Women, Is Your Sensitivity Putting the Brakes on Your Career?

Last Updated Oct 8, 2010 2:53 AM EDT

Martha Stewart still holds power, despite her past legal troubles.
Tina Brown presided over the closing of Talk magazine. Carly Fiorina lost her job at Hewlett-Packard and was widely criticized while she was its CEO. Martha Stewart served jail time. And...who cares? Brown now runs the enormously successful website, The Daily Beast, and is back in the center of important networks of ideas and people. Fiorina is in a tight race for Barbara Boxer's California Senate seat, with a reasonable chance of prevailing even in a traditionally Democratic state. And Martha Stewart remains in control of her publishing and merchandising empire.

Everyone faces setbacks. What sets apart successful men and women is the way they handle them. An ability to surmount obstacles can keep you on top, but retreating to struggle with your own emotions and reactions can sideline you.

Research shows women are especially attuned to what others think of them. In many ways, this social sensitivity is a useful skill. But overprocessing commonplace reversals of fortune can keep you from getting on with life, ultimately limiting your power. These straightforward guidelines can help you face adversity so that you stay on track for success.

Don't Succumb To "Just World" Thinking. We like to believe that the world is a just and fair place, and that people--including ourselves--get what we deserve. When good things happen, we think the beneficiaries deserved them, and view them in a more positive light. And when bad things happen, we often "blame the victim" for causing the difficulty--even if that victim is us.

It's obviously useful to see what we did to contribute to some career setback. But when we take what might have been a random or unavoidable problem as a reason to devalue our capabilities, we set in motion a psychological process that can easily lead to giving up or setting lower goals.

Don't Be Embarrassed. When management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld was pressured into resigning from Emory over an alleged incident of vandalism, he was embarrassed, although the charge was unjustified. After all, accusations made by those in authority often have the ring of authenticity--even if they're false. Following the "just world" notion, people under fire look to see what they did to get into trouble.

The problem with being embarrassed is that it makes you want to withdraw. If you don't get out and tell your story, someone else can--their way.

When a Spanish executive was fired from his company, his boss offered him a nice severance and said they could keep the circumstances of his leaving quiet. "No," the executive replied, "I intend to tell everyone about the horrible mistake you made." He did just that--and soon found another, better, job.

People are often uncertain about what to make of a situation. If you act ashamed and embarrassed, they will naturally assume you must have done something wrong. If you act confidently and are willing to go public with your version of the story, your road to redemption will be much easier.

Don't Take Things Personally. Reed Hastings, the extremely successful CEO of Netflix, was a self-admitted complete failure at an earlier CEO stint. And that shouldn't be surprising. No one is successful all the time. Entrepreneurial activities face a high risk of failure, so it's expected that even extremely successful business leaders will have catastrophes now and then.

To be able to recover, you need to be able to put things in context. Even the best athletes don't win every match. Or, as Tina Brown put it on the Today Show after Talk folded, "Every career has a flameout, and I've had mine."

Not taking things personally permits you to get beyond the self-doubt and blame that can become immobilizing.

Don't Give Up. Dr. Laura Esserman, breast cancer surgeon and medical change agent, embarked more than a decade ago on a set of initiatives intended to cut the cycle time for learning what treatments work and what don't for women with various types of the disease. The obstacles were enormous, but Esserman persisted; when she couldn't move things forward at her local institution, UC San Francisco, she made progress in national forums and with the National Cancer Institute.

Today her many initiatives are hitting on all cylinders. Described by many as a force of nature, Esserman's success comes not just from her medical and organizational talent but from her dogged determination. Like water wearing away stone, persistence is one of the most important qualities leading to success.

Socialized to be attentive to the judgments of others, people think in ways that handicap their ability to obtain power. Emotions, including confidence, are contagious. Others aren't likely to invest in or follow you if you don't convey that you think you will be successful, and without self-confidence, you probably won't persist in your efforts. Believing that the inevitable setbacks everyone faces have profoundly important information about your capability to be successful in the future saps confidence and makes it less likely that you can or will expend the enormous effort required to obtain positions of influence.

So learn from setbacks, but let the experience roll off you like water off a duck's back. And by all means, don't get too caught up in what others think about you-their thinking is affected by how you act and what you do anyway.
  • Jeffrey Pfeffer

    Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he has taught since 1979. Pfeffer has authored or co-authored 13 books on topics including power, managing people, and evidence-based management. He has lectured in 34 countries and has been a visiting professor at London Business School, Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University, and IESE in Barcelona. Pfeffer has served on the board of directors of several human-capital software companies, as well as other public and nonprofit boards.

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