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Women leaders: How to break the habits holding you back

In How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back (Amazon UKUS) authors Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith identify 12 habits that commonly hold women leaders back as they endeavour to advance to the next stage in their careers. This article provides a summary of those 12 habits, plus a list of powerful questions posed to you by myself and Lynn White, leadership expert and Principal Partner at WDI Consulting.

We hope this summary, and our questions, will help you to explore and unleash your full leadership potential, and the potential of your team and organisation.

Goldsmith & Helgesen’s 12 habits that hold women leaders back

  1. Reluctance to claim your achievements
  2. Expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your contributions
  3. Overvaluing expertise
  4. Just building rather than building and leveraging relationships
  5. Failing to enlist allies from day one
  6. Putting your job before your career
  7. The perfection trap
  8. The disease to please
  9. Minimising
  10. Too much
  11. Ruminating
  12. Letting your radar distract you


Habit 1. Reluctance to claim your achievements

Whilst men are often the first to shout about their achievements, women are often more reluctant. Organisations often fail to address this because they assume what the authors refer to as a ‘male leadership template’.

If you struggle to claim credit for your achievements, it may cost you throughout your career. But the costs will be highest when you’re trying to move to the next level or seeking a new job. Speaking up about what you contribute and detailing why you’re qualified does not make you self-centered or self-serving. It sends a signal that you’re ready to rise.


  • Reflect on recent tasks and aspects of your work where you avoided or choose not to claim credit;
    • Is there a pattern?
    • How might you claim credit for your achievements in a way that makes you feel comfortable and empowered?
    • What behaviours can you learn from other women who are skilful at owning their achievements?
  • What have you seen your female team members achieve recently that they have not claimed credit for and how can you encourage them to be comfortable claiming credit?


Habit 2. Expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your hard work

Expecting others to notice your contributions, or believing that they should, is not only a good way to keep yourself stuck, it can also diminish the satisfaction you feel in a job you would otherwise enjoy. Remember this: companies don’t just make great products and assume that customers should want to buy them. They have a marketing function that is designed to effectively promote what they do. You, as a professional, need one too. Otherwise, when the praise you hope for is not forthcoming, you might feel unappreciated and under acknowledged. You might start to resent not only the higher-ups who seem unaware of all the hard work you do, but also colleagues who are skilled at getting noticed. You might then decide they are just showboats and congratulate yourself on being less self-centred, taking comfort in your own wonderfulness even as you stay in the shadows.

Breaking this habit involves moving beyond the first habit of claiming specific achievements, to providing clarity at the leadership level about what your broad career ambitions are.


  • What is your greatest aspiration for success in your current role?
  • How would you articulate that to others in the form of an Elevator Pitch?
  • Who in your organisation do you need to share this with in order to ensure that your contributions are seen and your aspirations met?
  • What can you do to help those in your team develop their own aspirations and Elevator Pitch?


Habit 3. Overvaluing expertise

Trying to master every detail of your job in order to become an expert is a great strategy for keeping the job you have. But if your goal is to move to a higher level, your expertise is probably not going to get you there. In fact, mastery of your current role often serves as a useful strategy for keeping yourself in your current role.

If you find this statement shocking, it may be because, like many women, you’ve assumed expertise is the surest route to success. And so you put enormous effort into learning every aspect of your job and assuring your work is letter perfect. Meanwhile, your male colleagues are taking a different route, trying to do the job well enough while focusing their time on building the relationships and visibility that will get them to the next level.

We know that skill and knowledge are required for success, but if you want to rise in your field, your organisation expertise will only take you so far. That’s because the top jobs always require managing and leading people who have expertise, not providing expertise yourself.


  • Identify a specific example of where you recognise that you overtly play an ‘expert’ role;
    • Why do you do this and what are the implications for you?
    • What can you do differently to hand off your ‘expert’ role and responsibilities?
    • Who in your team could lead on these responsibilities in a way that helps them develop as a manager and leader?


Habit 4. Building rather than leveraging relationships

Whilst women are often stellar relationship builders, they tend to be less skilled at leveraging relationships. Or maybe not exactly less skilled, but rather noticeably reluctant to do so … we see talented, hard working women who rebel at the very thought of engaging others to help them meet either specific or long term career goals. They’ll gladly spend time and energy getting to know people, offering them help, listening to their problems, giving advice, and drawing them close. But they shrink at the prospect of engaging them in a way that furthers their own ambitions.


  • Create a list of of people that are key to your current and future success;
    • On a scale of 1 to 10, which relationships are well established and which ones need more attention?
    • With your priority relationships, what do you need to do to leverage them more effectively and for mutual benefit?


Habit 5. Failing to enlist allies from day one

Women who assume new positions resolve to keep their heads down until they’ve mastered the details and are confident they can perform to a certain standard. They want to feel fully prepared before they start reaching out. By contrast, men in new positions often start with the question: Who should I connect with to make this job a success? They view the path to success not as a matter of what or how, but of who. They see connections as the most important part of their job and want to start building them on day one.

Allies are peers, colleagues, higher-ups, sponsors, direct reports and internal and external fans who support your efforts to get where you want to go. Allies know what you’re trying to achieve, believe it has value, sense they have a stake in it, and do what they can to move you along. They help you find the resources you need to do a tough job. And they get the word out about your contributions … Allies are the heart and soul of a successful career.


  • Who are your key allies and how do you support one another?
  • What can you do to strengthen your relationship with them?
  • What new alliances do you need to form and what steps can you take to connect and build those relationships?


Habit 6. Putting your job before your career

Hegelsen and Goldsmith quote executive coach Carlos Marin:

Many women get very involved with nurturing their team and spend huge amounts of time with their people.  This is great for their people, and it can provide intrinsic rewards for the women, but it does not necessarily serve them to be so internally focused. 

While their male colleagues are building relationships that will help them in the future, the women are spending all their waking hours managing their teams. They appear to enjoy it, and it certainly pays off in terms of their team’s performance, but it does not get the women where they want to go. Managing a team superbly ultimately proves you have great skills as a manager. But building strong outside networks is a promotional skill aimed at getting recognition for the larger organisation.

So while women are honing their management skills and sending the message that they’re wonderful managers, their male colleagues are busy building promotional skills and sending the message that they’re terrific promoters.

As the authors conclude:

This matters because top leadership roles tend to be more about potential for the next level of responsibility.

And the principle reason for this is, loyalty:

Research shows that loyalty is a primary reason women tend to stay in their jobs longer than men. It’s a virtue that can easily become a trap. The desire to be loyal can lead you to neglect your future, sacrifice your ambitions, and sell your talent and potential short. Others may benefit, but you do not.


  • Where are you are putting loyalty to your team above your own career ambitions?
  • Which members of your team could you encourage and support to take on greater responsibility, to develop them as managers, and free up your leadership bandwidth?
  • How well do you communicate your ambitions to leadership?


Habit 7. The perfection trap

Due to gender expectations that start in childhood, and are reinforced in the workplace:

Women are especially vulnerable to the perfection trap, the belief that they will succeed if they do their job perfectly and never mess anything up. While women in general tend to be seen as better leaders than men, they are often undermined by their tendency to give themselves a hard time, a habit rooted in a desire to be perfect.

Whilst striving for perfection may have helped get you where you are, it gets in your way as you aspire to higher levels. The authors explain why striving to be perfect:

Creates stress, for you and for those around you because it’s based on expectations that human beings may occasionally live up to, but which cannot be sustained overtime.

Keeps you riveted on details, distracting you from the big picture orientation that is expected when you reach a senior position.

Creates a negative mindset in which you’re bothered by every little thing that goes wrong, since even a small mistake can ‘ruin’ the whole. And negativity is never valued in a leader.

Sets you up for disappointment for the simple reason that it’s unrealistic. You, and the people who work with and for you, will never be perfect – at least as long as you live on planet earth.

Perfectionism also limits creativity and innovation, because it requires taking risk. But perfectionism makes people reluctant to take risks:

If you’re trying to be perfect, every task or encounter feels high stakes. You’re always on the look out for something to go wrong since even the smallest glitch has the power to undermine your perfect image. Risk taking requires being open to failure. Whilst the risk must be thoughtfully assessed, the outcome is never assured or entirely within your control. The desire to be perfect, by contrast, keeps you focused on what you can control. This narrows your horizons and demonstrates insecurity instead of the confidence in the future that being an effective leader requires.

If you have perfectionist tendencies, you can best serve your long-term interests by learning to delegate, prioritise, and get comfortable taking measured risks. This will create a less stressful environment – for you and for others – and demonstrate your readiness to move forward. The good news is that you will be the primary beneficiary if you lay your burden down. But only if you can accept not being perfect.


  • In your life, where and how do any perfectionist tendencies manifest?
  • In what situations are you exerting more control than you should?
  • What are the implications of this behaviour for you?
  • How might you effectively delegate to, and empower, your team/others?


Habit 8. The disease to please

If you’re a chronic pleaser, chances are you know it. You may even talk about it, usually in an apologetic tone. And you are probably aware of how it holds you back.

The disease to please can undermine your ability to make clear decisions because you’re always trying to split the difference among competing needs in the hope of creating consensus or avoiding giving offence. This can impair your judgement and leave you vulnerable to manipulation by people who know how to use guilt to get others to accommodate their needs. It can rob you of the capacity to act with authority for fear of disappointing others or making them even temporarily unhappy. It can make you an unreliable advocate or ally because you are so easily swayed. It can distract you from your purpose, squander your time and talents, and contribute to your general stuckness.

The disease to please is anything but pleasant and it can be positively poisonous for your career.  But what makes you this way and how can you break the habit?


  • Reflect on any situation you have been overly eager to people please?
    • How did this behaviour manifest itself?
    • What did you gain from ‘people pleasing’?
  • In what ways does people pleasing limit your effectiveness as a manager/ leader?


Habit 9. Minimising

Have you ever found yourself moving into the corner of the room, sitting at the back in an important meeting, or otherwise making your presence less felt? If you have, then you are minimising, a very real physical and psychology protective phenomenon perfected by humans, and other animals, over our evolution.

As research conducted by social scientists and neuroscientists confirms – and many of us know from experience – when you draw in your arms and legs, tighten your body, hunker down, or move aside – you undermine your ability to project authority and power. Not only do others read you as diminished, you begin to feel that way yourself. That’s because your physical attempts to shrink sends a message to your brain that you really shouldn’t be occupying your space, either physically or metaphorically. You’re not big enough, so you don’t belong. Others are more deserving than you are. That’s how your brain interprets your actions.

The opposite of minismising is presence, perhaps the key component to effective leadership:

For decades [we] have been asked what women can do to convey a more powerful leadership presence. Questions tend to focus on the cosmetics: the right clothes, a firm handshake, a confident tone of voice, whether a woman should carry a purse, even whether plastic surgery can be helpful! Yet decades of exposure to a wide range of extraordinary leaders have shown both of us that the key component of leadership presence is the opposite of cosmetic: it lies in the capacity to be fully present for a task, for a conversation, for the moment, for an opportunity. Present for your larger purpose in the world.


  • When and how do you exhibit minimising behaviour?
  • When you do minimise, what do you do (action), think (cognition) and feel (emotion)?
  • What change in behaviour would increase your presence and make it felt by everyone around you?


Habit 10. Too much

As a woman, you may have found yourself having to tamp down your emotional register when you’re in professional situations, especially around high performing men. You may do this in an effort to match your mood to the prevailing workplace and leadership culture. Or because you’ve gotten feedback that you come on too strong or intense.

On the other hand, having to constantly repress your natural responses can make you feel awkward, inauthentic, and stiff, draining away the zest and enthusiasm you need to perform at the highest level. Excessive self-monitoring can depress your energy and inhibit your ability to be your best self. It can kill spontaneity and so undermine your ability to have an impact.

The habits that the authors draw attention to, include displaying too much emotion, using too many words and too much disclosure. Fortunately, they are upbeat about overcoming all of them:

We’ve seen women falter on both sides of the too much/ not enough divide. But we’ve also watched women resolved the conflict to their advantage. Recognising that success in any endeavour requires discipline, they find a way to bring their immediate reactions to full awareness and then respond with passion tempered by experience and intention. As this way of responding becomes a habit, they take on an emotional gravitas that draws integrity from the intensity of the effort.


  • Reflect on a time when you believe you displayed more emotion, used too many words, or disclosed too much.
    • Is your assessment valid?
  • In your mind’s eye, visualise how you want to behave differently in the future;
    • How might you catch yourself, so that you can respond in a way that is more balanced and not ‘too much’?


Habit 11. Ruminating

The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin ruminare, which means “to chew over again”. Animals like cows, goats and sheep process food cyclically through their uniquely designed digestive system because they struggle to extract sufficient protein from their plant-based diet. Whilst it is a fantastic evolutionary strategy it doesn’t serve human beings well. In fact, psychologists have drawn a straight line of causation between chronic rumination and chronic depression.

If you spend time ruminating, you may tell yourself that you’re being reflective. You may imagine it will help you avoid mistakes in the future. Or you may subconsciously believe that you deserve to feel terrible because your behaviour fell short of an imagined ideal or sent a signal that you did not intend.  In fact, there’s little protein to be extracted from the well chewed morsels of self-contempt that you as a human ruminant keep coming up with. What you’re actually doing is berating yourself, engaging in a kind of self-talk that can border on abuse.

If you find yourself ruminating, what can you do about it? Here are some questions that you can ask yourself to diagnose the habit, if not entirely solve it.


  • What do you most commonly ruminate about?
  • In what specific situations do you find yourself replaying old stories?
  • If you were to identify one piece of learning from these stories, what would it be?
  • What one thing could you do to interrupt the re-running of old stories?
  • Can you do this on your own, with the help of a professional coach, or do you need support from a mental health professional*?
* If your rumination is a frustrating habit and performance blocker, then an executive coach can certainly help you address it. If it is causing you more severe mental pain and suffering then you should seek help from a mental health professional. Read my post Why every leader needs a coach, mentor and therapist for more information about the different types of support that such professionals provide.


Habit 12. Letting your radar distract you

Using functional MRI scans of male and female brains in operation, neuro scientists have demonstrated that when women process information their brains light up in a lot of different regions, taking in a multiplicity of details. By contrast, when men process information, their brain activity tends to be concentrated in one region.

Women’s attention for the most part operates like radar, scanning the environment, picking up a broad range of clues, and paying attention to context. Whereas men’s attention operates more like a laser, focusing tightly and absorbing information in sequence.

A well developed radar can be a powerful asset at work. Being highly attuned to the details of relationships and to what people are feeling enables you to excel at motivating others, inspiring morale.  It helps you negotiate and communicate with sensitivity and skill.  It supports collaboration and teamwork.  And radar helps you build the intimate friendships that support your resilience when the going gets tough.

However, your radar can bring problems in three ways:

Organisations still privilege laser focus – “just get to the bottom line” – and view it as a leadership behaviour. This is not surprising given that, until a few decades ago, organisations were led almost entirely by men.

A well developed radar can make it difficult for you to filter out unhelpful distractions, scattering your attention and undermining your ability to be present. Your radar can degrade your capacity to compartmentalise perceptions that might undermine your confidence and ability to perform.

Radar may also be in part responsible for women’s tendency to give themselves a hard time. Being hyper aware of other people’s reactions can feed the fires of self doubt and cause you to overthink your actions.  Having an active radar may therefore be in part responsible if you have a tendency to ruminate. Especially if you put a negative spin on whatever you notice.

To avoid letting your radar distract you, the authors recommend a technique called re-framing. This involves identifying and revising the story you tell yourself about what you notice. By acknowledging what you’re thinking and feeling, and finding strength in that, you can harness the power of your radar to banish it shadow side.


  • Identify the type of situation(s) in which your radar distracts you.
    • What benefit do you get from allowing these distractions, and what are the unintended consequences to you?
    • How might you reframe the situation?
  • If you were to make one commitment to yourself to reduce distraction, what would it be?


Putting it all into action

In addition to asking yourself the questions that we have identified, you’re encouraged to ask others to answer them on your behalf and to consider them on behalf of those that you lead.

Why is it so important to seek input from others? Research by Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, suggests that People Don’t Actually Know Themselves Very Well. The chances are that your co-workers are better at rating some parts of your personality (and your habits) than you are. For more on this, and to learn about the importance of self-awareness in leadership, check out my post 4 questions to improve your leadership self-awareness.

To change the habits and behaviours that you identify are holding you and your team back, the authors recommend:

Starting with one thing “start by breaking down a problem behaviour into discrete, specific habits that can be addressed one at a time”.

Getting a coach “coaches serve as disruptors, reminding you that you’re trying to change, and keeping your efforts on your front burner. A coach also acts as your partner as you seek to let go of habits that get in your way”.

Asking colleagues for feedback and support“pulling others into your change efforts is not only more likely to make your new habit stick, it’s also a great way to strengthen and deepen your relationships at work. enlisting the help of colleagues gives them a stake in your development it demonstrates confidence in their judgement. It positions you as serious about your work. It may even inspire others to take similar action , which could help your whole team get better at what they do”.

Writing a to-don’t list“to-do lists help you stay organised and efficient. They’re useful tools, even if sometimes you wake up feeling as if your to-do list runs your life. As you move higher, your to-do list usually becomes longer and the tasks involve higher stakes. But as your list expands and feels more urgent you might want to also consider a to-don’t-do list, a list of items you would like to let go of”.

Please don’t be too hard on yourself – “women are much harder on themselves than men are. They tend to worry more about their perceived faults and feel greater pressure to make improvements. This can be useful because it makes you willing to change. But getting caught up in self reproach, or beating yourself up for being a flawed human being, is always counter productive . You can’t lead, and you can’t make helpful improvements in your behaviour, if you’re constantly berating yourself”.

Author: Richard Hughes-Jones, WDI Consulting Limited (With input from Lynn White, Principal Partner, WDI Consulting Limited)

WDI works with aspiring women leaders whose ambition is to build and lead inclusive organisations. Delivered virtually and face to face, their Women’s Leadership Coaching programme untangles societal stereotypes to enable women to thrive and bring their whole-self to work. For more information, contact Lynn White, Clare Russell or myself. Additional thanks to Sally Hargrave for her ideas and support in writing this article.
This article was originally published on Richard Hughes-Jones’s website. Richard is a WDI Associate and coach on WDI’s Women’s Leadership Online Programme.
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