Why highly qualified professionals were once insecure children and how is this affecting their decisions today
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Almost every business has a few people who are working more than everybody else.
And common sense will tell you that these high achievers outperform others by 2x or 3x.
But common sense is wrong.
Stats show that they actually outperform the average people by 16x!
This is what we call professional superwomen (and supermen).
They are usually highly qualified experts in their field and you can find them in management, in sales & marketing, in customer service, in finance or they are independent consultants, trainers and coaches.
Yet, their incredible results are coming with costs that are often overlooked.
The amount of pressure they hold on their shoulders is enormous.
But this pressure is rarely coming from their external environment. It’s more of an inner pressure that the professional superhumans create for themselves.
The inner pressure makes their life hard.
Why does it have to be hard?
In my experience…
…most of the highly qualified professionals were insecure children when they were little.
But what’s more important, is that the insecurity from childhood never disappeared.
It just changed its form.
Here is why.
Insecure children tend to worry a lot.
Because they are worrying a lot, they are preparing at least twice as much as the other kids.
Just to make sure they don’t fail and they will not lose the love of their mom and dad.
Later, when they are adults, they are usually the most qualified person in the room.
Sometimes they are tired of being the best, and they don’t want to carry all the weight on their shoulders.
But they can’t escape it anymore and I will tell you why in a second.
Professional superwomen and supermen tend to work alone. Even when they have colleagues, all the responsibility is on them (not on a team).
They surround themselves with people that are a lot less capable or just juniors.
When they are hiring, they tend to make compromises and accept people that are not 100% up for the job (and they know it from the beginning).
They think people can change and they genuinely want to help others to grow. But they end up spending a lot of time doing other’s job, training others and managing them.
This is what I call the “Superwoman” effect.
And it works for “Superman” too.
Remember the insecure image of Clark? It’s just the opposite of the confident Superman.
The weak side of professional superwomen and supermen is communication.
They prefer the action (focusing on the work to be done) and they don’t know how to leverage other people’s contribution. They never learned how to rely on the power of a team. Just how to rely on themselves.
In a nutshell,
- they are usually the most qualified person in the room
- surround themselves with juniors or people less skilled than they are
- keep all the responsibility for them (even when working as a team)
- they are perfectionists – not allow themselves to make ANY mistakes
- work much more than everybody and feel overwhelmed
- will not ask for what’s theirs (or will ask too late)
- hate negotiating or asking for more money
- feel sales & marketing as a burden (would happily delegate it)
- and will care genuinely about the other people
I’m purposefully presenting a lot of drawbacks here because what we usually see are just the benefits of superhumans at the workplace. So, I’m trying to balance the perspectives for you to understand the whole picture.
Now, let’s see where is this coming from.
Where is the Superwoman (Supermen) Effect coming from
I’m not a psychologist. So, I will not go to whatever happened in childhood. We all have different stories.
I’m an expert in influencing language. So, my approach will be about what can you do today. How can you improve your inner dialogue today and tomorrow’s dialogue with others so you can get more control in your life, and change something in your profession (if you want to).
Let me introduce to you the operating metaphor (based on the work of Suzette Haden Elgin, Margaret Hennig and Anne Jardim).
An operating metaphor is very much like the operating systems. Like a Windows or macOS – they provide rules which govern how the system works and demonstrates what’s important and how to react in different situations.
An operating metaphor does the same thing for people. Their thoughts and actions are based on the operating metaphor in a similar way that apps and programs are running based on the operating system of your laptop.
The good news is that we are going to talk only about 2 operating metaphors.
The Traditional Male Model and the Traditional Female Model.
A little disclaimer: It’s not just because someone is a man that they always use the Traditional Male Model or if they’re a woman they have the Traditional Female Model.
Many men operate from the Traditional Female Model and many women who use the Traditional Male Model and everything in between.
Sometimes it’s not an either or. Sometimes you’ll find people somewhere in the middle.
And it also varies by topic or by context. The way you are at home may be very different than how you are at work or when you’re on holiday. It may be different when you’re stressed out to when you’re feeling very laid back and calm.
Please keep this in mind and avoid generalization because you will see it everywhere. All the coverage in the media about Men vs. Women, about gender differences, about inequality and harassment, are generalizations.
Statistically, more women tend to operate out of a Traditional Female Model and more men tend to have the Traditional Male Model.
But, when it comes to everyone’s situation, we don’t go with the stats because it’s really not about which of the genders someone has. It’s about the Operating Metaphor that we are operating from.
The Traditional Male Model
The Operating Metaphor for the Traditional Male Model is “life is like a team sport”.
If that’s true (in someone’s mind), then “you win some and you lose some”.
You can lose now, but you could definitely try again because there’s always going to be another game.
The rules in a team sport are there to be outsmarted.
In a football game, the players try to get away with things and hope the referee doesn’t see it.
In baseball, you try to steal a base if you can get away with it.
And deceiving the other team, faking them out, is highly valued.
In a team sport, everyone has a role. You need all the players to play the game and they are expected to play their part.
That’s why people operating from the Traditional Male Model know how to leverage the power of a team as you will see later in this article.
The Traditional Female Model
The Operating Metaphor for the Traditional Female Model is “life is like a traditional classroom”.
So, what is true in a traditional classroom and what are the rules?
The rules have to be followed. Cheating is punished. Failure is a complete disgrace, but hard work will be rewarded. If you work hard at school, you pass your exams and get promoted to the next grade.
In a traditional classroom, it’s not just your work that’s being evaluated. You are evaluated as a person. It’s personal.
So, if you’re doing poorly, you are a bad student.
It’s all about who you are and the consequences are real (it’s not a game!).
In a traditional classroom, you don’t rely on a team. You rely on yourself. There are almost no collective exams – so, communicating and influencing others is not required.
That’s the major difference between the Traditional Male Model and the Traditional Female Model. In the Male Model, it’s a game and you need to play it like a game. You even hear people talking about business as a game: “Here’s what to do if you want to win!”
In the Traditional Female Model, it’s not a game. It’s real. And what you do and what happens has real consequences. If you fail an exam, YOU do not pass.
The Downside of the Female Model
In this article, I’m only focusing on the Female Model because we are talking about professional superwomen and supermen.
The Female Model sees life as real.
When people believe “it’s real, it’s not a game” they tend to avoid taking unnecessary risks, they want to make sure every little detail is right, since they are being evaluated as a person, and so, often they get stuck in perfectionism.
When life is real, this means that having authentic relationships is essential – you might hear people say: “I can’t work with people I don’t like.” (This is different than the team sports metaphor – you need a team to play – so even if you don’t like the goalie, you still need them!)
Taken to extremes, people operating from the Traditional Female Model can become quite inflexible at times and they are also likely to feel hurt very easily – and often!
Look what happens when someone operating from the Female Model is criticized – they often take it badly (because “it’s real”).
People who operate from the Female Model also are more likely to be manipulated and exploited.
Why are they more vulnerable to this?
they care about other people, so when someone asks them for help, it’s hard to resist and
they are conscientious about their work.
Maybe you heard this before “the team really needs you to do this. No one else can do it. So, can you come in on the weekend to finish this? We would really appreciate it.”
The Upside of the Female Model
The Female Model is about authenticity, caring for others and following the rules, doing the right thing – behaving ethically.
And more importantly, when someone is operating from the Female Model, they tend to be on a mission.
It’s not just a game for them, just to beat the competition.
It’s much more. It’s a mission.
Some of the significant accomplishments that we admire nowadays came from people operating from the Female Model.
Take Steve Jobs for instance.
Yes, he was aggressive with his employees. He took everything in product design very personally and was known for blowing up over small design elements that other people might say are unimportant.
Look at Elon Musk.
He is on a mission to go to Mars. He wants to save humanity, and it’s not a game for him. He was willing to lose all his fortune for his mission.
Look at Oprah. She became so successful as an interviewer because she created authentic relationships with everyone she interviewed. She cared about them as people, not just as interview subjects to amuse the audience. Even the audience was real to her, not just spectators to a sport.
So, these are just 3 well-known people to illustrate the bright side.
Now let’s look at a macro level and how these operating metaphors are affecting our society.
Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to Them at the Office (original headline of an article published by Dr. Lisa Damour in The New York Times on Feb 7, 2019)
Recent research supports The Traditional Male and Female Models.
If we are looking at what happens in schools, we can see that the girls are more disciplined and consistently outperform boys academically. They study harder and get better grades.
As we said previously, The Traditional Female Model is more conscientious about their schoolwork.
Unfortunately, all the existing research is not taking into consideration the operating metaphors and it is focusing on gender differences only. Is like focusing on hardware and ignoring the software. Still, we realize now that “the software” is equally important as “the hardware”.
Maybe these 2 Models are an explanation and a possible solution to the staggering fact that men hold 95% of the top positions in the largest public companies.
This huge disproportion is not due to a shortage of competence but rather to a complex set of beliefs that we find in The Traditional Female Model that we frequently find it in what we call the professional “superwomen” and the professional “supermen”.
People having The Traditional Male Model may advance faster in their career because they take everything lighter, like a game. “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in […] Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.” wrote the journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, trying to investigate why are fewer women in leadership positions.
Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, wrote a bestseller on this topic, called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. If you read the whole book throughout this perspective of Traditional Male and Female Model you will get a deeper understanding of “the software” that is running our lives.
Most people will blame “the software”.
“Oh, it’s because I have a Female Model and that’s why I can’t do that”.
But the problem is not The Model.
The problem is when you get stuck in one Model.
It’s like knowing how to work only on Windows, or only on macOS and just with a handful of apps without updating them ever.
Some people are more inflexible than someone using Windows ‘98 and expecting to be competitive in today’s market.
The solution – a linguistic approach
You may wonder now how do you stay flexible.
If you are a professional superwoman or a professional superman, you know you have the tendency to become anxious and rigid at times.
The situation becomes serious, and you can feel how you accumulate the pressure on your shoulders and the stress adds up.
You may say to yourself (and others) words like “This is important”, “In can’t fail”, “I can’t work with people I don’t like”, “How can they didn’t see this detail?!”.
Instead of speculating what is the root of the problem (which we may never find it) let’s focus on the words. The words are concrete – even a 10-year old can work with them.
So, what I propose here is a “reverse engineering” process: to take the words from the Traditional Male Model and use them to change your inner dialogue.
These words will change your mind into a more flexible one. You will become more entrepreneurial and reduce stress in your day to day life.
Choose a place where you want to exercise your new inner dialogue.
It may be in the kitchen while you’re drinking your morning coffee, it can be in the car while you’re commuting, or it can be in your shower before going to bed etc.
Whatever you choose, make sure you have a few minutes for yourself without other distractions.
Choose a trigger to remind yourself to exercise your new inner dialogue.
It may be an alarm on your phone, an email you set automatically or just ask your mom to remind you (I’m kidding).
Choose your favorite phrases and write them down to have them at hand. You can have them on your phone, on a piece of paper or on your bathroom mirror.
Here are a few examples:
- It’s a game – you lose some, you win some
- It’s a game – you can always try again
- Everyone has their place in a team
- No player is there forever
- I play my role in the game, others are doing theirs
- I choose to play with the A-Players
Practice this for 2 weeks, a few minutes a day, especially when you are under high pressure in a project or when you just need a different perspective.
You may think this is a simplistic solution (especially if you’re a superwoman and you need it to be hard). It is simple, but not simplistic!
Words that change minds might appear simple, but they are very powerful. Try it out for yourself and see how it works.
If you would like to learn the complete methodology of Words That Change Minds click here.