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I’m smart, I achieve – so why am I not having my full impact? – 10 ways female leaders subtly undermine ourselves.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

I’m smart, I achieve – so why am I not having my full impact? – 10 ways female leaders subtly undermine ourselves.

A few weeks ago, a new cohort of my Leader’s Voice programme kicked off – it’s a leadership process where senior female leaders activate their capacity to rally change around a vision.

These incredible, achieving, impressive leaders are not only very successful, but they are idealists who want to use their time on this planet to bring about positive change. On paper they have everything to feel confident about.

But what struck me was the gap between how confident they should feel, versus how they actually felt. These ladies – and pretty much every female leader I come across – share a deeply engrained tendency to undermine themselves. And so do I.

As female leaders, we’re socialised differently to our male counterparts (this KPMG study offers a useful outline) and it’s clear we have different tendencies and preferences.

Our tendencies as female leaders are incredible gifts…

In my experience, female leaders naturally seek to serve others and benefit whole systems, rather than focusing on personal gain. It’s this that motivates me to work with female leaders. And I also think the Dalai Lama was pointing to this when he said at the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit, “The world will be saved by the western woman.”

… And yet we also sabotage ourselves.

At the same time, we have a series of undermining habits that are consistently chipping away at both our inward self-confidence and the outward perception other people (men and women) have of our confidence, credibility and capability.

Here are 10 undermining tendencies I’ve spotted in myself, my Leader’s Voice participants and beyond. For me, this reads like a cringe list of things I find myself doing to try and make myself likeable (although weirdly they generally have the opposite impact).

How about you?

1. Using linguistic moderators:

‘I’ll just open this,’ or ‘I have quite a good track record,’ or ‘I’d like your help with this sort of thing.’

Impact: When I listen out for my own moderators I’m shocked at how many clutter up my language. Whilst it’s a common social habit, every additional moderator removes certainty and impact from my words and yours. Instead, consider the power of: ‘I’ll open this,’ ‘I have a good track record,’ and ‘I’d like your help with this.’ Once the moderators are gone, we start talking like leaders.

2. Micro-quirks: those twingy, awkward things we do with our body when we’re not feeling fully confident:

Fiddling, scratching, hand-wringing;
Arms or legs crossed when standing;
Collapsing in at the chest so that we shrink.

The impact: It’s easy to spot if a leader isn’t fully comfortable in her position – just watch the first 30 seconds of the below videos – Theresa May versus Ruth Davidson. One you trust, like and want to follow; the other you instantly doubt and feel uncomfortable around (I’ll leave you to decide which is which).

3. Lightness where gravitas is needed: 

Laughing when expressing an opinion;
Exuberant small talk ‘Oh, it’s such a lovely day! Have you seen the sky outside? How splendid!’
Excessive smiling and nodding to reinforce other people’s points. 

The impact: It pains me to point this one out, as exuberance is one of my natural tendencies. It feels like nothing more than being a fun host – and I often imagine that it’s a great leadership quality. Whilst there’s no doubt that exuberance is needed in some situations, if I use it in the wrong time & the wrong place, it lifts the energy when it really needs to be settled. Lightness can make a leader seem inexperienced, lacking in substance, frivolous, or less capable of achieving results.

4. Playing it ‘nice’ rather than playing it ‘real’:

‘Thanks for this work, it’s really great, thank you! It’s almost perfect, apart from this one tiny little adjustment.’

The Impact: I notice a difference in the way that men and women typically receive feedback. Most women would take the ‘one tiny little adjustment’ and work hard to improve on it (part of our perfectionist tendencies I talk about in this article), whereas most men would receive that there’s nothing much to work on. Either way, the ‘nice’ approach can devalue your opinion in comparison to the ‘real’ approach – have a look at the respect received by ‘real’ TV judges like Simon Cowell or Craig Revel-Horwood, versus their ‘nice’ counterparts.

5. Batting away complements:

Them: ‘That’s a great dress.’
You: ‘Oh, this old thing? I got it in the sales last season.’

Or, more critically for the workplace:

Them: ‘Great work on the Dubai gig.’
You: ‘Oh, it was a team effort, I couldn’t have done it without Jamie.’

The impact: We think we’re being modest, or generous, but batting away complements in the workplace means that the credit lands elsewhere. 

6. The urge to coach or collaborate:

‘What do you think would be the best way forward here?’ or ‘shall we look at the different options?’

versus: ‘Here’s how I see it.’ Or ‘I have a great idea…’

The impact: whilst a collaborative or coaching style has many positive benefits, like creating buy-in, it can also lower our status if we use it all the time. It can signal uncertainty where you actually feel none. I believe this can be one reason why women feel that men often ‘run off with their ideas’ – the woman has the idea, but then discusses it in a collaborative way, which makes the man feel that he at least part-owns the idea.

7. Drawing attention to mistakes:

‘You’ll see the sales figures on the next slide… whoops and there’s a typo here. Really sorry about that.’

The impact: We’re used to getting things right, so it’s embarrassing when we spot a mistake – and we’d rather point it out to show that we’re better than the mistake. However, if you kick yourself for making a mistake, so will your audience. 

8. Keeping on ‘giving’ when you’ve made your point:

‘So the main point is that this will increase your sales by an estimated 23% over 3 years. And there’s also free training on the system. And we have a friendly support team. Who have recently won an award….’

The impact: Whether you’re selling an idea or a product, there is a moment where your audience is willing to ‘buy’. Here’s the place to stop talking and let them respond. Yet it feels awkward, or unkind to ‘put them on the spot’, so we keep going. We give more. The result? Your later points are less convincing rather than more convincing and you’ve lost the momentum.

9. Rushing your moment in the spotlight:

e.g. the demeanour of a flustered high school teacher, head down, rushing into a classroom, versus the cool, calm Head Teacher who glides into the room and instantly commands attention.

Impact: When we rush – with our bodies and our words – we subconsciously ask the audience to rush in judging us and to sweep us aside in their estimation. It’s like we’re saying ‘don’t mind little me, I’m not important enough.’ If you acting unimportant, why should anyone else take you to be important?

10. Diminishing my achievements:

 ‘Sure, I have a Doctorate from Cambridge, but it’s in theology and I work in finance, so I mustn’t mention it.’


‘Ok, I have an MBA from Harvard, but I can’t even have a conversation about football – how can I properly engage with my clients?’

The Impact: Many female leaders would happily rave about the achievements of others, but fail to share their own successes for fear of boasting. Whilst self-promotion is a strategy that can backfire on women (we know there is a double-bind operating here), there are ways to internally own our achievements, versus dismissing them as not good enough.

Phew – that’s quite a hit list for me! What strikes me is how small these habits seem, yet how huge their impact is on the way we are perceived. I frequently see these tendencies undermine even the most capable female leaders.

We’re facing the impact of strong social conditioning here, largely borne from the desire to be liked. To drop the habit to undermine takes awareness, patience and a good deal of bravery.

When we stop undermining ourselves and start claiming our confidence, we not only improve our personal impact, but we also up the impact of the way we represent the projects, causes and ideas that matter to us.

This, I believe, is an important part of becoming one of the Dalai Lama’s western women who will change the world.

If you resonate with what I’m saying and want to be one of those female leaders who is visible, vocal and capable of bringing about change, I’d love to connect with you. Drop me a contact note here and it will be passed to me personally. Let’s share and support each other. I’m on a mission to develop 100 leading female voices and I need all sorts of help to make it happen.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).

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