Men and women alike engage in self-sabotaging behaviors in the workplace – but, according to author and leadership expert Sally Helgesen, there are certain habits more likely to hold women back in their careers. Her book, How Women Rise, co-authored with leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith, details 12 of these self-imposed roadblocks that prevent women from achieving their true potential.

“The behaviors we’re talking about here are not unique to women or men, but they are the behaviors that are most likely to get in the way as women seek to move higher,” says Helgesen.

Three of the 12 habits are particularly self-limiting, including a reluctance to self-promote, an unwillingness to utilize their relationships and, perhaps most common of all, minimizing.

Habit 1: Reluctance to claim their achievements

Women often shy away from self-promotion, even when they’re performing at the top of their game, which raises the question: Why?

Helgesen finds that women’s reluctance to toot their own horns can come from a misplaced moral concern. They view promoting their achievements as crass and obnoxious. In their view, it is better to take the high ground by staying silent. In reality, she says, they’re actually falling on their own swords and potentially missing out on an opportunity to convey useful information as well as gain visibility for their achievements.

“Whenever you hear someone say, ‘Well I’m not the kind of person who…’ then they’re setting up a kind of a moral superiority framework for themselves that’s probably not ultimately serving their interests,” she says.

Yet women who take an all-or-nothing approach to self-promotion actually fall into the trap of binary thinking.

“One of the things I most often heard is, ‘Well if I have to act like that jerk down the hall to get noticed around here, no thank you,’ Unfortunately, this self-limiting belief sets up an either/or situation that puts you in a lose-lose position.”

Solution: Find a middle ground

A critical step in overcoming this detrimental mindset is becoming aware of the problem, then pushing yourself to expand your view of self-promotion. Moving past either/or thinking helps unlock other options by empowering you to promote your achievements in a way that feels authentic.

“You’re not either going to copy the behavior of the most self-serving, self-important blowhard in the organization or just keep your mouth shut and expect everything to be noticed. You need to find a middle ground. How can you not become the blowhard and not shy away from your achievements? That’s a more empowering question. It also helps to treat what you do as information that could be useful to your team, your boss or your organization rather than just being all about you.”

Habit 2: Building rather than leveraging relationships

Helgesen also discovered in her research that, while women excel at building strong relationships, many don’t allow themselves to benefit from these connections. Much like their reluctance to claim achievements, women are hesitant to leverage their network for their own interests because they don’t want to seem like they’re using people.

“Rising in our career by engaging people to help us in a reciprocal way is the ultimate win-win. Unfortunately, women are often reluctant to do this because they don’t want to be seen as users. Once again, this form of binary thinking is unhelpful and undermines our success,”

Solution: Believe in your own value

Helgesen challenges women to flip their notion of networking on its head by placing more value on what they bring to the table. Rather than feeling averse to “burdening” a business contact by asking for a favor, view it as a gift.

“If you feel like asking for help is always a form of using others, then you’re not really seeing yourself as a player who could be a very valuable resource to them in the years ahead,” Helgesen says. “In addition, research shows that the primary reason people help others is that doing so makes them feel good about themselves. So why deprive people of an opportunity to feel good about themselves by potentially helping you?”

Habit 3: Minimizing

When people “minimize,” they use words and body language that unconsciously undercut their own significance and abilities. Compulsively apologizing is one minimizing behavior many women tend to exhibit, as well as language such as “this will only take a moment,” “this is probably silly, but…” or “I just have one quick question.”

“By framing whatever you’re saying in a way that proactively diminishes its importance – because you’re saying it may not be important, for example, ‘this will just take a second’ – you’re implying that you don’t really have the right to be here, because your idea is not that sufficiently compelling to take up even the tiniest bit of time,” says Helgesen, who notes that minimizing behavior is especially detrimental to those in leadership positions, or those hoping to position themselves as leaders.

“You can think you’re being a nice person by minimizing, but ultimately, people either disregard what you’re saying because you seem to as well, or they can read it as not very trustworthy.”

Solution: Enlist the help of others

If you notice that you have a tendency for minimizing, enlist other people in your professional network to help pinpoint your challenges and hold you accountable. This could look like taking a co-worker aside before a meeting and asking them to note your minimizing behaviors, or perhaps asking a mentor to honestly evaluate how you regularly minimize in your interactions.

By engaging others in your self-development, you’re more likely to “make long-term, sustained, positive behavioral change,” says Helgesen, who adds that this technique also opens up productive conversations in the workplace.

“It’s a very small thing, but it can be a strong force for positive cultural change, because you’re creating an environment in which people have permission to acknowledge their own vulnerabilities and ask for help, which means other people have a stronger role in helping each other achieve their highest potential. And none of us can achieve our highest potential on our own – we all need help to do that. That sends a powerful message and represents a place where I want to live and work.”


  • Craig Dowden, Ph.D.

    Certified Positive Psychology Coach and best-selling author of "Do Good to Lead Well"

    Craig Dowden, Ph.D., a certified positive psychology coach, is on a mission to share evidence-based leadership principles. In particular, he is passionate about sharing the science of leadership, team, and organizational excellence with the people he serves. An inspiring and thought-provoking executive coach and an award-winning keynote speaker, Dowden partners with clients from diverse industries and sectors, who benefit from his drive, passion and insight. Dowden prides himself in providing world-class content to his clients. To date, he has interviewed over 65 CEOs of top North American companies, including McDonald’s, IKEA and VIA Rail. He has also interviewed widely known best-selling authors and TED speakers, including Marshall Goldsmith, Daniel Pink, Adam Grant, Susan Cain, Barry Schwartz, Marilee Adams, Adam Bryant and Doug Stone. He routinely integrates these conversations and insights into his client work. Dowden combines the key learnings from these interviews, along with evidence-based principles from the fields of psychology, leadership and organizational excellence in his best-selling book, Do Good to Lead Well: The Science and Practice of Positive Leadership (ForbesBooks, Feb. 8, 2019). The book outlines the return on investment of the six pillars of positive leadership – self-awareness, civility, humility, focus on the positive, meaning/purpose and empathy – and provides a practical and engaging roadmap showing how executives can effectively demonstrate these behaviors within their day to-day leadership practice, for their benefit, as well as for the benefit of the teams and organizations they lead. Called “ideal reading for people who want to make a positive impact in their organizations” by best-selling author Daniel Pink, Do Good to Lead Well is resonating with top corporate executives and international thought leaders, with endorsements from best-selling authors and top-rated TED speakers such as Adam Grant and Marshall Goldsmith, as well as over 20 CEOs of leading organizations. Dowden shares his views and expertise through articles published regularly in business and HR publications including the Financial Post, HR Professional, Canadian HR Reporter, Canadian Manager, the Huffington Post (U.S.) and Psychology Today. Dowden was recognized as one of Ottawa’s “Forty under 40” business leaders by the Ottawa Business Journal, a select group of individuals who “exemplify leadership, entrepreneurship and community building.” He will be a regular contributor to in February 2019 upon publication of his book. Dowden received his Doctorate in Psychology with a concentration in Business from Carleton University and completed his Bachelor of Science in psychology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. He currently lives in Toronto. For more information, please visit