The burnout epidemic. A chronic lack of diversity in senior roles. The rise in stress, anxiety and depression. Together, they paint a clear picture. Our current ways of working are failing women. But if we want to be part of turning things around, it’s not enough to point fingers at "The System". Creating meaningful change requires us to look honestly at the part we play – and when we recognise that, we've taken the first step towards changing it. If you want to support women to create results without falling into burnout, read on.
Before we dig into the ways we can unconsciously block women from reaching their full potential, I want to make one thing clear: It’s important that you don’t slip into blame when you consider the ways these patterns might show up.
After all, it’s only in relatively recent history that women were even allowed access to the spheres of education, commerce and politics. So it’s no surprise that much of our culture is built on distinctly "masculine" foundations – assumptions and habits that aren't always a great fit for our strengths. These hidden structures can lead to our biggest challenges – but because we don't tend to see them, we're blind to the way they can show up.
So the way we sabotage other women is the very same way we often sabotage ourselves – without even realising we're doing it. It’s not your fault. Most of us are only applying the things we’ve been taught will lead to “success”.
But it is time we changed that – and today I want to explore 5 ways you might inadvertently be sabotaging the women around you – and how to stop.
#1 Focusing on the outcome, above all else
Goals are important. In life and work, it can often seem that results are what matter – and it’s easy to make them the focus of our energy, whether we're supporting a client or prioritising our own day.
The trouble with taking those outcomes as our only focus is that it tends to lead to a very linear way of thinking. We’re here at point A, and we want to get to our goal in point B.
Best rush as fast and as hard as we can to the finish line... right?
Trouble is, whether or not we reach a specific goal, there will always be more to do. The next target to hit, a new priority, a fresh challenge.
Rather than focusing entirely on the outcome, what might happen if we paid greater attention to to the process? Our day to day habits and activities – how we maintain our energy, build sustainable systems, embed and integrate our learning along the way?
If you lead a team, you might think about the rhythms and structure you have for communicating and supporting one another, or the environment in which your work is taking place. If you work with clients, try asking them to reflect not only on what they’re doing but how they’re doing it.
Reaching our goals at the expense of our health and sanity is a trap many, many of us fall into. What else might be possible if we tried doing things a different way?
#2 Only celebrating "wins"
A side effect of focusing entirely on goals is that we have a tendency to celebrate our achievements, and try to forget the failures.
Of course, it feels good to reach an income target or nail a deadline. But that’s often not where our biggest growth lies. It can be in the mistakes we make or the lessons we learn that the real gold is to be found.
And if we’re only celebrating when we achieve things, it’s a small step from feeling a sense of blame, shame or failure when we miss the mark. Those emotions are understandable. It’s important to make space for your feelings.
More interesting to explore might be: What have I learned from this? What would I do differently next time? What new possibilities have opened up?
How might you support others to embrace the opportunities for learning that “failure” brings?
#3 Demanding more… and more.. and more...
Superwoman is the archetype of our times – she never stops, she achieves everything she sets out to (and more), and she holds herself to the highest standards in everything she does.
When you’re in “Superwomen” mode, it’s astonishing what you can achieve.
Maybe you’ve witnessed a client or colleague dealing with a devastating personal situation, and yet simultaneously pulling off a intensely challenging professional coup. (Maybe you’ve done it yourself).
But when we run on the adrenaline Superwoman requires for long periods, the effect on our physical and mental wellbeing is unavoidable.
Once we’ve put on that cape we tend to get locked into achieving mode: setting the bar ever higher, rising earlier and finishing later, constantly adding things to our plate. If you're a leader or manager, that "push" energy quickly filters down to your team.
But that level of busyness can become an addiction, and a destructive one at that.
If you notice a client or colleague “burning the candle at both ends”, it can be easy to praise all she’s doing. If she’s talented, competent and prolific, it’s tough to suggest she slow down. And if you're working in that mode yourself, you might be modelling the behaviour your team are adopting.
But at some point, that energy needs to be replenished.
How can you help create space for the women who are doing the most? Encourage them to take something off their plate, instead of adding to it? Model a different way of doing things?
#4 Fixing problems
Mate needs a new job? You agree to review her CV, give feedback and make a few introductions. (While you're at it, you may as well create a LinkedIn profile and draft a cover letter).
Issue with a spreadsheet at work? Hell, you’ll stay late and get it sorted. It’s not technically part of your role but you’ve always had a knack for numbers, and it bugs you that it’s taking so long.
By nature, women are often problem solvers. We hate leaving people in the lurch and we thrive on the buzz that comes from swooping to the rescue.
Trouble is, when we’re perpetually fixing problems for everyone from our team to our friends, we can inadvertently find ourselves doing more harm than good. After all, taking a challenge off someone’s plate deprives them of the learning they might have gone through to arrive at a solution themselves.
And when you’re constantly “coming to the rescue”, you’re ensuring that the decisions made around those problems are handled the way you want them to be. It might be one way to do it, but there are probably also other ways to approach them.
A more effective approach might be supporting others to solve problems. You could offer advice, support, or practical action – but let them continue to stay in the driver's seat.
How can you help the women in your world to create their own solutions – even if that means making mistakes or learning lessons along the way?
#5 Taking sole responsibility
Being responsible is a high value for many of us. We take our roles seriously and we value integrity and performance.
But when we insist on taking sole responsibility for the impact we want to have in the world, we’re blocking ourselves from accessing the holistic support our communities can offer.
If things don’t go to plan, it might be tempting to shoulder the accountability. “I messed up. I failed.” might seem as though you’re saving those around you from challenging feelings.
But it also cuts them off from being part of the solution.
How could you shift that story to “What can we do differently?” or “How could we turn this around?”
Creating that sense of shared ownership, and of trusting and valuing the input of those around you, is a very different way of working than we often see modelled.
What new results could you create if you were able to foster a spirit of true collaboration?
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