Dear Leaders, Our Assumptions May Be Hurting Us

By Susan MacKenty Brady on March 4, 2016

Susan-Brady-Linkage-Leadership-Blog

In my last post, “Women leaders, it’s time to own our part of the problem,” I shared the seven common hurdles that women face as they ascend the leadership ranks. In the coming weeks, I’ll address each hurdle in more detail and will offer practical insights that I’ve learned from leaders, like you, who have helped shape my thinking along the way. My hope is that you will feel supported on your journey of self-discovery, and that these ideas will help you think about how you can become the very best version of yourself.

Today, I’m focusing on bias. Before you think: “I know what bias is and it doesn’t apply to me…I’m not biased…” Think again.

Bias refers to the beliefs and assumptions that we have accepted (perhaps unconsciously) that keep us from training for and overcoming the other six hurdles. Our research at Linkage is clear: Bias is all around us. We are taught about our limitations as women from the moment of birth. And we have learned these limitations so well that we no longer need external confirmation of our limitations: we have internalized them. Women leaders must first understand these self-limiting barriers and then make conscious choices to think and act differently to address them.

Over the course of my career I have assumed a few things that simply don’t serve my own journey of professional growth. Some have even limited my leadership impact and progression within my organization. Things like:

  • If I work really hard, I’ll be rewarded financially and with increased responsibility—there is no need to ask for this.
  • If I delegate too much, people won’t see the value that I bring and think I’m a slacker—or worse yet—they’ll think that I’m not committed.
  • The people that matter the most know that I will do whatever it takes to get the job done, and they will look out for me.

My biggest, and perhaps most detrimental assumption has been the belief that the authors of The Orange Line: A Women’s Guide to Integrating Career, Family & Life found in their research: At some level, I believed that my career was secondary to my partner’s and that making my professional aspirations central to my life meant that I didn’t have my priorities in check.

I struggle with this more than I care to admit. Sometimes it shows up as feelings of guilt. Other times, it’s the comments that I receive from well-intended people in my life who aren’t trying to be offensive. Comments like: “I just don’t know how you do it!” (My inner snicker is “Seriously? I’m pretty sure I’m not benchmark-worthy!”) How do I do it? I do I not do it.

The reason I have an internal reaction like this is because at some level I still believe that I care too much about my career. I would bet my firstborn child that my husband has never had this thought. Is it because he doesn’t love his work as much as I do? Perhaps. But even when he has found great rewards at work that come with demands of his time (thus being away from the kids), I don’t think he’s ever questioned his priorities. He associates the demands of work as a necessary part of his role as the “provider” for our family. On a bad day, my reaction to this is: “Hang on! I provide too!”

I’m further tortured in my own mind by the fact that I have found very meaningful work. I get to live out my purpose daily through the work I do. This doesn’t mean that I don’t love my children or my time at home, it does mean that I tend to shy away from admitting just how much I love my job. I do. I’ll admit it. I LOVE MY JOB. Like many, I have moments that are more fun than others at work, but all in all, I am deeply grateful to have found and be able to make a contribution to my chosen profession. If I check in with my own assumptions, I’m only supposed to use the word LOVE in CAPITAL LETTERS when referring to my children.

Alas, this is where I’ve found that my work as an executive coach and teacher in the space of self-leadership comes in handy: I know that once I become aware of a belief or assumption that is in actuality a barrier to my success/advancement/goals/happiness, I can make different choices. My choice—and I choose this over and over, sometimes daily—is to get deeply okay with the fact that I love the work I do in the world, and I love being a partner to my spouse and a mother to my children. Some days look pretty imperfect, but that’s a different blog post.

In the meantime, here’s what I do about this and some other not-so-great assumptions that frequently play out inside my head: I notice them. Then, I push pause. I reframe the thought by talking myself out of shame or contempt about it, and I look for evidence that supports a more compassionate and supportive view. Sometimes I need to tap my friends. I might revisit thank-you letters from clients about the impact of my work. I might read an inspirational book about the rewards of living out our purpose. All of this serves to remind me that being in the company of a happy, fulfilled Mom is actually good for my daughters.

Every now and then I check in with them about all of this. When I ask what they think life would be like if I didn’t work full time, they groan and say something along the lines of “OMG, NO! You’d be miserable—and if you’re miserable, we would be too.” Smart girls. We all have unconscious bias, beliefs and assumptions that we need to get conscious of and question or reframe. My hope is that while my kids will have their own fair share of hurt to navigate through in their lives, they can learn early on how to shift to a new way of thinking so their limitless futures remain that way.

As I continue to shift my internal bias, I have to be just as intentional about my external bias as well. Many of the women who report to me are young and are just starting families. As a leader, it’s my responsibility to provide them with a bias-free environment. My behaviors need to reinforce my belief that every leader can effectively play the role of working mom. I advocate for this regularly when I see others perpetuate bias about working and mothering, so that we can provide a working environment in which young women can thrive and grow. We don’t know what the limits are; the more we can recognize and mitigate our bias, internal and external, the more joyous and productive our lives will be.

Tell us: What is a belief or assumption you have about how women “should be” that no longer serves us?

Posted in Blog, Executive Development, Inclusive Leadership, Leadership Development, Talent Management, Women in Leadership

About Susan MacKenty Brady

Susan MacKenty Brady is Executive Vice President of Global Program Strategy & Development at Linkage. She is responsible for guiding the global growth and development of Linkage’s signature immersion learning institutes, as well as public and virtual programming. Now in its 18th year, she also serves as the co-chair of Linkage's Women in Leadership Institute, which boasts a network of over 8,000 alumni worldwide. Susan's personal mission is to help leaders step in to lead their best life, and in support of that mission, she authored The 30 Second Guide to Coaching Your Inner Critic.

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