Are You Being Exploited At Work?

Learn how to overcome the feeling of being less confident in the workplace

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Words by Paula Coogan
September 10th, 2018

Exploitation is a strong word. It’s not something that we ever want to believe is happening to us but let me do a reality check with you- exploitation is defined as “the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work”.

I’m going to park that there for a minute.

I’ve been working with women around the world for over 8 years now and one thing that runs as a common thread throughout so many women in their career is a lack of confidence. You can call it imposter syndrome, people pleasing, not feeling good enough, not being assertive, but these all fall under the umbrella of confidence. Yet, these are women spearheading projects, making big differences to the bottom line, going above and beyond for customers and clients, staying up or staying back late to ensure that the work gets done and is perfect. Prioritising work over wellness.

They are incredibly competent at what they do but yet aren’t confident in themselves. They’re an employer’s dream. They deliver fantastic work and value to the organisation but keep their head down. Does this resonate?

Have you ever thought, ‘I should be getting overtime for this’ or ‘I really deserve a raise’ or ‘I should be the one going to that meeting’ or ‘I deserve that promotion, pay raise, title…’? Have you ever been given an assignment on a late deadline and been told, ‘We know we can count on you’ and you respond by saying, ‘Yes, of course, I’ll get that done by x date’ in your sweetest voice but internally you were cursing them and yourself? We’ve all been there because for many of us, that’s how we were raised- to be the good girl, to be nice, to be competent, to look like we can manage it all without breaking a sweat.

So why do we keep doing it? The truth that comes up mostly for my clients is fear. We play small because we fear being criticised, rejected or not liked. When we play small, we don’t claim our power, our skills or our contribution and we don’t have the confidence in ourselves to claim and own those things; people often take advantage and we end up being exploited. Now, this isn’t just in our working lives; it can be in any area where you’re playing the ‘good girl’ or ‘people pleaser’ role. I haven’t been ’employed’ in almost 10 years but man was I exploited in many personal relationships where I was giving time, energy and attention to others for the very same reasons.

In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talked about the Howard/Heidi study.

Students in a Harvard class were split into two groups. Both groups were given an identical case study about a real-life entrepreneur and described how this person became a very successful venture capitalist by using their outgoing personality and networking skills.

However, for the purposes of the study, one group read about an entrepreneur called Heidi and another group read about an entrepreneur called Howard (the text was identical for both groups, except for the name change).

Both groups were then asked a series of questions about the entrepreneur to ascertain how people felt about the entrepreneur’s personality. And what do you think the results were? One would automatically think that the results would be identical for both groups, right?

The results were surprising. Both sets of students thought Heidi and Howard were equally competent, but Howard was seen as a more likeable colleague and poor Heidi, well, she didn’t fare too well. She was seen as selfish/out for herself and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for”.

Even if you’ve never heard of this study before, you’re probably aware of the results through your own experiences. That as a woman’s power, visibility and success increases, her likability decreases. Now this study was first conducted 15 years ago and since then, more and more women have been rising in power in their careers, taking on more senior and powerful roles. Yes, of course we still have a long way to go but for us, right now, I think it’s important for us to recognise our own perceptions of women in power. If we don’t like them it may be more about us and our own fears of stepping up rather than about them. If we see confident and strong women in a negative light then we’ll actively avoid becoming one.

As I mentioned earlier, most of us have been socialised to prioritise being competent and liked and that often brings us to either a dead end in our career and/or being exploited i.e. treated unfairly in order to benefit from your work. If this has been your strategy, the ‘when/then’ model (When I feel ready/more confident, then I’ll ask for the promotion), how long have you been thinking about it, honestly? We need to turn this around. We simply can’t wait until we feel ready or brave enough to put our hand up for a bigger role, to ask for a promotion or voice an opinion others may disagree with.

Below are my top three tips to balance your confidence and competence at work.

Go for being respected

All of us will get to a point in our careers where we’ve got to make decisions and lead in ways that won’t please everyone. In your career, go for being respected, not simply liked. Ask, ‘What would I do in this situation if I was looking to be respected by my co-workers, rather than worrying about whether or not everyone likes me?’

Ask for what you want

Yep, that’s right, it’s simple enough but let’s face it, too often we pay down what we ask for or we don’t ask at all for fear of drawing attention to ourselves, appearing selfish or being rejected. But how can you expect to get what you want if you’re not willing to ask for it? Does it surprise you to learn that there’s a direct correlation between asking for what you want and getting it? Go big!

Own your worth

When we’re doing well in our careers or even in our personal lives, often our fear of appearing cocky or boastful keeps us from talking about what we’re up to. If you find yourself playing down your joy, your wins, your successes, your great ideas, your great client feedback, STOP. If you need to take baby steps, do that but do something different. Challenge yourself. Keep a success journal or an ‘I am amazing’ notepad and write down all the great stuff I just mentioned. Get into the habit of acknowledging and giving yourself appreciation for what you do. By collecting this information this way, you start to build up a bank of evidence that yes, you are fantastic at what you do and that will help to boost your confidence. Then, start to speak about it to others. Own your worth, your skills and your success because it’s who you are.


Want to hear more? Paula will be speaking at our inaugural Bsummit on September 22nd, 2018, about finding your career path, how to excel at work, and how to find the motivation to pursue your dream job without the fear of failure. Get your tickets below!

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