Women and the Language of Leadership: How to Promote Yourself

How to promote yourself as a woman and the Language of Leadership.

When I was asked to design a workshop to empower team members to engage in healthy self-promotion internally at Google, I was already aware of the inherent challenges that keep individual contributors from raising their voices — especially women.

My work with professional women has shown me first hand all the ways women limit themselves with self-doubt and silence. Not speaking up — about our achievements, our abilities, our ideas — is a major reason we are still woefully underrepresented in positions of leadership. Why do we hold back? Why is it so important to change this bad habit? And how do we do it in a way that feels aligned with who we are as women?

metrics

Women operate under different metrics.

“I don’t feel like what I’ve done is worth sharing.” These words came from a female team member I interviewed for the Google project when I asked why she was sometimes reluctant to share wins. What this comment demonstrates is how we often hold ourselves to impossible standards that say, “You’re not good enough.” It’s what keeps us from raising our hand to share an idea at a meeting or asking for a raise. This is a sharp contrast to the way men tend to operate in the world.

“Women applied for a promotion only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men applied when they met 50 percent.”
The Confidence Code, Kay and Shipman

Too often, we women hold ourselves back until we’re 100% sure we can predict an outcome. We use internal measures to gauge whether we’re good enough to even try. But these measures are not necessarily accurate, and can frequently hold us back from what we’re capable of doing. What we forget is that confidence is built on having successful experiences, and having those experiences requires taking action — whether we believe we’ll be successful or not. But it’s not just our own internal measures that hold us back.

Women feel uncomfortable about taking credit for successes because we’re judged on different metrics than men. “Social conditioning tells us to shut up and look pretty,” says Meredith Fineman, author of Brag Better: Master the Art of Fearless Self-Promotion. And not only do we get this judgment from men, but from other women too. I have experienced this first hand. I remember being called “stuck up” by other girls in high school because I exhibited some healthy pride around an achievement I’d had. It didn’t feel good, and it took me what felt like years to recondition myself to stand tall again.

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” —Madeleine Albright

Whether you struggle with self-promotion or not, it is required if you want to grow your career. Here’s why.

microphone

Nobody will know what you’re doing unless you tell them.

This is no time for shrinking daisies. Since the pandemic hit, every day I hear of more people getting laid off so companies can remain afloat. The stakes are high for not sharing how you’re contributing. Sure, you’re doing your job, but if you’re not actively voicing your accomplishments, you’re essentially waiting and hoping someone will notice them. They won’t.

You have to be explicit in how you’re adding value. You have to quantify your contribution. You have to be willing to accept praise. The benefits of drawing attention to what you’ve accomplished go beyond how you’re perceived at work — they have been shown to make you happier and more productive too.

We have to know we’re making progress in meaningful work.

From their research around knowledge workers and productivity, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer created The Progress Principle. It states, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” And seeing that progress is dependent upon reflection. What worked? What didn’t? How can we do it better next time?

Reflection is necessary for closing the loop in learning, and without it we struggle to internalize progress. Because women tend to share wins less frequently, we miss out on the benefits of learning from the mistakes we made along the way. We forget that success is built upon taking imperfect action, and so we perpetuate a cycle of keeping quiet and staying small. Here’s one way we get stuck.

We assume the share has to be all about us for it to “count” as a win.

In my women’s confidence workshops, I’m always amazed at how hard it is for women to actually speak up about a success they’ve had. Countless research studies show that women minimize their achievements, and what I see time and again is that women struggle because it feels too uncomfortable to take the spotlight. But here’s what’s flawed about thinking the win you share has to be all about you.

“Very little work gets done alone,” says Michel Riyad Nabti, co-founder of Responsive, a technology-based manager development start-up. “Real leadership is about modeling good behavior and including others in your wins.” But women get tripped up because they think they have to announce from the hilltop, “I did this! I did this!” in order to “get credit” for success. In fact, the opposite is true.

balance

It’s important to strike a balance between “we” and “I” in any accomplishment.

I often see women err on the side of using too many “I” statements when self-promoting. My sense is that we’re overcorrecting for previously not raising our voices at all, or we think that’s the only way to truly “get credit.” Here’s why not striking a balance between the “we” and the “I” hurts us.

It’s been shown that women often use “I” in ways that can undermine our leadership. In all cultures, women use the word “I” more than men do. And it’s been shown that this overuse of “I” can lower your status. Think about it: even when we experience men using an overabundance of “I” statements to draw attention to their successes, it starts to feel uncomfortable. So how can we share a win in a way that feels authentic to us as women?

compass

Tell a success story where you are the guide, not the hero.

Basic story structure shows us that in every story, there is a hero and a guide. The hero has a problem that she needs help with. The guide shows up to help her solve it. When sharing a success story, we must learn to flip our role in the story. As a woman we have the capacity to be the hero, and the guide.

You’re sharing the story of how the hero (your client, your team, your company) solved a problem with your help. Taking the spotlight off yourself like this makes it easier for you to communicate your win as a service, not as self-aggrandizing behavior.

Casting yourself in the role of the guide, not the hero, also gives you permission to express emotion about what it felt like to help the hero achieve their goal, which makes it easier for you and others to feel happy for what you achieved.

Use the 3-Part Story Framework.

Use the 3-Part Story Framework.

For the Google training I delivered, I created the 3-Part Story Framework to help them share wins internally, and I am sharing it with you here today. Use this framework as a script for how to share success stories, accomplishments, and lessons learned from taking imperfect action. Remember to cast yourself as the guide, not the hero, and celebrate those who helped you overcome the challenges along the way.

We are at a critical time in our collective history, and leadership has never been more important. It is our time as women to step into leadership and get busy solving some of the very real problems we are facing in our communities, our nation, and the world. The first step on that path is in acknowledging our own strengths, abilities, and achievements to see that we are truly powerful beyond belief. Now let’s get to work.

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If you struggle with communicating for impact, or just want to master this skill set so you can be more visible as a leader, check out my live online workshops.