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5 tendencies that hold female leaders back

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

I’ve spent the past 6 months deeply connecting with female leaders, from up and coming executives to women at the very top of multinational corporations.

As they tell me their stories and their aspirations for the future, I’m inspired to see a generation of female leaders stepping forward who want to grow their companies and see wider positive change that benefits the people they work with, their industries and beyond. These are women who are challenging the old expectations of how companies are supposed to be led and are modelling a more human, socially conscious mode of leadership.

At the same time, I’m spotting some consistent challenges that women (myself included) face in the way we think and lead. Here are five of them, with my reflections on each, I wonder which resonate with you?

I’d love to hear your experiences and strategies for handling these challenges and more – if you’d like to connect up on this subject you can find me on LinkedIn, or drop me a message.

1. The Niceness Trap: The tendency to prioritise being liked over being a leader.

KPMG (2015) found that the way women are socialised has a significant impact on our capacity to lead; they found that whilst we’re growing up, 86% of women are taught to be nice to others, 44% are taught to be a good leader and just 34% are encouraged to share their point of view.

Whilst female leaders are equipped with tools for successfully navigating all manner of business relationships, ‘niceness’ is still a huge issue, as we are often forced into making a choice between being liked and achieving. Many of the women I’m speaking to feel that they’d like to find a balance; that they want to be clear and powerful without acting like a man (gone are the power-dressing days of the 80s). And they’d like to be human and compassionate without being seen as weak.

One female leader told me she’s used to powering through, getting things done, but she’s worried about being labelled a ‘difficult woman’ who nobody wants to work with. She’s in a bind; on the one hand she thinks it shouldn’t matter what people think of her, she’s there to do a job. On the other hand, it does matter – she’s an emotionally savvy leader who values collaboration and team spirit. It’s hugely draining for her to feel in conflict with her team.

What I’m learning: We have to become more comfortable with expressing uncomfortable or unpopular perspectives, even at the risk of not seeming ‘nice’. To help me overcome the ‘niceness trap’, which is a huge part of my life, I take inspiration from leaders who have found a mission of beyond personal benefit to strive towards. So that even if you have to be assertive, pushy or unpleasant in one situation, you can justify it as you’re doing it on behalf of a greater good.

2. Professional Fence-sitters: Playing a role of conciliation rather than furnishing strong opinions.

Connected to the last point – if only 34% of us are taught to share our opinions as girls and if we’re trying to be ‘nice’, it’s not surprising that many of us struggle to find and assert clear opinions as adults. Better sit on the fence and be everyone’s friend. Women who are bold with expressing their ideas have historically been rewarded with labels such as ‘strident’, ‘domineering’ and ‘bitch’.

Even some of the most senior female leaders I speak to have trouble figuring out exactly what they stand for. I’ve come across consultants who are used to presenting balanced arguments, but struggle to set a direction for their company or industry; to a C-suite executive who left her company disappointed in herself because she wanted to do more to change its work culture to improve diversity, but somehow didn’t quite find the words, or the time, or the confidence to make it happen.

These subtle tendencies towards not quite being sure of ourselves mean that we’re side-lining ourselves. Whoever else is sure of his or herself will be the one to set the direction or take the lead.

What I’m learning: If we hope to bring greater diversity of thought into our organisations female leaders have to come off the fence. We have to start blurting out what we think. Even if it’s not fully formed, we get to understand our own perspective when we try it out loud.

And we have to find a way to do it that’s authentic to us, rather than simply copying the habits of male leaders. Part of this is about becoming ok with disagreement, knowing that we can have different opinions and continue to be friends or colleagues.

3. The Legitimacy Crutch: The tendency to focus on legitimizing our knowledge, rather than painting a vision.

study by INSEAD & the Harvard Business Review found that women and men rate women as better leaders in all of their dimensions of leadership (from giving feedback to emotional intelligence, to outside orientation), with the exception of one – envisioning. The explanation they give is that women tend to over legitimize their ideas, leaning on data and other people’s perspectives to build credibility, as opposed to creating a bold and big picture vision. You can see this exemplified in Hilary Clinton’s two failed bids to become President of the USA – both Obama and Trump better connected to a big picture vision for America that connected with the electorate’s ideals (for better or worse). Clinton may have been the more ‘legitimate’ candidate, certainly with Trump, but that wasn’t enough to sell her ideas.

Testing this with female leaders, this is a tendency that affects many female leaders in big organisations. We operate in often highly masculine environments, we feel just a touch out of place – and therefore seek to justify our perspective with watertight arguments based on research and data.

What I’m learning: Let’s not lose our watertight arguments, that wouldn’t be smart. But if we balance legitimacy with big picture, visionary thinking we’ll win over hearts and the minds and create greater buy-in to our ideas. That’s what I’m helping female leaders with in my new programme The Leader’s Voice.

4. Getting it Right: The tendency towards perfectionism: if I’m not certain it’s 100% right, I won’t speak up.

Much quoted research by HP shows that women apply for a job when they fulfil 100% of the requirements, whereas men when they fulfil 60%. One implication of this that’s being confirmed by the ladies in my network is that we feel a strong sense of anxiety about being called out as getting it wrong.

Many of us would much rather wait to perfect our ideas before we dare to share them. In some cases, this perfectionism is extreme that it becomes social anxiety. One top performing manager told me that within board meetings she would obsess so much about saying the right thing when it came to her turn, that when she did have a chance to speak she’d forget to say half of what she’d intended.

Despite the clichéd answer to a job interview question, ‘what’s your biggest weakness?’ ‘Oh, I think I’m just too much of a perfectionist’, perfectionism has been shown to be a bad thing, actually hindering learning, growth and performance rather than aiding them. And when leaders are perfectionists, they can find themselves with longer to-do lists, more co-dependent teams and less buy-in from their implementers.

What I’m learning: Giving myself permission to be ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ rather than getting it right has been a hugely freeing process for me. It’s helped me to pass more power to my talented team. And it’s helped me to develop product that are, weirdly, closer to being perfect because I’m now involving my clients in developing them.

If we get 60% of the way there and at that point share our ideas, those around us will hone, contribute to and buy into our success. Leaving gaps might feel vulnerable, but it promotes a more collaborative form of leadership.

5. Waiting for Prince Charming: The tendency to keep your head down and work hard, in the hope that someone will notice and reward you for your merits.

As girly as it sounds, many of us were socialised with the dream of being passive, beautiful princesses – to be put up in a tower and admired. Those were certainly the fairy tales I was told as a girl. And even though I enjoyed being a bit of a tomboy, some part of the fairy tale stuck – the message that good girls wait to be noticed, rather than pushing herself forwards. Prince Charming will come along to save you and tell you what a hard working, talented little princess you are.

I come across countless talented women who are heads-down, working hard and achieving, not realising that Prince Charming isn’t on his way to lift you up. Prince Charming isn’t on his way. In fact, Prince Charming is more likely to steal your credit.

Three quarters of a room of female leaders I spoke to a few weeks ago said that they’d had the experience of someone else (usually male) taking credit for their work. Now this isn’t about man-bashing (I love our men and we need their beautiful talents), but it is about women taking time to recognise their own success and congratulate themselves for it. When we appreciate ourselves (and our fellow female leaders), others will follow.

What I’m learning: It feels uncomfortable to ‘boast’ about our achievements, but when you depersonalise it and state it as fact (‘I am a best-selling author, an award winning coach and a TEDx speaker’. I am.), it doesn’t seem arrogant. In fact, it’s helpful to others to see clearly, and without emotion, what you’ve achieved as it helps them to respect your work and let’s them see how best to use your talents.

So, these are some of the top tendencies I’m spotting at the moment in female leaders. If we can overcome these, more than just ourselves benefit.

When one woman leads, others are inspired to do the same.

When a handful of women lead, we bring new ways of thinking that challenge the established group norm.

And when female leadership is an integral part of every business and institution; our systems, communities and society as a whole benefit.

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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