The 7 Habits That Make Women Look Small at Work—And How to Overcome Them

Jocelyn Greenky, an office culture and politics expert and author of The Big Sister’s Guide to the World of Work, shares the biggest communication missteps women commonly make on the job, and how to speak up so others listen.

Woman at a white desk.

Jocelyn Greenky, an office culture and politics expert, believes simple communication tweaks can help us better get ahead on the job.

Looking back at my career and knowing what I know now, there were seven crucial habits that I displayed that didn’t serve me in corporate life. I didn’t always exhibit the behavior I should have at my senior level. Here’s my excuse: I didn’t know.  I wasn’t taught in school nor did my parents teach me how to navigate the unspoken rules of work. I learned the hard way, in the shark tank.

Most women have experienced periods where one or more of the below behaviors have taken over.  They all seem to sprout from the same places that don’t serve us:  Self-doubt, fatigue, boredom, PMS (Political Misery Syndrome), impatience, defensiveness, and the absence of personal goals.

If you read through the common communication missteps below and find yourself saying “I do this all the time!” please don’t beat yourself up—it just means you’re human.  These communication habits are easy to change with practice. (Remember, to make any new habit stick, you have to do it at least 20 times in a row.) Start by following the real-world shortcuts to level the communication playing field and make your voice heard.

Habit #1: Apologizing when asking someone to do something.  

Saying “I’m sorry” to every animate and inanimate object in our path for every reason and absolutely no reason at all is one of the most ubiquitous dwarfing behaviors of women. It’s a reputation killer.  The use of the word “sorry” should be reserved only for accepting blame and expressing remorse.  When you apologize endlessly, you may very well be undermining your own authority or worse:  Apologizing for your own power and the position you busted your butt to get into in the first place. You are begging forgiveness for daring to have your own point of view, you are accepting blame, you might be accepting responsibility for someone else’s’ errors or you might be perceived as making excuses.

Start a New Habit:  Replace the word “sorry” with…
  • Excuse me, but…
  • I apologize for any inconvenience…
  • I regret that it didn’t work out the way we thought….

Habit #2: Being out of the loop.

We’re so busy, but please don’t make the mistake of not reading a newspaper or checking out the headlines. The world is changing at every moment and businesses know they must change to survive. If you inadvertently show that your knowledge of the world is dated, it will be assumed that your skills are dated also.  Leaders are decisive by having strong opinions and the confidence to not only express them, but to act on them.  If you fail to share any opinions because you think others won’t like them or agree with them, or worse, because you don’t have any, you will find that you will miss the promotion train.

Start a New Habit:  Scan the news sites daily. 

It will take a total of 10 minutes to get the scoop on the top stories.  (We recommend subscribing to the Daily Skimm to get a quick round-up of the day’s top news items.) Don’t be caught in an elevator with the CEO who mentions a big story and you know nothing.  Try following at least two stories and know the different perspectives—conservative, liberal, alternative, etc.  Also, try listening to opinion leaders or reading an opinion column to open your mind to different viewpoints.

Habit #3: Using the word “just” when talking about yourself or your work.  

Many of us use the word “just” so we don’t come on too strong or look presumptuous or too self-important. We may put ourselves down by using the deprecating word “just” to describe ourselves or the jobs we’re doing. Example, “Oh, I’m just stupid about politics. I can’t remember who is who and which party believes what. It just confuses me.”  Or, “My life is just one bad joke after another. I’m just an accident waiting to happen.”  Or, “I just wrote the memo really quickly.”  When it comes down to choosing between two people for the promotion, the one who is clearly the confident leader and doesn’t advertise her defects will be the one who gets it.

Start a New Habit:  Catch yourself before you make a negative comment about yourself.

Before you say anything, ask yourself, “Would I say this about my best friend?”  If you wouldn’t, then keep quiet or try something more positive. For example, if someone praises you about something you’ve done, don’t deflect the praise by saying something such as, “I just got lucky.”  Instead try saying, “Thank you very much.”  True humility is found in simplicity.

Habit #4: Asking irrelevant questions just to be heard.

Asking a question in a meeting means you’re putting yourself in a position where all eyes are on you, so you have to have confidence in your question or statement to really own the floor. My advice is to only ask questions in a meeting that someone can easily answer and that make the other person look good. Such as, “Ms. Marketing Director, how many names did you add to our subscriber list this month?,” if you know the numbers are big.

It might be tempting to bring up a problem that suddenly hits you while your co-worker is presenting, but have a solution handy. For example, you might say, “Here is the situation, here’s my recommendation, and here are three possible ways to solve it.”

Rather than throw out questions that are burning behind your lips, consider keeping your mouth shut, taking notes, and going away and thinking about it. Reframe your thoughts as statements in an email that starts with: “Here are my reflections on our discussion today: 1. We will need to know what resources will be available for the project before we sign off. 2. We need to know the timeline for X, etc.”

Start a New Habit:  Ask yourself these three things before you speak up.

When you’re in a meeting where you’re trying to impress, ask yourself the below three questions before you ask anything to help ensure that you’re driving the conversation forward.

  • Do I need to ask this question?
  • What will I gain by asking?
  • Is the timing good?

Habit #5: Over-explaining.  

Has your boss ever asked you a simple question such as, “How is that report coming along?” and you found yourself describing every little step you’ve taken on a project, why you did it, and what you’re trying to achieve? Over-explaining makes you appear defensive, annoying or like you have to prove yourself. Instead, you might simply say, “It’ll be in your inbox by Tuesday.” Or, “Everything is going well, but there are a few challenges. I’m working with your assistant to get on your calendar and meet the deadline.” This way, your boss will know you have it under control without having to listen to a painful and drawn-out explanation.

Start a New Habit: Practice the “more is less” approach.
  • Give the bottom line first. Plan on saying only what you have to.
  • Know what your summary statement is. Stop talking after you’ve made it.
  • Always ask, “Any questions?” If the answer is no, don’t give more details.

Habit #6: Complaining.

Complaining is an easy habit to fall into.  It’s a reason to speak when you have nothing else to say. Think: “Damn, it’s hot in here. Are you hot?”  We complain to let off steam, to get sympathy, and sometimes just because it’s fun to indulge in a good venting session.  But when the Complainer takes up permanent residence, we grumble and rumble every time we open our mouths.

Start a New Habit:  Learn to recognize when you complain.

The key to diminishing your complaining habit is consciousness.  Be aware of the complaining you do.  Anything you say that’s negative can be perceived as a complaint.

Take a Post-It pad around with you for a full day and give yourself a mark every time you complain.  More than three marks, and it may be time for complaining rehab. From here on out, make a conscious effort to make the first thing out of your mouth be a positive statement. This isn’t easy to do, but given time you’ll train yourself to start looking at the positive—and people around you are likely to perceive you more positively, too.

Habit #7: Taking it Personally.

The number one complaint I’ve found that men have about working with women is that women tend to take things way too personally.  From my professional experience, men rarely take things personally. I’ve found that guys can compartmentalize, so when they leave the office playground and go home, world order is restored. Men tend to either brag about how well they did or deflect the blame (think: “Of course it was totally George’s fault.”).

Not us women. When there is a conflict, misfired communication, or other disappointment, I believe that women tend to hang on to it, take it home and examine it for endless hours wondering what we did to make George act like a jerk. We care and are so emotionally invested in our work that we often lose perspective.  Other reasons we take it personally may be because our expectations are too high, and, less often, sometimes it is personal.

Start a New Habit: Cultivate another perspective.
  • Evaluate yourself first. Are you tired?  Did you have a fight with your partner?  See if something is out of whack before you respond.
  • Consider the source, and look for the patterns. Some clients or bosses never call or say thanks or good job, and then I find out later that they loved my work.  Ask yourself if the behavior is consistent from the past.
  • Cultivate a little apathy. Say, “So what?” These two words have saved me more time and more aggravation that you can imagine.  So what if it IS personal? So what if you got it wrong? If you did your best given the circumstances, then shrug your shoulders and say those two words.
  • Get a plan. If you have a clear personal plan or something you’re trying to achieve, an event or a person won’t distract you from your larger purpose.  Rather, it’s just annoying noise.
  • Find a hobby. If you have something that you love happening outside of work, invest in it.  I’ve noticed that people who have outside interests don’t tend to take problems at work nearly as personally and are better able to tune out issues at work.
  • Don’t react, distract. Resist. Don’t push send. Don’t pick up the phone. Find something to make you laugh. It’s the prescription to a new perspective.

Jocelyn Greenky is an office culture and politics expert who has appeared on Fox News and other outlets; founder of Sider Road Media, a boutique consulting firm that offers branding and growth strategy to businesses both old and new; and co-author of “The Big Sister’s Guide to the World of Work.”