By Paula Davis-Laack • December 19, 2011•Writers in Residence
A few weeks ago, I reconnected with two outstanding women. The first, a human resources executive I know from a law firm I worked at; and the second, a talented attorney I worked with several years ago. We caught up with each others’ lives, and I told them about my next business venture. I told them how frustrated I felt about the quality of resources available to high-achieving women looking for practical strategies for dealing with stress, burnout, and work/life issues. I explained that much of what I find either borders on therapy or is what I call “fluff.” Very few folks seem to understand or tailor advice to what high-achieving, driven women really experience on a daily basis. Without hesitating, both women said, “Exactly! People seem to think all we need is a bubble bath!”
They each discussed the guilt they feel working late hours which means less time spent with their kids. We talked about the difficult challenges women lawyers and women leaders face regularly. In addition, each of these women have made the tough decision that they will work while their spouses stay home with the kids, an arrangement that is not the norm for most working women.
So what makes a woman “high-achieving?” It’s a combination of mindset and behavior that causes women to be accomplishment focused and achievement oriented in each of their multiple roles. According to Dr. Harriet Braiker, “the phrase refers to characteristic ways of thinking about achievement, rather than how high on the career ladder a woman may be.” (1)
Other high-achieving traits include (2):
1. A drive to excel and seek new challenges
5. Highly responsive
6. Risk takers (within carefully defined limits)
7. Recognition for performance
8. Passionate about work
Many of these traits are found in high-achieving men, but they often manifest themselves differently in women. Many top performing women carry with them a set of assumptions that impact their underlying thought processes. Some of the most common assumptions include:
1. I have to be perfect and do things perfectly.
2. I should be able to manage it all and accomplish it all without feeling stressed or tired.
3. I have to prove myself to everyone.
4. I can’t relax until I finish what I have to do.
5. I should be able to accomplish more in a day.
6. I can handle it all on my own.
7. I have to be a people pleaser – I’ll please others by doing what they ask me to do (3).
These flawed assumptions produce specific thoughts about work and life that drive a great deal of stress-producing behavior in high-achieving women. Specifically, high-achieving women often overextend their time and resources, fail to delegate, are not assertive in saying “no” or denying requests, don’t ask for help, and evaluate themselves harshly and frequently (4).
Women lawyers are particularly susceptible to this type of stress because in addition to having the mixture of high-achiever mindset and behavior, you work in an environment that affords you very little control over your day and the outcome of the cases and projects you’re working on, many firms and companies are slow to incorporate the flexibility you need and seek, and the standard billable hour structure keeps you locked into a competitive cycle of simply needing to make numbers.
In addition, the very traits that cause law firms and companies to hire high-achieving women are the very traits that law firms and companies fail to manage or don’t know how to manage appropriately. As a result, high-achieving women take their talents elsewhere. Research by Dr. Marcia Reynolds indicates that high-achieving women look for the following five things at work:
1. Frequent new challenges to stretch their talents and grow;
2. Flexible schedules;
3. The opportunity to collaborate and work with other high-achievers;
4. Recognition from the company/firm; and
5. Freedom to be themselves.
So bubble baths, while great, aren’t going to help high-achievers manage their stress long term, and self-help strategies along those lines aren’t going to help companies and law firms retain these talented women. In order to build stress resilience, high-achieving women need to understand both the way they think about themselves, their achievements, and relationships with others and the resulting behaviors.
We have a unique opportunity to create a better discussion about how to help high-achieving women thrive in life and work. Will you join me?
1. Braiker, H. (2006). The type E* woman: How to overcome the stress of being *everything to everybody. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc., p. xi.
2. The list of characteristics and behaviors exhibited by high-achieving women was compiled from the following sources:
DeLong, T.J., & DeLong, S. (2011, June). Managing yourself: The paradox of excellence. Retrieved December 2, 2011, from http://hbr.org/2011/06/managing-yourself-the-paradox-of-excellence/ar/1.
Reynolds, M. (2010). Wander woman: How high-achieving women find contentment and direction. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
3. Braiker, supra note 1, at 157.
4. Id. at 189-190.