As published on Forbes
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Women are strong leaders who continue to infiltrate into more prominent and visible positions. Take, for example, the new Congress that just swore in a record 127 women. Or that women lead organizations such as GM, Anthem and IBM. This side of the equation undeniably demonstrates examples in which women have reaped success.
There is, however, another side of the equation, too: a dangerous one that all women should be alerted to. It’s the micro-missteps women make that undermine their leadership. We’ve all been guilty of such missteps, myself included. Any one misstep may not be enough to hamper a woman’s success, but when there’s a collection of them, danger abounds.
A common micro-misstep among women is how they carry themselves physically. It’s not unusual for women to make themselves small by sitting low in a chair, crossing their limbs and tilting their head down.
I was at a professional networking meeting a few months ago when, with aghast, I witnessed a very prominent, savvy and successful female attorney physically shrink herself in front of the room. She stood up to say something, and in the process crossed one leg in front of the other, crossed her arms over her body and leaned her backside against the wall. While highly successful with an acclaimed reputation, her physicality conveyed just the opposite.
Women have to be aware of their presence and body language, including how they enter a room, where they sit and how they stand. These choices have the power to erode or bolster the perception of confidence and credibility.
In another example, I was coaching a female leader who told me that she always sits in the back of the room during meetings. She feels comfortable because she can see everyone. But, through a 360 assessment, she had gotten feedback that she’s perceived as invisible. So, I challenged her to sit in the front of the room at future meetings.
While it sent a shiver of fear through her, she tried it and learned that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it gave her the opportunity to informally network with senior leaders whom she normally didn’t sit near. So, choosing to sit in the front of the room gave her a new vantage point as well as the chance to interact with more senior leaders, thus raising her visibility.
Another micro-misstep is using minimizing words such as “just” and “little.” Think about the times you’ve heard a woman say, “I put together this little report …” or write in an email, “I just wanted to follow up…”
By omitting “little” and “just,” the very same message suddenly conveys clarity and confidence with a hint of directness.
Phrasing statements in the form of a question is another micro-misstep. While it can seem like an acceptable way to express an opinion, it’s really just camouflage. And it’s a self-diminishing act.
Women can turn that camouflage into legitimacy and such self-diminishing language into confidence by making statements. Turning “Do you think we should include Marketing in the project meeting?” into “I suggest we include Marketing at our next project meeting” conveys clarity and confidence, while still allowing for further dialogue.
By making deliberate choices about their physical presence and how they express themselves, women can more clearly convey their credibility and confidence.