6 Ways Women Are Sabotaging Their Professional Success

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: July 20, 2015

Lean in. Work smarter. Find a mentor.

When we talk about women advancing in the workplace, the meme is the same: The corporate culture is working against you, that if you want to shatter the glass ceiling and break through the old boy’s network, you’ve got to get smarter and be more strategic about the moves you make.

While I definitely believe that women are still bumping their heads against glass ceilings in many companies, I don’t believe that is the main thing holding them back. In my work as an executive business coach for more than 20 years, I’ve noted that women are often their own worst enemies. We actually unconsciously gum-up our rise up the corporate ladder by falling prey to “Sticky Foot Syndrome.”

I have found there are six major ways women regularly sabotage themselves. Take a look and see if any of this gum is on the bottom of your shoe:

1. Claiming It’s just me

Words are our messengers, and women often use words that minimize their message. Just and little are two of the most notoriously self-effacing culprits. “I just wanted to stop you for a minute, because I’m feeling a little bit concerned about something.” You’re not just a little bit anything. You had something important to say, or you wouldn’t have brought it up in the first place.

What message do you want to send? Pay attention to your language, choose your words carefully and for goodness’ sake, do not use minimizing language that takes away the power of your message.

2. Saying sorry

Women are much more prone to apologize than men are when there’s no reason to. When asking a question during a meeting: “Sorry, but I have a question.” When entering a colleague’s office: “Sorry, do you have a minute?” Many women even apologize on their voice mail for not answering at your beck and call: “I’m sorry I’m not able to take your call right now.”

Don’t be sorry! Just say it.

3. Taking the backseat

Many women worry about coming across as too overpowering in case someone thinks they are the b**** word. One stealthily self-effacing move they often make to avoid appearing too almighty is to ask questions they already know the answer to, as questions seem softer than assertive statements.

Know your worth, speak your mind, and try riding shotgun next time.

4. Waiting, waiting, waiting

Being offered a prime opportunity, a man will grab it and go whether he has the skills required for the job or not because he figures he’ll work it out once he starts. Given the same opportunity, many women will pass if they don’t feel 100 percent ready.

Some concrete skills can be learned in a class or with practice; other, more intangible skills are often best learned on the job. No one knows how to do any job 100 percent when they start. Stop thinking you have to be Miss Perfect before saying yes. You wouldn’t have been offered the position if the person didn’t think you were qualified. Step up. Make a move.

5. Wondering What if?

Women (myself included) obsess over what others think of them. Will my husband feel threatened if I make more money than he does? Will people think I’m a bad mother because I’m working so hard? Will my friends be jealous if I become too successful? Sometimes women obsess about the unknown without checking the facts first, to the point where that fear causes them to give up their dreams.

Know what you value most and prioritize those things first, but whatever you do, don’t give up your dreams…. They’ll just come back to haunt you at another time. There’s always a way to make it work.

6. Thinking Do they like me?

Women tend to care too much about relationships. I have a female client who is an executive and whose boss is the president of the company. The president has a frustrating style of micromanaging my client, as well as others in the organization. No one is telling him, but everyone knows how much it is negatively impacting the people and the results.

My client agonized for months about how to tell him to back down in a way that would preserve the relationship. She should have told him much, much sooner, because once she actually did, he was receptive and started to make changes for the better. Earlier communication about this might have prevented countless hours of complaining, lower productivity and unhappiness among staff members.

As women, we all need to break through the glass ceiling of our own potential. To do that, many of us should check the bottom of our shoes. Maybe our own unconscious self-sabotage is keeping us stuck.

So identify who you really are at your core and then move that out into your work in a bold and powerful way.

Related: Woman to Woman: 5 Ways to Make Your Mentor Relationships Blossom

Wendy Capland, CEO and founder of Vision Quest Consulting, is an internationally recognized leadership development expert, best-selling author of the book Your Next Bold Move for Women, and the leading authority on “Stepping into Leadership.”