How to Empower Women in the Workplace: Moving Beyond the "Expert Mindset"

How to Empower Women in the Workplace: Moving Beyond the "Expert Mindset"

HR professionals can empower women in their organization by helping them set a strong path for career growth.

Working on how to empower women in your office? Surprisingly, the best answer may not involve further study and becoming an expert. At least not alone. A new book suggests that overly focusing on being an expert can actually hold women back. In the new book "How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job" leadership expert Sally Helgesen and bestselling author Marshall Goldsmith tackle a variety of issues, challenges and mindsets that prevent women from getting ahead in the workplace.

As part of a series on must-read books for HR leaders, we're exploring their biggest takeaways. Here's a closer look at the key lessons from this book and how HR leaders can apply these insights to their own careers and helping their entire workforce thrive.

Setting a Path for Career Growth

Helgesen and Goldsmith note that women's visions for success — and this can apply to all employees — have unique definitions. They write, "Instead of viewing money and position as the sole or even chief markers of success, women also tend to place a high value on the quality of their lives at work and the impact of their contributions." The paths people take to achieve that success can often be rooted in what has worked before.

Yet as women advance in their careers or seek growth, falling into old habits can actually be a barrier. "Your definition of rising is always going to be personal, individual to you. But one of the biggest impediments to rising is also personal and individual: being blind to the behaviors and habits that keep you stuck." It's important for women to be committed to their own career and thinking creatively about how to grow, what their vision is and how their habits may be supporting or impeding their progress.

Moving Beyond the Expertise Mindset

One of the most common misconceptions, say Helgesen and Goldsmith, is that being an expert will help employees move along in their career. They note, "Trying to master every detail of your job in order to become an expert is a great strategy for keeping the job you have. But if your goal is to move to a higher level, your expertise is probably not going to get you there. In fact, mastery of your current role often serves as a useful strategy for keeping yourself in your current role." It's important to deliver on current roles, of course, but it can actually backfire as employees become indispensable in their job and fail to advance.

The authors continue, "You've assumed expertise is the surest route to success. And so you put enormous effort into learning every aspect of your job and assuring that your work is letter-perfect. This feels proactive, but it can set you up to remain on an endless treadmill, constantly setting a higher bar for yourself as you seek to always go the extra mile."

It's hard to advance when focusing so much on learning and perfection. Often, employees lack the time, energy or vision to invest in the very things that can help them reach their goals. Meanwhile, they'll end up being passed over and surpassed by other colleagues who "are taking a different route, trying to do the job well enough while focusing their time on building the relationships and visibility that will get them to the next level."

The authors suggest that many women — although this same concept can apply to any employees — get stuck in an expertise mindset in part because expertise is how women "earned a seat at the table." From having to prove that you're as competent as your colleagues to impressing difficult bosses, expertise is necessary and expected in every job. Yet expertise alone won't get women ahead; they also have to be unafraid to signal that they're ready for a change. Being told you're indispensable can feel like positive recognition on one level. If an employee is ready for a move, however, it's important to signal that. They can do so by asking for more responsibilities and enlisting allies to support them in crafting the career they want.

How HR Leaders Can Help

Put expertise into context

It's important that your team demonstrates mastery of its current role. Yet HR leaders and managers can help employees get unstuck by focusing on long-term career development. Help your team members define where they want to go, and explore the steps they need to take in order to get there. Define what expertise looks like for success in the current role, how it will help workers advance, and what other areas they need to focus on — such as building leadership expertise and getting more recognition for their contributions.

Focus on building relationships

The authors write that one woman who was frustrated at her lack of growth in her role consulted a mentor who said, "It's rare to get promoted because you've done your job flawlessly. You're most likely promoted because people know you and trust that you could be contributing at a higher level." Educating people on the importance of networking is one step. Another is strategically investing in networking opportunities, shadowing programs, cross-departmental lunches and mentoring programs that help individual workers foster the connections to help them grow. Take steps to create the context for larger industry networking.

Ultimately, there's no single playbook for growing a career or how to empower women in the workforce. But encouraging employees to let go of the expert mindset is a great place to start. Recognize that expertise is expected in every job, but that perfection and endless learning loops won't get anyone ahead. It's important to balance excellent performance with a long-term vision toward career growth, and to help build relationships and visibility that will put employees in the running for positions when they arise.