The Confidence Conundrum: 5 Ways to Recognize (and Reward) It

I recently attended a number of women’s conferences centered on a similar theme:

CONFIDENCE.

As in… women women at work LACK confidence.

And… our lack of confidence STOPS US from achieving more.

And… we need to FIX THIS because our fear keeps us from getting ahead.

You’ve probably heard the stats… a woman will apply for a job only if she meets 100% of the qualifications, whereas a man is likely to apply even if he only meets 60%.

Sorry Cathy, confident Chris gets the job.

We speak of it so often that we’ve come accept it as fact: Women lack confidence.

I gotta say, I’m getting tired of this narrative.

I’ve read The Confidence Code and The Confidence Effect and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office.

I absolutely agree a lack of confidence hinders women. And I work with a number of clients to help them more accurately self-assess and better self-promote.

But I know too many women who do put themselves out there, who find time and time again that a male colleague with lesser qualifications is given the opportunity based on confidence in his perceived “potential.” It’s why Men Rise and Women Bounce.

I simply don’t buy that there’s some mass confidence epidemic.

Here’s are five reasons why:

Just What Does Confidence Look Like, Anyway?

Is it the guy who saunters into the room, takes the prime seat at the table, hijacks the conversation and insists he is right? Is that confidence? Or is he just an asshole? We seem to reward his outward display of “confidence” with our own confidence in him, which in turn renews his confidence, a continual cycle.

Good managers know the loudest voice doesn’t always have the right answer. Sometimes it’s the quiet voice from the back of the room.

For a number of years I supervised an experienced producer with a tentative exterior. When given a challenging assignment, her immediate reaction came with a “deer in the headlights” look and a series of questions that didn’t exactly inspire confidence. But she’d return after some quiet thought with her method of attack. And she’d always deliver the project not with a boast, but on-time and to expectation.

What she lacked in outward confidence she made up for in her ability to get the job done.

Frankly, I’d rather give an assignment to a woman like that than to a guy who would puff out his chest, ask for double the funds and then stall for weeks, require lots of oversight and eventually throw all of his co-workers under the bus for his failure at timely and on-budget delivery. I’ve seen his type before. That’s not confidence. That’s a train wreck.

It Becomes a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

We suggest so often that women aren’t confident that those who are start to question if they should be. Is something wrong with me if I am confident in my abilities? Am I not feminine?  Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am? Worrying about expressing the right amount of confidence takes energy away from other areas that would continue to build our confidence, namely acquiring the skills and knowledge we don’t currently possess.

The Confidence Penalty

We don’t seem to reward women who exert confidence. Modest confidence, yes. Outward, “Hey I believe in myself and I’m not going to put up with your sh-t” confidence? Not so much. It’s why so many women choose their words carefully, always saying “we” instead of “I” when speaking of success, sharing the credit but taking the blame and apologizing for things that are not our fault.

At one point in my career, I went to speak to a higher-up about the potential for new opportunities. I stated my case with my history of success combined with more than two decades in the business.  He seemed more put out than impressed. I recall him responding, “You think very highly of yourself, don’t you?” Hmmm… How else should I think of myself, particularly when negotiating on my own behalf? I left without the new opportunities and with a loss of respect for him as a leader.

Why do we fault women for not having confidence and yet penalize them for expressing the very thing we insist they need?

Confidence is Not a One-Size-Fits-All Blanket 

I know many women who would not describe themselves as confident because they are not equally adept at all areas of their lives. They might be confident about one or two skills or certain situations, yet if asked if they’d describe themselves as confident, they’d say no. Why? Because there are times when they don’t feel confident. But you don’t need to be confident in everything to be a confident person. You simply need to rely on your strengths, your ability to learn, your tolerance for change and your resilience.

A confident person believes she has the capability to grow.

What does confidence look like?

Confidence Accepts Criticism

Confidence comes with experience – with success and failure. Admitting you are wrong is actually an incredibly confident thing to do. Insisting you are always right is the opposite.

I worked once with an incredibly creative, talented male producer that anyone would have called confident. Except that I could see he wasn’t. Why? Because he battled even the smallest and most well-intentioned bit of feedback about his work. He couldn’t handle that he hadn’t done it perfectly the first time or that he needed any help, especially from a woman.

This isn’t confidence. It’s insecurity. Confident people don’t feel they have to be right all the time. They can accept criticism and imperfection.

So what do we do about the Confidence Conundrum? Women should not be alone in trying to “fix” it. We need to accept it comes in all forms and stop falling in love with confidence only if it’s expressed by someone we believe should have it.

Am I confident in my conclusions? Somewhat. Not totally. Enough to hit “publish” with confidence.

I’m now confidently open for comments.

Valerie Gordon is a former television producer who now runs Commander-in-She corporate presentations and workshops, helping women with the communication skills and tools (and confidence!) to create greater engagement at work and success and satisfaction in their lives. Read the impact of her work in client testimonials.

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