What others think of us is a natural concern for almost all of us. And for good reason! Other people’s opinions often lead to pro-social behaviors such as reciprocity of kind gestures or the urge to make amends when we’re in the wrong. It’s what keeps us moral and makes for a fair and just society.
However, any virtue can turn into a vice when taken to an extreme. When we stop listening to our own opinions in favor of what other people may think, we become disconnected from our values, our aspirations and from the difference we can each make in the world. We become hooked onto approval and a constant need for validation, we avoid situations that can lead to disagreement, and we fall apart with even the most subtle sign of criticism.
This dependence on other people to feel good about ourselves keeps many high-achieving women stuck in jobs that have become too small for their capabilities. Despite their competence, they fear speaking up and sharing their ideas—and watch in regret as others claim them. Despite being the best person for a more senior role, they avoid putting themselves forward, and get frustrated when more junior colleagues get the job. They hide behind their achievements, expecting these to speak for themselves, and get upset when they’re not valued nor rewarded the way they know they should be.
I have spent years researching why competent and otherwise confident-looking women struggle to take the steps that will help them advance professionally despite knowing why it’s important and how to do so. The answer lies in the psychological construct of “fragile” confidence where their competence and apparent confidence is underpinned by low self-worth. However, the feelings of unworthiness are often inaccessible to logic and reason because they emerged at a time when the brain had yet to develop a cognitive system capable of making sense of their experiences. For high-achieving women, who have had a lifetime of successes and approval, this may be even more so.
As a result, many women are driven by a subconscious fear of rejection that forces them to engage in behaviors that keep them stuck. In their latest book How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, leadership expert Sally Helgesen and leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith identify three habits in particular that relate to this fear. In their combined 60 years of experience, they have found that women tend to overvalue expertise, become trapped in perfection and put their job before their career, becoming indispensable in their roles and thus stalling their career advancement.
The Human Truth
For the millions of women who feel stuck at middle management, and for the countless organizations that are frustrated by the lack of visible change despite the time, money and effort invested in women’s leadership development, here’s an undeniable truth of the human psyche: our subconscious minds drive our behaviors.
To move past the proverbial glass ceiling and rise to the top while lifting those below them, women need more than skills and strategies. They also need to build an authentic sense of self-worth so they do not cut the rungs off the ladder that gets them to the top—if they’re able to actually get there.
Based on the framework of Authentic Confidence that I have developed and tested in randomized controlled trials and in my work as a women’s leadership coach, I propose two things in particular that women can focus on:
The journey for women past the early stages of their careers is challenging at best. There is the double bind of competence and likeability based on subconscious biases. There is the double burden of motherhood and management given that both work and relationships are important sources of meaning in women’s lives. To manage these swampy waters without getting sucked in by them, it’s essential for women to be deeply connected with their values and with their vision of a fulfilled life. Research shows that unless individuals internalize the behaviors they need to engage in as being important to them, their motivation will wane with challenges, or lead to burnout in a futile attempt to prove their worth through their successes.
Workplaces reward success and discourage failure. For women who depend on approval to preserve their sense of self, it magnifies their dependence on outcomes and keeps them stuck in behaviors that signify competence and maintain their success. However, the research is clear that failure builds mastery, a construct far more critical to success than competence. Mastery allows individuals to take risks even in the face of uncertainty, essential in today’s unpredictable and ambiguous workplaces. Helgesen and Goldsmith have found that when women identify areas they need to work on, and enlist regular feedback from their bosses, they not only build mastery, they also increase their visibility and are rewarded for their efforts.
By grounding themselves in their authentic expression, women can unhook themselves from what others think of them while also respecting and honoring important relationships. Research in developmental psychology shows that this ability to hold a me within a we will help them not only rise to their highest potential, but also embrace a higher consciousness.