Why you don’t have to change your personality to advance your career

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Why you don’t have to change your personality to advance your career

Women are always getting advice on how to overcome disadvantages at the workplace to grow their careers—whether it’s leaning in, à la Sheryl Sandberg, or “leaning out” by seeking a sponsor at work. It’s difficult enough to sort through the latest buzzwords to find the advice that really works. It is more difficult still to follow through on that advice consistently in our daily work lives.

For some women, the advice we receive (Talk more! Ask for things! Promote yourself!) can seem to conflict with who we are. Women tend to score higher than men on measures of so-called emotional intelligence, such as self-awareness, empathy and interpersonal relationships. Emotional intelligence also happens to be a predictor of success at work and in life. What our emotional intelligence tells us about how to behave at work can seem like an obstacle to the advice we receive. But it shouldn’t be.

If you’re a woman with valuable emotional skills, does it make sense to abandon them to advance your career? If you’re a naturally modest person, do you have to suddenly become a showboat? If you’re sensitive to the power of relationships and you’re not a “bossy” woman, do you have to become one?

Good news: you don’t have to change who you are to advance your career.

That’s one thing I’ve learned not from any business school study, but from 15 years as a woman working in environmental non-profits. You don’t have to be someone you aren’t or change your entire persona to avoid the pitfalls that can beset women’s careers. Simply add a few specific actions to your work plan. Here are some examples that have worked for me and other women I know.

  • Make sure your boss knows about your achievements. There are “soft” accomplishments that may never find their way into a performance review. Did you manage a difficult process or a bunch of big egos to ultimately arrive at a solution? Were there unexpected challenges you overcame? Send your boss a note—maybe forwarding the product your group created—and let him or her know why the process was difficult, but that you are happy with the result and hope he or she is too.
  • Take advantage of public venues within and outside of your organization to publicize who you are and what you’re doing. Does your organization have an internal newsletter? Does it have a public-facing blog? Start submitting. Whatever the format, put it in your calendar to blog weekly about what you’re up to, or to submit success stories from your work to the newsletter. You’ll wind up with an ongoing, written record of what you are contributing to your company or your cause.
  • Take baby steps toward becoming a known—and valued—presence in meetings and other group settings. Big meetings with big personalities can be intimidating, especially for early-career women still getting their bearing in their field. The advice to “talk more in meetings” is too vague. Instead, focus on saying one valuable thing or asking one valuable question in each meeting. You might think about this item before the meeting, and even write it down or say it out loud a couple times for practice. Make this a habit, even if it’s uncomfortable, and in all likelihood, you’ll see your confidence begin to rise as your colleagues see that you do have something to add to the conversation.

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About the Author:

A native of upper east Tennessee, Melissa has lived and worked in seven different states but is now proud to call Washington, D.C., home. She is a campaign director at the Natural Resources Defense Council and has also worked as a Capitol Hill advocate for the Center For Biological Diversity and as a field organizer for the U.S. Public Interest Group. In her spare time, she enjoys trail running, cooking, consuming craft beers and hanging out with her husband and two cats. Melissa holds a B.A. in politics from Princeton University and is a graduate of the Green Corps field school for environmental organizing.

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