The Corner Office is Within Reach: Understanding and Changing Common Mistakes Made by Women in the Workplace

September  26,  2012 / By Taylor Blog

Editor’s note: Laurie Duffy was co-writer on this piece

A fun fact for the new millennium: when it comes to post-secondary education, women are more likely to earn college degrees than men. Women now account for 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 60 percent of all master’s degrees. These women, chalked full of ability and ambition, have the opportunity to excel in business – to take their careers wherever they want to go – but an unconscious force is holding them back.

In her book, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers, psychologist Lois P. Frankel hypothesizes that, with all other things being equal between men and women, the way a woman acts and reacts in business situations is one of the largest factors in determining how far she will go in achieving her career goals. After studying these actions and talking to thousands of women about why they act in ways detrimental to their careers, Frankel found that, “From early childhood, girls are taught that their well-being and ultimate success is contingent upon acting in certain stereotypical ways, such as being polite, soft-spoken, compliant and relationship-oriented.” Those stereotypes are consistently reinforced by culture, media messages and daily experiences. So it’s not that women consciously act in self-sabotaging ways, Frankel contents, it’s that they act in ways consistent with their learning experiences.

Understanding this challenge faced by women, Frankel wrote Nice Girls to illuminate the ways that women are currently undermining their own careers. She identified obvious and not-so-obvious mistakes that are made and discusses ways in which women can empower themselves to take hold of their careers.

After reading this book together, we want to show that the coveted corner office is within reach for women who have determination and drive. We have identified 10 mistakes that hold some women back and are particularly relevant to the marketing communications industry. Our hope is that these mistakes move from the unconscious to something that is regularly reflected upon.

Working Hard: A common belief still held in the work place is that if someone works hard, he or she will succeed in the business world. That is simply not the case. In reality, no one has gotten a promotion purely because they work hard or stayed late at the office. Likability, strategic thinking, networking, being a team player are but a few of the other factors that produce a successful career. Women concentrate on working hard and making the effort, but truthfully, they might be missing opportunities. Frankel gives the example that one woman complained that her male counterparts would talk Monday morning football at the office, which she viewed as wasting valuable time. In reality, those men were creating and building relationships that could assist them in moving to the next level.  – KT

Failing to Capitalize on Relationships:  An interesting comparison made by Frankel in this section outlines how men and women handle relationships. Men, she says, rely on relationships to open doors for them, while women often view it as taking advantage of someone. Working in the communications business, relationships – with clients, media, vendors and team members – are critical to getting the job done. But when was the last time you relied on a relationship to help you improve your career path or learn about new opportunities in the marketplace? If the answer is “never” or “not recently,” chances are that you’re missing out on valuable connections. – LD

Polling Before Making a Decision: Women care about what people think. It’s natural to us. Women also ask those around them for their opinions and input before making a final decision, sometimes in order to gain approval and avoid confrontation. Although it is sometimes a good idea to get feedback from the team, constantly polling before making a decision allows you to be viewed as one who is unable to make a choice and reflects poorly on your managerial style. Marketing communications agencies value employees who can work in both a team setting, but can also show their own independence. Making decisions confidently and independently, especially when dealing with small, low-profile decisions, will be seen and appreciated by those above you. – KT

Putting Work Ahead of Your Personal Life: Ah yes, the often talked about but rarely mastered “work-life balance.” While working in an agency setting and offering great client service is a bit different than typical corporate workplaces, we still have to make a conscious choice to achieve work-life effectiveness. Why?  Because no one is going to do it for us. Having activities, interests and people outside of the work place that are important allows employees to be positive, productive and have a better outlook on their lives (in general) and their careers (specifically). – LD

Failing to Define Your Brand: Frankel lays it on the line for us in this section. She says, “A personal brand is a promise of performance that creates expectations in its audience. Done well, it clearly communicates the values, personality, and abilities of the person behind it.”  What do you, personally and uniquely, bring to your organization? One person might be great at building media relationships while another is great at understanding how clients are thinking. Some others are more creative and can be relied upon for big ideas. In an agency setting, we are jacks of all trades, but we should also be a master at a few. By figuring out your brand – or your “niche” in some cases – you should colleagues, clients and others what you’re great at and can be relied upon to execute at the highest level. Although accomplishments and career goals are extremely significant, defining yourself in your workplace is essential to you being seen as an integral part of your company. – KT

Staying in Your Safety Zone: Everyone has one – a little bubble where you feel comfortable and know that you can get the job done effectively. We’re telling you to pop that bubble. Stretching outside your safety zone for new opportunities, new assignments or to gain more experience will position you as someone who’s willing to take a risk, is confident in their ability to adapt and has a positive attitude. Seek out those stretch assignments and push yourself to get better. This is especially important in the ever-changing communications landscape. – LD

Ignoring Feedback: People do not know you by your intentions; rather, they come to know you and anticipate your actions based on feedback gleaned from others. Whether that feedback is true or incorrect in some way, perception is reality. Don’t ignore the feedback, especially if it’s negative – understand what is being said and then learn how to change it. How do you learn what is being said? Ask for the feedback from both managers and other team members. When you do receive feedback, embrace it and address it as part of your ongoing professional development process.  – LD

The Sandwich: According to Frankel, the “sandwich” method of proving feedback – where negative feedback is positioned between two positive statements – is manipulative and undermines a female manager’s ability to be straightforward.  Women use this technique because they don’t like to be viewed as the “bad guys” and want to avoid the awkwardness when giving negative criticism.  Although this seems easier to do, in the long run, it does not assist the recipient of the news.  In order to be effective, Frankel notes that feedback should be specific, behavioral, and focus on positive results. – KT

Speaking Softly: The volume of our voices is one way that women can manage others’ impressions of them. Speaking softly, regardless of situation, positions a woman as meek and someone without much confidence. By adjusting volume, tone and the type of gestures used, women cam convey a natural sense of authority, self-confidence and proficiency in the topic of discussion. Even the smallest situation – such as a voicemail greeting or asking a question in a meeting – has the opportunity to change the way a woman is positioned as a leader in the workplace. – LD

Sitting in Meetings with Your Hands Under the Table: At your next meeting, look around and survey how men sit around the table versus the women in the room. In many cases, the women will have their hands politely under the table, while men lean in with their elbows and hands resting on the table. This difference in gestures makes it appear that men are more involved in the conversation. Several other tips to keep in mind during meetings:

  • Don’t be hesitant to sit next to the most powerful person in the room. This shows the other individuals that you are not afraid of power.
  • Feel free to sit at the head of the table.  From that spot, you are able to see everyone in the room and everyone can see you. – KT

Photo Credit: Amazon.com

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