6 Things Women Must Do Differently When Setting Goals
Research shows men and women react to stress, even networking, differently. This changes how you set your goals
In September, I wrote an article called “2 Reasons Why Women Don’t Ask for Help with Accomplishing Their Goals.” Within a day it had gone viral and been viewed and shared thousands of times across many countries. As much as I suspected the topic would hit a nerve because of what I’ve seen, heard, and learned as a speaker, writer, and educator in the field of goal-setting over several decades, I was unprepared for the onslaught of requests I suddenly received to help devise new, gender-aware approaches that will help women achieve more success.
Only in recent years have scholars begun to challenge the notion that the advice in books and shared by motivational speakers about goal pursuit may not benefit women in the same ways they benefit men, particularly because male researchers have often drawn sweeping conclusions from only studying men. For example, it wasn’t until two UCLA female researchers had the “aha!” moment about how men and women react differently to stress that they came up with the unique “tend and befriend” findings that changed the view that men and women experience relationships in the same way. They found that while men experience testosterone-fueled “fight or flight” feelings when they feel attacked, women release oxytocin, which leads them to “tend and befriend,” or nurture and care for others. This discovery has had potent tentacles that continue to help us redefine important ideas when it comes to goal pursuit and other behaviors.
Never Network Like a Man
For example, only in the last year have women been told to discount the well-worn advice to network like men in order to succeed at work. A University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University study found that women who go about trying to build professional relationships in the same transactional way that men use to succeed — connecting people to the powerful relationships that can open doors — end up hurting themselves. While men see contacts as currency that demonstrate power and status, a woman who does the same is treated like a social pariah because it violates social norms — also called “stereotype threat.” Instead, women who achieve leadership positions and attain power are the ones who cultivate a small female-dominated circle that supports them and assists in navigating specific challenges unique to women. This could help explain the overwhelming success of Chief, a new organization that launched in New York City in 2019 to connect high-level women for shared learning, meals, and supportive groups. It quickly had a waiting list of 5,000 women and attracted venture funding to expand across the United States in 2020.
Now that research can be parsed in finer ways that include the different ways men and women experience everything, from the reasons why they run for political office to whether or not they self-promote at work, we have to reexamine whether or not women are armed with the right tools to set, pursue, and achieve their goals. Accordingly, here are some ways we might want to think and act as women if we want to live our best, most meaningful, lives.
Dream A Little Dream of … Us
Typical goal-setting advice usually includes creating a vision board of your ideal future, using the “I” word as much as possible, and seeing yourself succeeding in your desired goals in a “best possible future.” While I still employ some of these exercises, depending on the context, a study of Hollywood movies underscored one of the most important findings from Positive Psychology: “other people matter.” A 2012 analysis of Hollywood movies showed that filmgoers found the greatest joy not from the flicks where protagonists got what they wanted, but from those where the protagonists were able to celebrate an outcome with the people they loved. So if you are going through a goal-setting process, remember to visualize and anticipate the important friends and family members who will be in your ideal future, and not just your desired outcome.
Fill Your Flock With Sincere Believers
Shelly Gable of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has isolated the types of responses that indicate whether or not a person truly wants us to succeed, or is happy for our good news. She calls it “active-constructive responding” or ACR, and says that the responses are always characterized by curiosity and enthusiasm. It is important to have friends, and celebrate with people who love and appreciate you, but it’s more important that you know WHO these people are — not who you think they should be. Since women need each other to “tend and befriend,” don’t forget to create a “believe and achieve” circle that demonstrates, often with witnesses, true joy in your joy (a Yiddish word, firgun, has this meaning, but it has yet to be translated into English!).
Seek Out Specific Advice
In stark contrast to the idea that women are poor negotiators, it’s been found that women are usually given general advice about their work performance during salary reviews or one-on-one meetings, like “You’re doing fine,” or “Keep up the good work!” Men, on the other hand, are given more specific guidance about how to grow their leadership skills, become resilient, and launch themselves onto paying corporate boards. Women need to be aggressive about learning what they don’t know about the playing fields they are on, or locating mentors who give them the difficult feedback that can help them improve. I’ve also found that men almost always find ways to get an organization to pay for an experienced executive coach as an educational resource or benefit, while women balk at even asking. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Invest in Yourself
Julia Child, the beloved chef who translated French cuisine for the American audience, grew up with servants in a wealthy family, and thus never learned to cook. In fact, her first successful recipe was in her role supporting the OSS during the Second World War when she created shark repellent in her bathtub that would protect underwater munitions. Later, when she set about learning the nuances of French cuisine, ingredients, and cooking methods, she did not shrink from investing in experiences that didn’t necessarily result in extra cash. She always understood that paying for a team of experienced professionals around her, and doing things for the experience and not just the money, would pay off later. Her shrewd approach to business was uncommon for women at the time, but Julia knew that just being “nice” and accommodating requests for her efforts and time were not in her best interests.
Be “Humblish,” Show A Tiny Bit of Social Humility
In Good to Great, business author Jim Collins makes the case that great leaders are marked with the virtue of humility. In my book, Getting Grit, I note that good grit is also imbued with humility, and that there are two kinds — intellectual humility and social humility. In the first, you know what you don’t know and you are unafraid of being around people who are smarter, more experienced, and more successful, and it doesn’t rock your confidence. Social humility is the ability to allow others to shine, and to share the spotlight. While I continue to endorse humility as a leadership strength, I am calling it “humblish” when it comes to women because there is research showing that women who exhibit too much humility are not seen as strong or confident, allowing men to talk and walk all over them at times. And new research found that when women were told that they had outperformed men on tasks at work, they still refused to self-promote, leaving the chance to be discovered or celebrated to others.
Lean In To Others’ Success
It may feel counterintuitive, but being an active-constructive responder to someone else’s good news and success could be one of the most important actions you take that will also help you in the long run. People who witness other people taking virtuous stands learn how to behave better, and it can change relationship norms in a workplace if you are seen celebrating another person’s good news. When you practice “ampliship” — amplifying another woman’s successes in front of other people — you remove the burden of self-promotion from them, counter the impact of scarcity thinking, and demonstrate social humility. This behavior will make it easier for you to be included in other women’s networks, broadening your knowledge and support.