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Deadly Sins for Women at Work
How HR can address over-apologizing, sharing too much and ‘perfectionism prison’ 

By Dana Wilkie  7/21/2014
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Aimee Cohen doesn’t mind telling on herself.

She shares this story to illustrate how she, like so many women, practice bad habits—Cohen likes to call them “sins”—that can sabotage their careers:

Cohen admits that she tends to buy into the myth that “everything has to be perfect.”

“It’s self-imposed,” said Cohen, author of Woman UP! Overcome the 7 Deadly Sins that Sabotage Your Success (Morgan James, 2015). “It’s the Martha Stewart syndrome—you can’t bring store-bought cookies to your child’s class; they have to be homemade with homemade sprinkles. I fall into this trap. Writing this book really brought that home. If I was going to wait for every word in it to be perfect, it would have never made it into your hand. It’s paralyzing that you can second-guess yourself over and over.”

That behavior is an example of what Cohen calls “The Perfectionism Prison”—or, “when good is never good enough.”

“Men are rewarded for being big risk-takers, and they’re encouraged to dream big and live large and even to fail,” said Cohen, a career counselor and speaker who admits to her own career failures. “You never fault a man who’s made and lost millions, because that’s the high-risk game of business. For women, it’s the opposite. We are not celebrated in the same way when it comes to risk and failure, so we are naturally more risk-averse.”

Sinful Behavior

Some of the seven “sins” that Cohen outlines in her book:

n  The Kindness Conundrum.

The sin: Being too nice, too apologetic and afraid of being called the “-word.” “Women over-apologize as a way to avoid conflict and to foster peace and harmony,” Cohen said. “We impulsively blurt out ‘I’m sorry’ even when we haven’t done anything wrong. Excessive apologizing is perceived as a sign of weakness, a lack of confidence and competence, and an inability to lead and make difficult decisions.”

An example: One of Cohen’s clients wanted to apply for a director’s job, but when she discovered that a friend and co-worker wanted the same job, the client decided against submitting her name. “Instead of risking the relationship, she politely declined, withdrew her name from consideration, and her friend and co-worker got the position,” Cohen said. “It was something she deeply regretted.”

n  The Affirmation Addiction. 

The sin: Needing a constant pat on the back, or failing to stand up to less-than-affirming behavior.

An example: Cohen said women often have difficulty finding their voice when presenting before colleagues or clients, particularly when audience members try to hijack the presentation by speaking over the woman or challenging her. “Instead of professionally and authoritatively putting that person in her place—saying ‘I’m happy to answer questions when I’m done with my presentation’—women get easily derailed because they don’t want to appear combative, and it does them an enormous disservice.”

n  The Divulgence Disease.

The sin: Oversharing, or what Cohen calls “showing up and throwing up.” “As women, the way we bond is we share our personal fears and anxieties, but it’s inappropriate and career-damaging to do that in the workplace. You don’t have to tell everybody everything.”

An example: One of Cohen’s clients revealed that when the chairman of a committee asked which committee member wanted to present at the next meeting, the client raised her hand and confessed that “I couldn’t possibly, I get so nervous in public speaking, I’m just afraid I’d faint.” That, Cohen said, is “revealing way too much. The question wasn’t ‘Who doesn’t want to present?’ Rather than leading with her strengths—like taking minutes or creating an agenda—the first thing out of her mouth was what she felt most insecure about.”

Help for Sinners

Carole Richter, principal of Denver-based HR Consulting LLC, said HR managers can recognize these sabotaging behaviors and step in.

“You must know yourself before you can lead others and affect change,” Richter said. “We learn this in leadership training, but we could do a better job of reinforcing this message.”

One way to do that is by using personality assessments, which Richter said can provide valuable insights into women’s tendencies that don’t go over well at work.

With that knowledge in hand, she said, HR managers could arrange training and development opportunities such as coaching, mentoring, women’s groups and motivational speakers.

Cohen acknowledged that when hiring or promoting, an HR manager’s personal biases may reinforce some of the “sins” Cohen writes about by discouraging behavior that’s not traditionally “female.”

“The first step is to uncover and address these hidden biases through specific training, assessments, 360-degree feedback from employees, role playing, and hiring and promotion statistics for the organization,” she said. “It's important to identify inconsistencies when it comes to hiring and promoting practices. Does the organization say it promotes women, but only has one woman on the leadership team? Does the organization promote equal pay, but the female employees are paid less?”

“Accountability buddies” and presentations that address these “sins,” Cohen said, can help “influence the corporate culture to make sure the organization is more sensitive and inclusive of women.” Other strategies HR professionals can utilize include holding the organization and individuals accountable for their words and behaviors, and being “a positive role model and advocate when it comes to empowering women in the workplace.” 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM. 

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