A close friend of mine recently asked me if I could meet with her sister and give her some professional advice.
So I met her sister, Sarah, for dinner on my next visit to Seattle.
Sarah worked as a program manager at a large tech firm in Seattle. She’d been in this role for a few months, but she felt things weren’t going well.
She said it wasn’t the role itself – she was technically strong and knew what needed to be done. She was struggling with her professional relationships – with her boss, colleagues, and direct reports. Sarah didn’t feel they treated her with respect. It was clear they liked her, she said, but they didn’t take her seriously.
Sarah said that every time she spoke in meetings, her colleagues ignored her comments, for the most part. Every time she asked her boss for resources, he gently dismissed her request. Every time she came up with a new idea, her boss didn’t warm up to it. She said she struggled to win people over to her point of view. She got along just fine with her colleagues, so that wasn’t the problem.
Sarah couldn’t see what she was doing wrong. “Could they just be biased because I’m a woman?”
Things had gotten so bad that of late she’d been avoiding interacting with her colleagues because she was feeling inadequate.
As Sarah spoke, a number of things caught my eye.
First, what she wore. Sarah wore a white top paired with a flowy, floral skirt that ended just below her knees. She wore long earrings that dangled as she spoke. And she had shoulder length hair that she tied up into a really short ponytail. She had no make-up on.
She’d come straight from work, so I gathered this was how she dressed for work. Sarah had good taste and looked attractive. But not powerful. And certainly not like an ambitious manager.
Second, I noticed her body language. She slouched, and folded her arms across her chest. She smiled a lot and nodded every time I spoke. She didn’t make a whole lot of eye contact. And she kept adjusting her skirt and fidgeting with her ring throughout dinner. Sarah’s body language was not projecting confidence.
Third, I observed how she spoke. Her voice was soft, and her speech tentative. Her statements sounded like questions, which made her seem unsure. And every time she asked a question, her expression made her look like she was lost.
From what she was saying, I could tell Sarah was bright and passionate. But her appearance, her body language and her style of talking made her seem weak and confused. She was pleasing, but not powerful.
Sarah is not alone. We’ve been conditioned to think that women with powerful body language are aggressive. We don’t have enough female role models around us to learn from, especially not in leadership roles. And we don’t realize how strongly our appearance and behavior affect how we’re perceived.
Dressing powerfully and using strong body language plays a big role in how seriously we’re taken at work. They shape our relationships and impact our ability to persuade people. When they are weak, we unknowingly sabotage ourselves.
Why wouldn’t people just tell us we need to improve our appearance and body language?
- It’s awkward. People may find it inappropriate to talk to us about these topics. And our women colleagues and friends may be making the same mistakes themselves.
But here’s the bigger reason no one tells us about them.
- Most people simply don’t know that your appearance and body language are influencing their opinion of you.
It’s subconscious. They may walk away thinking that you’re not competent. And they may not even realize that their opinion of you is based on your body language, rather than on how competent you actually are.
This was certainly true in Sarah’s case. “Wow! And I thought I looked confident and impressive!” Sarah said.
The good news – these were things Sarah could quite easily fix! She had sound technical skills, she had the confidence that came from that knowledge and she was determined. All she had to do was to make people see her the same way.
Sarah was excited. “How do I know what to work on?”.
Sarah and I chatted about Rekindle. And Sarah left the meeting with a spring in her stride, determined to succeed.
Are you holding yourself back in ways you don’t realize? It’s time to show the world who you really are!
Wish you the very best!
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