Habits that inhibit success for women

It seems that every day I receive an email offering advice on habits. The popularity of neuroscience has spurned an interest in how our brains work and what we can do about it. Habits are such simple things. Developed over time, they become enduring and quite resistant to change. They serve a purpose for us, in that they short-cut the need to think about how we behave in certain situations, and they reap rewards when that purpose is served.

Habits form when we act or think in the same pattern and over time. Neuroscience teaches  us that our neural pathways change, so that the behaviour, or thinking, becomes automatic. In order to change these habits, they need to be consistently addressed through small steps until the neural pathways are further changed.

For example, take the small habit which many people have of saying ‘yes, but.’ This serves many purposes. For some people, it is a way of stopping any possible inroads into what could be risky behaviour, or enabling us to stay in our comfort zones, and maybe it also enables one to find a way to repel any extra work being loaded onto us.

While this is serving a purpose, and being reinforced, it will not change.

Many habits such as the ‘yes but’ keep us stuck in a situation and may be a barrier to success.

This is what Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith have written about in their book, How Women Rise. They identify 12 habits that prevent women from successfully rising in their organisations. Before delving further into this, it is important to recall that  not all barriers to success are internal. Women are still faced with many  external barriers, especially regarding perception and attitude,  that are preventing them from moving up.

The 12 habits identified by Helgesen and Goldsmith are presented here:

  1. Reluctance to claim your achievements

Accept credit – a  simple ‘thank you’ will often be sufficient

  1. Expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your contributions

It is essential to take responsibility for getting your own achievements noticed

3. Overvaluing expertise

Women often believe they have to be better in their roles than men to get recognised. However, mastery of your current role ensures you stay there.

  1. Just building, rather than leveraging, relationships

Women tend to be very good at building relationships, however not so good at using those relationships for mutual benefit.

  1. Failing to enlist allies from day 1

It can be extremely helpful to identify a mentor, champion or sponsor within the organisation who can help in your development. Choose wisely.

  1. Putting your job before your career

Regard your job as a stepping stone in your career, and take a strategic view of where you are heading.

  1. The perfection trap

This keeps us locked into over-emphasising detail, becoming self-critical and setting up unrealistic expectations.

  1. The disease to please

Women are chronic pleasers. We want to be seen to be agreeable, nice. It’s not necessary in order to succeed.

  1. Minimizing

Taking up little space, belittling what we are about to say, e.g. using the word ‘just’ ahead of what we are about to say, downplaying our certainty.

  1. Too much

Emotion, too many words, too much disclosure… all good for building trust, but  can be overplayed.

  1. Ruminating

Replaying the past, and keeping ourselves stuck with our mistakes holds us back from looking to the future.

  1. Letting your radar distract you.

Scanning the environment is a strength. However, it can get in the way and be a distraction. Stay focussed.

These are all habits which Hegelsen and Goldsmith have identified as specifically female habits at work. That is not to say that they are not present in men, or that all women have all

So, what should we do about these habits?

  • First, we need to become aware of any habits we have that are holding us back, by working though lists like this and reflecting upon them, as well as asking others around us what they observe.
  • Next, review the purpose that they hold for us, and determine whether this is healthy in your life/career.
  • Then, if you wish to change these habits, it will need to be done slowly and consistently, taking small steps and reinforcing the change along the way. For example, going back to the habit I mentioned at the beginning, of saying ‘yes, but’. Next time something new is proposed and you are about to say ‘yes, but’, take time to reflect, before responding or ask a question for clarification. Try and change the ‘yes but’ to a ‘yes, and’… e.g. ‘yes, and how could we do this’?
  • Enrol someone to support you in the change, find a mentor, coach, or friend to do this

To summarize, women face barriers to success, and whilst some of these are undoubtedly external, we need to be aware of the internal barriers, that is the behaviours that may inhibit our success. By bringing them into our consciousness we can address them.


Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently published a book on creativity for leaders with Dr. Tracy Stanley, entitled Creativity Cycling .

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