Too many of us frame questions or justify our decisions as if we’re looking for permission. It’s a bad habit and unnecessary.
Over the last month I’ve delivered a number of assertiveness workshops for women and there is a consistent theme: many women have been very well trained at minimising their needs and deferring to others.
This manifests in a variety of ways:
- We feel apologetic if we cannot do something – even if it comes at a cost to us. This means we frequently say yes when we mean no.
- We feel the need to provide too much contextual information about a certain path or decision we’ve made or intend to make. This makes us sound uncertain or defensive.
- We rationalise the bad choices we make in a way that suggests someone else’s needs are more important than ours: ‘I had to stay back after work because no one else was able to…’ This is submissive behaviour and results in us doing more than our fair share or being taken for granted.
- We second guess ourselves, fail to speak up, or pose our ideas as questions: ‘I’m wondering if we might consider… as an option?’ This makes us sound uncertain and affects our credibility.
- We wait for someone to tell us we’re good enough or encourage us to apply for a promotion rather than take the initiative ourselves. This means too many women are at lower levels than they should be.
- We feel bad about asking our supervisor for career guidance or support. We say, ‘Do you think I’m ready for the next level yet? What should I work on?’ instead of the more powerful: ‘I’m currently exploring my career options as I know I’ve almost outgrown this role. I’m after a promotion into… and I’d like your support. Is there anyone you know who could help me?’ This places too much responsibility on the shoulders of someone with less interest in our careers than us. If we don’t take responsibility for our careers, who will?
Our impulse to minimise requests, sound apologetic, ask permission or rationalise decisions is an unconscious default to the decades of conditioning we’ve had as women. In some cultures and for some women, it’s more extreme than for others.
Regardless, it does not serve us well – individually or collectively. It has the consequence of reinforcing stereotypes about our capacity to lead, make decisions and advance into senior positions.
We must all pay more attention to the unspoken messages we deliver about who we are, what we need and what we’re capable of. We must then begin to overwrite the old habits with new ones and speak up about our needs, ideas, aspirations and plans for action.