If women want to be seen as a strong leaders in the workplace, they need to stop worrying so much. That’s the conclusion of a recent report by CDR Assessment Group, which creates leadership assessment tools for executive management. The report and its related white paper, titled “Cracking the Code to the Glass Ceiling,” purport to measure risk factors that can affect success in the workplace.
The assessment found that a large percentage of women – close to 65 percent – fall into the risk category CDR calls the “Worrier,” a risk that the report suggests may contribute to women’s seeming inability to break through the so-called glass ceiling.
Men, meanwhile, commonly fall into other risk categories such as “egotists,” “rule breakers” and “upstagers.” The problem, according to CDR’s analysis, is that those risk factors don’t necessarily hamper career success the way being a worrier does.
Now, let’s immediately point out that this is nothing even close to a scientific study; it’s based solely on a random sample of 137 “female leaders” and 123 “male leader”s selected from a database of 150,000 employees of 35 companies. (And truly, who knows how random it really is.) But the report does make for interesting reading, particularly in its implications.
Being a “worrier,” writes report author and CDR CEO Nancy Parsons, is a “self-defeating risk factor.” Women who fall into this category “lose visibility and hurt their credibility by not standing their ground and by over-analyzing.” In other words, ladies, keep your anxieties to yourself or you just might worry yourself off the fast-track.
There is a fair amount of data suggesting that something – there’s lots of speculation and research into what, exactly – is holding women executives back. Data from Catalyst’s Knowledge Center show that despite all the changes of the past 20 years, women still hold just 4.2 percent of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies and just 4.5 of CEO positions at Fortune 1000 companies and just 8.1 percent of executive offices.
There’s also a fairly reliable consensus among psychologists that women do, indeed, worry much more than men. And that men tend to be risk-takers, while women are more cautious. In his Psychology Today column The Human Beast, evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber concludes that “Low female risk-taking was favored by natural selection because women taking fewer risks were more likely to survive and therefore more likely to raise children to maturity.”
It’s also a fact that women are more susceptible to anxiety disorders; in fact they’re twice as likely to develop them, reports the New York Times.
So despite the non-scientific nature of this rather opinionated report, let’s accept for now that women do tend to be plagued by more worry and self-doubt than men. Why is that such a problem? Here are seven possible reasons that worry may be hindering your climb to the top.
1. Worry and You’re Perceived as Weak
Let’s face it, to some people at least, worrying equals being fearful. And fear is not seen as a desirable leadership quality. According to Parsons, “A fearful, cautious and moving-away-from-conflict approach results in women being judged as lacking courage and confidence. This behavior is contrary to the expectation that leaders need to tackle tough issues and to manage conflict productively.”
2. Worrying Causes You to Lose Credibility
The more you worry, the less decisive you seem. And quick, firm decision-making is one of the ways CEOs, officers and managers show they’re in charge. When you’re anxious, you seem unsure, and when you’re unsure, you’re less likely to stand your ground. The report doesn’t mince words: “Worriers are not decisive, seem to lack courage, and fail to adapt promptly to changing demands.” But get this – the report found that this is true only for women perceived as worriers; men who fell in the worrier category were perceived as “thoughtful decision makers.”
3. Worrying Makes You Second-Guess Yourself
To look at this one, it’s interesting to note the risk categories in which men typically fall. The biggest category men (approximately 70 percent) fell into was the “upstager” while almost that many (65 percent) were “rule breakers.” Think about it – these are attributes that call for taking action and taking credit – perhaps even more than your share of credit. Meanwhile breaking rules, which sounds like something to be avoided, at least establishes you as a risk-taker. And it’s the opposite of second-guessing, of course.
4. Worrying Slows You Down
When you’re stressed about a plan or decision, your impulse is to brief yourself more thoroughly, review the data, analyze all the options – in other words, ponder, rather than act. And there’s a reason that the word ponder is the root word in ponderously. Thinking too much is seen as over-analyzing, which in turn is the opposite of decisive. As Parsons puts it, “Worriers impede progress, over-study, over-review, and slow down performance.”
5. Worrying Is Self-Defeating
What is worry, when you get right down to it, but anticipation of negative consequences? It’s for this reason that experts consider worry to be an ineffective coping strategy – it tends to result in neither a solution, nor a feeling of relief. Think about your last bout of worry – was it a productive strategy, resulting in solution and action? Or did it cause you to spin your wheels and second-guess yourself into paralysis? For this reason, Parsons labels worry a “self-defeating, diminishing behavior” and warns that women let a tendency to worry “take them out of the leadership limelight and pipeline.”
6. Worrying Impairs Creative Brainstorming
Read the plethora of business books and articles about the creative power of brainstorming, and you’ll see frequent comments about the negative effects of fear and worry. A certain degree of brashness is necessary to throw an idea out and see what others think of it, experts say. If you’re too worried about what others think, or if you’re looking too far down the road analyzing every consequence of your potential idea, you’re liable to clam up. According to Parsons, the process is quite insidious; women “often pull themselves out of the running” – in other words they shoot down their own ideas before others get a chance to hear them.
7. Worrying Is Stressful – and Stress Is Bad for You
This one’s not in the report, at least not directly. But there’s no doubt at all about the negative health implications of worry and stress. Suzanne Segerstrom of the University of Kentucky has conducted several studies showing that worry decreases immune response. High levels of stress have been linked to heart disease and stroke as well as to shorter life expectancy. And women are more likely than men to develop full-blown anxiety disorders which are, in turn, linked to depression.
Clearly, workplace success aside, there are lots of reasons to try to worry less and relax more. In a future post I’ll cover some stress-busting strategies that can help you stay calm under pressure. Meanwhile, if you have experience with the effects of worry on workplace success, please share.