Lisa was bright, with proven results, and was a leader in trend sighting and innovation. She was also quirky and occasionally silly with clients. Her style didn’t fit in with the culture of her ad agency, which had traditional consumer packaged goods clients. As one of the largest in the industry, Lisa’s firm approached their clients with an authoritative calm that they saw as professional. At the same time, the firm had wanted to win over the fashion forward clients that could improve their prestige – clients who Lisa understood intuitively.
In an environment that didn’t favor her style, Lisa was destabilized. She didn’t see the situation as one of different agendas — one that she could influence with a sound strategy. Instead Lisa doubted herself and let her doubt take over. She held back in client presentations, which left her performances flat and left her managers wondering if she had what it takes. Unable to gain favor, Lisa started resenting her management. To rationalize her feelings Lisa began to see changing her ways as selling out, and eventually started looking for another job.
The Confidence Challenge
Recently a senior executive asked me if there is any way to increase the confidence levels of high-potential women executives. Why do women, intelligent and capable, consistently doubt themselves in ways that men do not, or don’t share out loud? In my ten years as a coach I have worked with hundreds of successful women in corporations, and in Columbia University’s executive education programs. Before becoming a coach, I spent two decades working in large multi-nationals where I experienced challenges to confidence first hand. My personal experience, and my experience coaching others, has convinced me that measurable shifts in confidence levels are possible, and that those shifts lead to business results. In this article I explore why women step back from leading with confidence, and what they and their organizations can do to transform their experience.
Challenge Your Assumptions
Do women really lack confidence? The behavioral norms that define how confidence should look at the office are largely established by men. According to a Gallup Strength Finder study (see bibliography: What Strengths Tell Us About Men and Women), women rank higher in relationship building themes, while men rank higher in strategic thinking themes. While both approaches can get superior results, an employee leading with strengths that are not the norm can cause managers to become critical and increase the employee’s doubt. A shift in perception from both manager and female employee can break this dynamic.
As a manager, if you know an employee is capable and has done good work in your team or another one, consider encouraging her and accepting her approach. One exercise I do with clients is to ask, “When do you feel confident?” For some clients just realizing that there are situations and circumstances where they feel solidly confident is an enormous aha moment. Even if it’s outside of work, they can leverage feeling confident to other situations and circumstances.
What would the impact be if these clients’ manager took the same approach? Often just behind a moment of doubt is real performance. Given the chance, talented women can show their colors with ideas and opinions that work. The first step towards growing a woman’s confidence is to undo the assumption that she lacks it, and provide the support to let her talent come through.
Don’t Let Doubt Run the Show
Most people believe that accomplishment and success will fix a lack of confidence. The reality is a strange paradox; no matter how much we accomplish, many of us do not stop being hard on ourselves. In coaching we call that voice of doubt the saboteur. Women can be more vulnerable to it because we have been trained to doubt ourselves. When normal feelings of doubt in new situations pop up, we think it is indicative of a lack of competence. For Lisa, the very normal discomfort of presenting to unfamiliar clients triggered her to think that her experience and point of view were not sufficient to the task.
The good news is that we can manage our saboteurs. The first thing we can do is to fully understand our strengths and the impact of those strengths on colleagues and the organization. This step alone brings most people to a whole new level of wellbeing. Once we have a firm foundation in our strengths and their impact, we can get familiar with our saboteur voices. Knowing our saboteurs and how they operate, we can take action to neutralize them (see bibliography: Positive Intelligence). It is critical to understand how strengths and saboteurs work together. When any of us can interrupt the click and whirr, “You feel scared, so you must be inadequate” message and choose to respond differently, we take back control of the situation.
Be Aware of Bias
Girls, then women, are often under-acknowledged for their actions and input, especially in areas that are not traditionally female. We are spoken over and ignored, while we watch boys and men be acknowledged for their efforts. It’s in a subtle nod that a man gets for his contribution in a meeting, but a woman does not. It’s in the way a man gets credit for ideas when a woman does not (see bibliography: Do Women Lack Ambition?).
I experienced this dynamic first hand participating in a “lost at sea” training exercise where we imagined ourselves stuck on a raft at sea. From a list of 30 pieces of equipment, we had to select the ten that would save us from drowning. Coincidentally I had just read Thor Heyerdhal’s famed book Kontiki, about a six-month crossing of the Pacific on a raft, and was better informed than my teammates about how to survive at sea. After we completed the exercise, the observers gave us feedback on our problem-solving skills. One said, “What I noticed is that Claire had all of the answers, but no one listened until Tom said them.”
Eye-opening. As women many of us are so accustomed to being ignored, we don’t even see it. Imagine the implications. If we operate under the assumption that we are treated the same as men but get different results, we can begin to think that the cause is our lack of experience and talents. This is not a call to action to fight for equality. Nor is it permission to produce inferior results. It is an invitation to not interpret having to try harder as a lack of competence. Giving credit where credit is due helps a woman reclaim her worth, and her confidence.
Find Your Own Voice
At Columbia my colleagues Lynn Russell and Joann Baney have developed a nerve-wracking exercise to teach students to field difficult audience questions. At the end of the exercise we have students rate their performance as a public speaker: on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a bumbling fool and 10 being a polished professional. With astonishing regularity, women who were prepared, maintained poise and kept control of the content, give themselves a 5 or 6. With the same regularity, men who meandered or broke their professional demeanor give themselves a 7 or 8.
After years, one semester a female student responded, “Well, I know I am supposed to give myself a 5 or 6 because I am a woman, so I am going to say that I am an 8 and these are the reasons why.” The class loved it. Later a male student, clearly uncomfortable after realizing that he had done a mediocre job, scanned the class and then gave himself a 7. I realized then that the men are not delusional. It’s that they know that the audience expects them to exude confidence. So they act like it, even when it’s not how they feel.
This is a key to the concept “Fake it till you make it.” By simply talking more confidently about ourselves and our work, we come across that way to others. Consider this. If a manager has to choose between the more prepared person and the person who will represent well in difficult senior meetings, they will almost need to choose the one who will speak more confidently. Like the woman student, you can find a voice that sounds confident. If you don’t, you are losing out.
In the end Lisa found her voice. She developed highly creative, somewhat risky presentations she could own and that gained her favor with the trendier clients. She leveraged her success and confidence to win over other clients as well as her management. It’s now been seven years and she is on her third promotion in the same organization.
Believe that Lasting Change is Possible
Last summer my family went to a planetarium to observe the planets and hear a NASA astrophysicist talk about the latest approaches to studying black holes. I found this mind-bending topic fascinating, and I asked a lot of questions. Afterwards the astrophysicist, a woman, told me that she was impressed — women visitors almost never ask questions. Without knowing it, she gave me a gift. Remembering my experience in the lost at sea exercise, I had a real sense of my own personal growth and in the possibility of transformation. Doubt is part of life. It is not our fault. Letting a lack of confidence run your life or impact a female employee’s long-term performance might be.
Confidence isn’t just a feel-good idea – it is about great leadership. According to the Gallup organization, many companies that use a strengths-based approach enjoy a 29% increase in profits. Companies with a large number of female employees, who are not working to crack the code on women’s confidence, are leaving money on the table.
Miller, Jane and Adkins, Amy. “What Strengths Tell Us About Men and Women.” Gallup Business Journal November 30, 2016
Fels, Anna. “Do Women Lack Ambition?” Harvard Business Review April 2004
Chamine, Shirzad, Positive Intelligence. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group LLC, 2012