance, and they often fail to take credit for their own accomplishments.
I must take care of everyone else.
From an outsider’s perspective, Jess had it all: prestigious job, a beautiful family, active lifestyle, and regular attendance at her children’s school events. But shortly into our work with her, Jess landed in the hospital. The diagnosis: severe fatigue.
Afterward, she told us that she felt a responsibility to everyone in her life—her family, her clients, her team. She believed she was the only one who could keep all the balls in the air—if she didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.
This role of women as caregivers is a long-accepted paradigm around the world, and individual behavior is a consequence of social and cultural expectations, in addition to our individual dispositions.
As a result, we internalize the role models we see, and the correlating expectations assigned to us at an early age, and then we carry those expectations with us as we become adults, have families of our own, and build our careers. This naturally creates the perfect storm of competing priorities, often resulting in women leaders putting their needs last.
My needs come last.
The Old Rule, “my needs come last,” is the flip side of the “caring for others” coin. This tendency to prioritize others’ needs and desires over our own is a common limiting belief among women.
Our client Denise took this Old Rule to new heights. She was a fast riser at her financial services firm, demonstrating an aptitude for leadership and go-to dependability. So, when her boss recommended her for a newly vacant senior-level position, it seemed as though Denise’s advancement goals were coming to fruition. Instead, she declined the offer, insisting that the timing wasn’t right.
She explained that her current obligations were too high to make the move: a complex, detail-heavy client project, a new hire she felt responsible for onboarding, an elderly parent, and so on. But what about Denise? She’d wanted this promotion for years, but she felt guilty putting her needs and desires first.
This is a prime example of when women leaders take on too much responsibility for those around them, and their own needs fall further and further from priority. If you focus all your time and energy on fulfilling the needs of those around you, when can you attend to your own needs? Dead last (if at all).
It’s not okay to ask for help.
In the same way that some women feel obligated to help everyone around them succeed, many women can spend too much energy sweating the small stuff. Being detail-oriented is great, as long as you aren’t holding on so tight that you fail to delegate and allow others to help you.
Failing to delegate, sweating the small stuff, and hoarding the detail work will only solidify your role as the workhorse. Breaking this particular Old Rule is tricky, and will require dedicated effort, commitment, and confidence to break it. But you will not regret it and your team will thank you.
I’m a great number two.
Our client Gloria worked in the employee benefits area for a large multinational corporation. She was extremely advanced technically and was valued for her good judgement. However, when Gloria’s unit was combined with another unit, her counterpart, Lee, was promoted above her.
“I like Lee very much, and I enjoy working for him. In fact, I’m his right arm. He counts on me,” she told us. “I’m flattered that he thinks so highly of me. I’m really a good number two.”
The problem was, however, that Gloria felt stuck in her career. She believed that she needed Lee’s permission to pursue projects that would allow her to advance, and she felt a certain pride about doing her job so well that she was indispensable as someone’s backup.
If you are a woman who excels at in the number two slot, you should ask yourself, “What am I doing?” Don’t use success in a supporting role as an excuse to settle for less than what you deserve.
I don’t belong on center stage.
Our coaching files are full of conversations we’ve had with women leaders who are struggling with the internal conflict between being ambitious and believing that others must not know that they are ambitious. Their propensity to help others succeed, rather than helping themselves, wins out and they yield their time and shrink to take up less space.
However, by taking center stage, women leaders are in a far better position to help more people versus standing idly backstage. In this sense, as Bonnie St. John, Paralympic medalist and motivational speaker, puts it, “by not taking center stage, you are really being selfish.”
The New Rule: Take Center Stage
As we can see from the stories above, having a firm vision of your own aspirations and strengths—and allowing other people to help you succeed—is good for you and everyone else around you. Achieving both success and satisfaction requires making choices that allow you to invest in yourself and live into the larger plan you have for yourself.
Take your goals and dreams seriously.
Focus on your personal goals instead of being the one who nurtures everyone else. This requires courage but it benefits you and those around you in the long run.
Think bigger. Aim higher.
Close your eyes and think about yourself and your career. If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you want to do in your career? Think bigger, aim higher.
Just say no.
Learn to set healthy boundaries for yourself. If you don’t want to be tasked with the “women’s work” for your company, don’t do it. If a colleague asks for you to sit in on a meeting or review a report that isn’t aligned with your highest priorities, don’t do it. As Nelson Mandela said, “No is a complete sentence.”
Be ruthless with your calendar.
Now that you’ve clarified your career goals and practiced saying no, you need to examine how you spend your time. Ask yourself, “How much time am I spending in a given month on other people’s priorities, other people’s meetings, other people’s development and support?” Identify at least two ways you can be more purposeful with your time.
Take time to refuel.
For us to take center stage in our careers, we need to learn how to manage our energy and refuel for the long run. Minimize your contact with people and activities that sap your energy. Then find 2-3 ways to refuel your energy every single day.
Get famous for something.
Whatever your passion or expertise entails, being the best (and best known) for something is one of the fastest ways to gain access to center stage.
Practice taking center stage.
If you feel self-conscious about taking center stage, find ways to practice. Work on projecting power and confidence to your audience.
Helping those around us succeed plays directly to the nurturing instinct of many women. But the inclination can also work against us in situations that require us to focus on ourselves and our career goals. And in many instances, putting yourself first actually benefits those you love and work with, despite what you may think.
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.
In part two of this series, we’ll look at Old Rule #2: Proceed Until Apprehended. In this article, we’ll examine women leaders’ common need for buy-in and consensus, and how this often slows them down and prevents them from acting decisively. To be the first to read part two, follow us on LinkedIn and subscribe to our newsletter via the widget to the right.
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.
Content Related to Break Your Own Rules, Pt. 1: Take Center Stage
Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power
Personal Power and the Confidence Gap: Women, Stop Hijacking Your Credibility and Impact
Diverse Leadership Pipelines Are Key to Performance and Culture
Women in the Workplace: Empowering Them Every Day (Not Just During Women’s History Month)