6 Hiding Strategies That Keep Women From Playing Big

READING TIME: 7 MINUTES

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After years of hiring and managing women and, more recently, coaching female founders, executives, and leaders, I’ve come to an interesting realization: incredibly talented, visionary, and hardworking women often miss seeing their own brilliance, even though they recognize it in others.

To understand this phenomenon and why it’s so pervasive, I read Tara Mohr’s Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message. Tara is an entrepreneur and expert on women’s leadership, and she has incredible insights into why women often underestimate their power.

“I wrote this book because I’m tired of meeting women who have important messages to share but whose self-doubt is keeping them quiet,” she writes. “I’m tired of encountering woman after woman deluded by the myth that she needs to be more something – more qualified, more prepared, more expert – than she is in order to share her ideas. I wrote it out of allegiance to the art not yet made, the companies not yet founded, the books and op-ed columns not yet written, the critiques not yet voiced. I wrote it because all those expressions of goodness, of insight, of beauty, hang in the balance. I wrote this book because I want our world to be changed by you.”

Women entrepreneurs, leaders, professionals, and creators all face a unique set of challenges. There are external barriers like stereotypes about how women ‘should be’ or ‘act like’ during the hiring process, in meetings, in board rooms, in front of venture capitalists and so on. But many internal factors also contribute to them holding back and playing small.

For generations, women have had to fight for equality: the right to speak up and to push for formal policies, legal protections, equal pay and so much more. And over the centuries, this fight for equality has changed the way women see themselves on the inside, too. It has shaped the way we think about ourselves and what we see as possible in our lives and at work. 

Today I am excited and hopeful to discuss these internal factors, because they are well within our control and because we have the power to change them immediately.

In her book, Tara outlines six hiding strategies women use to downplay their brilliance and “play small.” She also explains how, with a few simple yet powerful moves, they can step beyond these hiding spots and start “playing big” instead.

Hiding Strategy 1: This Before That

According to Tara, “This before that,” thinking, where we say “I need to do X before Y happens,” is an incorrect belief we hold about the order in which things need to happen. For example, you might say something like, “I really want to teach a workshop, but first I need to create a website, build the entire course, get several people’s feedback, incorporate that feedback, and save up money.” Or you might rationalize,“I would love to meet some senior executive, but I need to figure out what my ask is and how the conversation should go before using my one opportunity or wasting their time.”

Tara is here to tell us that there is no law, no need for “If this then that.” You don’t have to build out everything before selling your workshop. Why not just put the workshop out there—just the tile is fine!—and gauge interest by seeing how many sign ups you could get before designing the entire thing? 

Similarly, there are no rules about who you can contact and when. Lunch with a senior executive may be the exact thing you need to gain more clarity. 

Hiding Strategy 2: Designing at the Whiteboard

Are you thinking more than doing? Do you have a product, service or an idea that you have been pondering and working on, without getting feedback from those who might be interested in it?

According to Tara, “When we design at the whiteboard, we feel as if we are doing diligent work, but much of that work turns out to be unproductive, because what we create isn’t aligned with our intended audience. The whiteboard is safe for us … because it doesn’t expose our ideas to criticism or rejection.” It doesn’t allow us to iterate, improve, and fine tune our offering to our audience. 

Hiding Strategy 3: Over-Complicating and Endless Polishing

As women, we tend to lean towards perfectionism. We tend to add more and more elements to our creations. We tend to tell ourselves that we need to fix just one more thing or layer in another angle or feature before we can launch. 

Overcomplicating and continual polishing slow us down and delay our opportunity to get our work into the world, where it can be reviewed and can help us learn and adjust as we go.

Hiding Strategy 4: Collecting and Curating Everyone Else’s Ideas

This hiding strategy is interesting as it can be very subtle. It may come across as us putting ourselves out there when we decide to collect the stories of others. But what we are really doing is muting our own voices and excluding our point of view, or perhaps only including a very small portion of it in the conversation.

Women often believe that they need to defer to trusted authorities rather than relying on their own personal experiences.

“Of course, sometimes projects like these are needed,” Tara writes. “Sometimes, a woman’s true calling includes ‘gathering the voices’ on a topic. Other times, collecting others’ perspectives serves as a needed stepping-stone that helps her discover her own. But far more often, brilliant women feature others’ ideas to sidestep claiming their own thought leadership.”

Hiding Strategy 5: Omitting Your Own Story

Many of us believe that it would be unprofessional to tell our personal stories and the impact they have had on our desire to do the work we do. 

“The firm division of the professional and the personal, the ‘objective expert’ persona, the delusion that the work we are drawn to has nothing to do with the core questions in our hearts—these are outdated ideas. A new way is possible, a way that acknowledges that when we have the privilege to choose our work, we move toward topics that matter deep within our souls.”

Hiding Strategy 6: I Need the Degree

“One of the most common hiding strategies is also one of the easiest to overlook, because it’s something we generally regard as a good idea: getting more (and more and more) education,” Tara says.

If you decide to change careers from engineering to brain surgery, then additional education is a great idea. However, too many brilliant, competent women pursue additional degrees, certifications, and licenses to make themselves “more” when they are “enough” already. Also, getting more education tends to be much easier, more structured, and much clearer than playing bigger.

How to Start Playing Big

Once you recognize the hiding strategies holding you back, you’re ready to “leap” beyond them, as Tara puts it. A Leap is essentially an action step that propels you out of a hiding strategy. It:

1. Gets you to start playing bigger now, according to your definition of playing bigger.

2. Can be finished in one to two weeks.

3. Is a simple action.

4. Gets your adrenaline flowing.

5. Puts you in contact with the audience you want to reach or influence.

6. Pushes you forward with the intent to learn.

    What could be considered a leap? Hosting a meetup, sending a memo to your higher ups about a strategy idea, or setting meetings with hiring managers in the fields you are interested in are great examples. But ultimately, your leap will be what you choose to make it.

    How will you stop hiding and start playing big? I think the answer is all about taking action. I read somewhere that change is 20% insight and 80% action. Actions create the momentum and energy to propel you forward. However you choose to do it, just BEGIN. 

    As Tara says, “We need your voices, your work, your contributions in the world. In the minds of women around the globe lie the seeds of the solutions to climate change, poverty, violence, corporate corruption… In millions of communities, organizations, companies, and families, women know what needs to be done. Playing big is doing it.”

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