The Good Girl Complex

April 22, 2013 | comments

The Good Girl Complex

This week I'm introducing a guest coaching blog from one of my fellow directors at Talking Talent, Harriet Beveridge. Here, Harriet shares some thoughts on a theme she’s been dealing with recently in her coaching – The Good Girl Complex:

There are many attributes that are valued throughout an employee’s career e.g. being proactive, resilient, technically capable. However, there are also many important differences between what is needed at junior and mid levels versus mid to senior levels. Some obvious ones are delegation, moving from technical focus to management or strategic focus.  A big one that often get missed is the shift from saying ‘yes’ to everything to sometimes saying ‘no’.  Examples include standing one’s ground in the face of disagreement, managing limited resources and conflicting priorities, and managing different stakeholder views.

This shift can create numerous challenges for individuals. At a purely behavioural level, how to say the word ‘no’ seems straightforward. Logically we get that we need to prioritise and delegate, but at a feelings level it can be very challenging. This is because there are some limiting beliefs lurking. Typically: 

  • 'If I say no I’m not being helpful’.
  • ‘If I say no they won’t like me/I can’t have a good working relationship with them’.
  • ‘I can’t be a great performer if I say no’.  

We give ourselves a falsely black and white view of the situation.

In my coaching, I observe that some industries make this more extreme than others. So for example in professional services firms the culture of exceeding client expectations can be confused with doing everything. In the legal industry there is often a touch of smoke and mirrors around the appraisal process. All this meaning that employees learn that their rewards are based on external opinion and they can lose the habit of self-evaluation.

In my experience, this is something that women feel particularly keenly.  There seems to remain a bias in the way many girls are brought up, that they must ‘be nice’ and ‘be a good girl’. One of my coachees joked ‘I blame Brown Owl, I’m sure she told us to put others before ourselves and I think I’ve gone a bit overboard!!’ Whether nature or nurture, women also often feel a strong responsibility for team success, a need to not let people down, a perfectionist streak. The consequences of this are a risk that they take on too much and thereby set themselves up to fail. 

So what is the solution? A coaching approach tackles not just the surface behavioural issue but also the deeper patterns of feelings and beliefs. So for example a behavioural strategy might be to figure out how to phrase things positively. Notice the difference between ‘I can’t do that until Thursday’  and ‘I can get that to you on Thursday’ or ‘yes, but…’ versus ‘I understand your support for option A and I’m suggesting option B because…’. At a beliefs level it’s noting that it’s a false choice to say ‘either I say yes OR I’m a bad employee’ and to explore ‘how can I be a fantastic employee and focus on the most valuable priorities?’ When thinking how can I be candid AND supportive, know that you can be both!


Chris Parke, CEO of Talking Talent