Are you sabotaging your success without even realizing it? As a long-time executive coach, I’ve seen a lot of self-defeating behaviors. When I ask, to quote Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” many people think those behaviors are no big deal.

Trust me on this, we all engage in various forms of self-defeating behaviors, even if it’s just on occasion. It can be as simple as eating an extra slice of pie. That’s one that most people know, but what about the ones that you aren’t aware you’re doing?

The problem is that today these patterns that have worked for a very long time (often learned in childhood) aren’t working for you as they once did. In fact, I often see these simple behaviors sabotaging the success you think you deserve. They are no longer serving you in the way you would like them to….

These patterns are as subtle as a nervous laugh, a tucked chin or rocking on your toe. As you read through these two common behaviors, you can see how in certain contexts these will get you what you want (otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it, right?) but I see many successful women engage in these two behaviors at the expense of their ability to be taken seriously and be seen as confident and credible.

Indirect Eye Contact

Eye contact is the easiest and most immediate non-verbal that people notice. It is also the most often misunderstood and misused.  Indirect eye contact is read as shy or lacking in self-esteem. Direct eye contact can be a non-verbal signal of confidence, yet if it is too direct, it can be mistaken for being pushy or demanding. Good eye contact is best defined as consistent, not constant. It is in knowing how to mix the two that is a major part of the art of building rapport and relationships.

Over the course of normal, positive conversation, eye contact is a series of long glances instead of intense stares. How much is too much or too little varies with the culture, gender, and context? Eye contact works best when both parties feel it’s “just right”; so take your cues from the other person and match their preference for how much direct eye contact to use.

A tilted head with indirect eye contact can mean you’re not understanding what is being said, being coy, shy or flirting depending on your other non-verbals. When you tip your head with direct eye contact it can mean you are being inquisitive and showing real interest in the other person.

Consistent eye contact with an upright head position can mean you are engaged and you are serious or it can mean you are confrontational depending on what other behaviors you are exhibiting to create a pattern.

Smiling for the Wrong Reasons

With more than 20 common variations on the smile and smiling being cross-cultural, smiling is an important part of our lives.

However, your smile can make you look less powerful if you are smiling too much, at the wrong time or showing too many teeth while smiling. A quick way to destroy your credibility is to walk into the room with a smile plastered on your face like the “Joker” from Batman fame….

A smile is a natural way to make yourself and others feel good. It also creates trust and rapport. A smile is a great way to establish mutual feelings of being on the same level as others, whether that is one-to-one or in front of a group giving a presentation.

Use a strategic smile, one that is timed to say, “I’m looking forward to this. We’re all going to enjoy one another’s company.”  

Jean, a contractor, has a male assistant significantly her junior who regularly attends meetings with her. She was baffled why the majority of the time, others would address him as the owner of the company when they entered it room. Both were dress equally, and he followed her into the room. After spending some time with Jean, it was apparent that her ever-present, generous smile and indirect eye contact were saying assistant, not CEO. She learned to maintain a neutral face upon entering the room and then smiling with each person upon hearing their name during each handshake introduction. That type of strategic smile says “I’m happy to meet YOU!”

Note: Look at any Board of Directors’ photos and you will see the different types of smiles, the most obvious difference being the number of teeth the men versus the women are showing. It’s no wonder we see that, as girls are socialized to smile more than boys. Non-smiling men are assumed to be deep in thought or serious, while non-smiling women are assumed to be worried, aloof or judgmental – sad, but true.

So what’s a female leader to do?

Don’t quit smiling, just pay attention to when, how long and how large you smile and whether you accompany your smile with a nervous laugh and how often and with who you tip your head…. I won’t give you a pass on indirect eye contact. Good, consistent eye contact is a must.

Examine when you do these behaviors and the response you get. All behaviors serve a purpose at some time and if you are getting the response you want, keep doing it…. It’s only when you are not getting the response you want it’s time to look to see if it’s one of these common mistakes women make.

In my experience as an executive coach for high-achieving professional women, these two behaviors directly reflect the success you have and how others perceive you as a leader.