Many years ago, I first read a fantastic book by Lois Frankel called Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, which was about unconscious mistakes women make that sabotage their careers.
Given that I’m still making some of these errors myself, I thought it might be helpful to chat here about how to overcome deeply ingrained habits that are presently holding us – and our teams – back and how Lois’s insight makes her the champion of working women.
Needing to be liked
The desire to be liked is so strong in some nice girls that it becomes impossible for them to act in any alternative manner. They become immobilized at the thought of disappointing someone. But there’s a difference between being liked and being respected, and if you’re concerned only by being liked or preserving your workplace relationships, you will not take the kinds of risks that lead to respect. Lois suggests that you use self-talk to counter the need to have everyone like you all the time because that won’t happen no matter what you do. Replace the thought “but people won’t like me if…” with “people might get upset with me, but at least I will be acting in accordance with my values.” Also, balance your inclination to serve others’ needs with serving your own. Before agreeing to something you don’t want to do, ask yourself how much it will matter if the person’s a little annoyed.
Playing the game in bounds
Even when a woman knows the workplace is a game, she has the tendency to play safe rather than play smart. She obeys all the rules to the letter and expects others to as well. If the policy says don’t do it, then it can’t be done. If it might upset someone, she doesn’t do it. Lois says that you never want to act unethically, but it is a game, and one you want to win. Therefore, you should play the game within bounds, but right at the edges. If you’re not sure where the edges of your company’s playing field are, look at the women in your workplace who are winning the game. Consider what they’re doing that you should be doing too. Also, try writing down two rules you interpret narrowly and always follow. Have you seen other people bend these rules? If nothing has happened to them, take the risk!
Striving for perfection
Having been made to believe we’re flawed beings, women overcompensate by striving for perfection. What a waste of time! We’re much better off using the time we spend perfecting already good work products or relationships on new and creative endeavors. This is an area where guys do things differently. They understand when good enough is good enough and move on to the next thing. They realize it’s more efficient to go back and correct a mistake (if there is one) than to keep reviewing a project and stall momentum. Lois recommends combating perfectionism by limiting the amount of time you spend on any given piece of work, and before putting in extra time, ask a colleague for feedback. He may feel the product is totally fine as is.
Not asking questions for fear of sounding stupid
Women sometimes rely on the adage “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and look like a fool than to open it and confirm it.” Proposing a legitimate question to ensure understanding is more of a sign of confidence than of ignorance. Nice girls sometimes don’t ask questions because they don’t want to waste the group’s time. Asking yourself the simple question “will the answer apply only to me?” should help you decide whether to proceed. Trust your instincts: if it doesn’t seem clear, it’s probably not. Lois suggests paraphrasing as a way of gaining clarification. For example, you might say: “do I understand correctly that we’re being given six months to complete the first phase of the project and three months to complete the second phase?”
Polling before deciding
Consensus decision making is a good thing. The inability to act without knowing what everyone thinks and if they approve isn’t. It’s a technique that nice girls use to avoid later confrontation. If they can get approval on the front end, no one can criticize them on the back end. Ideally, you want to walk the line between being a lone ranger who acts independently without regard for the opinions of others, and someone who isn’t confident enough to make her own decisions. Lois says to start small by acting without first getting input from your supervisor on a minor, low profile decision. If you’re scared, ask yourself what you’ll lose by going solo. Explore the internal mechanism that keeps you tied into approval and tape over that old message!