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I recently wrote about behaviours that can hold women back at work after watching this brilliant video with women’s leadership coach Sally Helgesen, produced by BBC Ideas.

Sally sums up very clearly behaviours that I’ve observed in myself that were getting in the way of stepping up to leadership. I didn’t spell out these habits in my original post, but now I’d like to look at how they relate to my working life. See if you recognise any of them yourself:

1. Reluctance to claim your achievements 
This is a behaviour that I’ll hold my hand up to. Some women feel that they don’t want to work in an environment where their contributions aren’t ‘spontaneously recognised’. This is a tough one, as a good boss should recognise and reward strong performance. But if you think some of your work could be highlighted better, Sally has some sensible advice in her video of how to do this well.

2. Disease to please
Wanting people to think you’re a wonderful and nice person could leave you exhausted, Sally says. It may also get in the way of saying no and holding people accountable. It’s one of the behaviours that serve you well at the start of your career, but may hinder you as you seek to rise. I’m happy to say that once I learned how much simpler some things became when I said ‘no’, I’ve added it to my toolkit and I’m not going back.

3. Perfectionism
Sally warns against putting too much effort into getting things right and spending energy making improvements around the margins. “In large organisations, women are rewarded for being precise and correct, men for risk taking and boldness,” she says. For me the cure to perfectionism has been delegating. Seeing tasks completed far better than I could have done them won me round pretty quickly!

4. Ruminating over mistakes
This is a form of beating yourself up, according to Sally. I’ve certainly learned to handle mistakes better over the years, largely by learning from some of my male peers. Mistakes will happen in your career – it’s a fact of life. Learn from them, limit the damage, apologise if you need to. Then move on.

5. ‘Minimising’ yourself
This can be reflected in terms of speech or how you occupy physical space. Apologising a lot or saying things like, “can I just have a minute?” is minimising yourself in speech. Sticking to the sides rather than “sitting at the table” as Sheryl Sandberg describes in her TED Talk on leadership, is physical minimising. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy offers a good remedy to physical minimising in her well-known TED Talk about power poses.

In the past few years I’ve moved on from most of the habits on Sally’s list, with the definite exception of number one. And I’d like to add another behaviour to Sally’s list – not speaking up clearly.

Sometimes I look over emails I’ve sent to peers or senior colleagues and am surprised at how ‘couched’ my request is. In some cases, it isn’t even there at all! So my advice to myself, and to you, is:  say what you mean, claim your accomplishments, ask for what you need (and this includes a pay rise, something women find hard to do). 

And finally, I’d like to end with this thought of Sally Helgesen’s at the start of her video: “Leadership, going forward, is only going to be great if women are at 50%.” Leadership needs to feel like a female place to be if women are to bring their best to it.


Sally Helgesen is a women’s leadership coach and author. Her most recent book, How Women Rise, co-authored with legendary executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, examines the behaviors most likely to get in the way of successful women as they seek to move to a higher level.

Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and the author of Lean In