One day I got an emergency call from a woman, let's call her Julia, who is a director in a pharmaceutical company. She's one of the more impressive leaders I know: she's a medical doctor by training who transitioned to hospital administration, then to public health policy and later to corporate healthcare.
She has worked across different continents in both developed and developing countries - and in some very difficult field conditions. She is charming, articulate and highly respected by colleagues and supervisors. Despite her qualifications, she was freaking out because she had to appear in a corporate video and was worried about her looks and speech on camera!
We talked through her concerns and I helped her calm down and sent her some inspirational videos of great female leaders, which got her pumped up for the next day.
Julia's story is not uncommon. I hear similar stories from women across all age groups, seniority levels and nationalities - women who are smart and accomplished but are handicapped by self-doubt. I'm not alone in this observation. Journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote a whole book about it - "The Confidence Code" (read a fantastic article in The Atlantic about it). The book talks about how socialization and some (but few) biological differences have caused women to be less self-assured on average, and this is a big problem because confidence, much more than competence, predicts success in the real world.
Confidence can lead to more promotions and higher pay, something that men benefit from more than women.
Kay and Shipman highlight the confidence breaking behaviors women tend to engage in:
1. Focusing on being liked at the expense of taking action, negotiating and expressing opinions.
2. Overthinking: this one is partially biological as women have 30% more neuron activity than men (did you know that?!). Our active and multitasking brain can be a great thing that helps us consider all variables, be creative and connect deeper with people but can lead to negative thinking, stress and even depression.
3. Taking the blame for things going wrong but crediting success to others (i.e. "the team did a good job!")
4. Taking failure personally: men, on the other hand, often attribute failure to external factors that are not reflection of their abilities.
5. Pursuing perfection: setting the bar too high and thereby always feeling inadequate and avoiding taking action at risk of failing.
Action, not praise, is what builds confidence.
Confidence is not about feeling good about yourself and being reassured. In fact, reassurance can be dangerous because lack of it can lead to immediate confidence drop. Instead, confidence is interrelated to action in a virtuous circle. "Confidence is a belief in one’s ability to succeed, a belief that stimulates action. In turn, taking action bolsters one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed. So confidence accumulates—through hard work, through success, and even through failure." explain Kay and Shipman.
It's therefore important to build the habits of failing often and failing quickly thereby learning from our successes and mistakes.
Miriam Grobman Consulting works with organizations that want to advance more talented women into leadership roles by breaking cultural barriers and giving them the right skills to be successful. In May they will be launching an innovative online mini-MBA course “Master Influencer Boot Camp for Women” to help women leaders gain power and achieve better results at the workplace. You can find out more info here. You can also follow their Facebook page, Leadership and Women, for inspiring stories about women leaders and practical career advice and sign up for their newsletter.
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