Is Perfectionism Robbing Women of Their Fairytale Career?

Successful businesswoman at the office leading a group
Successful businesswoman at the office leading a group

A study in leadership by Zenger Folkman indicates that women excel in a majority of areas relating to researched differentiating leadership competencies. However, out of the 7,280 males and females studied, only 22% of the women held top management/executive/senior team member positions. Let's look at the competencies that women rank higher in according to Zenger Folkman:

1. Takes initiative
2. Practices self-development
3. Displays high integrity and honesty
4. Drives for results
5. Develops others
6. Inspires and motivates others
7. Builds relationships
8. Collaboration and teamwork
9. Establishes stretch goals
10. Champions change
11. Solves problems and analyzes issues
12. Communicates powerfully and prolifically

This begs the question then - if women clearly excel in 12 of the 16 competencies, what can we do to help women move into these top management positions? Well, it may require us to move beyond just pointing the finger at antiquated leadership structures (i.e. hierarchical, old boys' club, etc.) and offering cookie-cutter women's leadership development programs.

In fact, we have to realize that what we quite often see play out in the workplace is symptomatic of what our employee experienced in her childhood. Her behavioral patterns, mostly unconsciously, are a reflection of (1) emotional influences from her upbringing and (2) societal influences. The emotional influences may have left her with feelings, such as anger or sadness, which she has repressed, but show up in the workplace unrelated to her current career situation. Societal influences came through messages in the media, toys, groups, books or fairytales. Both of these influences have led many women to continually strive for do good-ism or perfectionism.

As a result, you have the classic case of a woman who was continually criticized by her mother as a child. The woman felt like she was "bad" and unwanted. She then continually strives to do good and be perfect so she may gain her mother's approval and praise. Once she enters the workplace, she becomes one of those star employees who goes above and beyond her duties. She jumps in and continually takes one for the team. She is always mindful of praising others (since she didn't receive much of that as a child). However, she's also likely to work for bosses who like her mother don't give much approval or praise. She doesn't push for recognition or renumeration since that would be "bad". She doesn't think that she should have to promote herself - people should see how much she does. Years go on and this star employee is agitated, but doesn't know why. She continually thinks of leaving the company, but doesn't. She knows she's underpaid and just bears it. She goes through an ebb of low performance and confuses the heck out of her superiors since they can't make sense of it all.

Situations like these play out in every organization. There are great organizations that are committed to developing women, but what's missing as part of the development program is the understanding how to help their potential women leaders see how the perfectionism that they've taken on through their childhood and societal programming is hindering them and their company move toward fairytale success. An easy solution for companies is to look at the design of their current training programs and realize that you have to look at your employee holistically in how you develop your programs. Be a bit rogue and weave in components that may address personal growth issues that you think may be more appropriate for your employee assistance program. Career and personal life can't be separated. There are fun ways to approach this topic, such as games.

A game I like to have participants at my corporate training events play at the beginning is called Stomp out Change. Essentially, the participant writes out on several sheets of paper everything that frustrates her about her career and life. She makes a list of things she was told as a child into her adult years that caused her pain. She follows what I call, "ink your stink". Afterward, the participants put their sheets of paper on the floor and just stomp (with stilettos at times) on them. Then they go back and write out everything they want and what they would have told themselves instead. This process is very cathartic and opens up the participants' eyes as to what is often holding them back on their career path.

So while women may excel in leadership competencies, a competency doesn't always translate into action. To get to that place of action, companies need to understand that the underlying tendency toward perfectionism and do good-ism has another layer that is robbing both the company and the employee of achieving fairytale success.

If you're an emerging woman leader looking for a fun approach to creating your own personal brand, access my free personal branding workbook here to help you make your mark on the world and create a fairytale career.