Women Leadership Series

The confidence gap is that theory holding that women feel less confident than men in their abilities. This article describes how the connection between competence and confidence plays for men and women. If more women understand the dynamics at play, they can become proactive about building a solid reputation.

An HBR source explores if the confidence gap between men and women is a myth or if it is a reality that women exert less confident behaviors in the workplace than their male colleagues.

The Relationship Between Confidence and Competence 

Confidence is a state of mind of having a belief in oneself, the conviction of having what it takes to succeed. On the other hand, competence is the ability to perform effectively by having the right skills to do the job. 

Confidence requires a realistic sense of one’s competence and a positive self-image without being arrogant. This sense of reality about one’s competence requires being aware of how someone is perceived and being aware of one’s limitations. 

There are gender differences in how men and women experience and display confidence. In The Confidence Code, Kay & Shipman state that under qualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and over prepared women hold back.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an Organizational Psychologist who studies the intersection between gender, personality, and leadership. He has researched how gender and personality shape our choices of leaders and how those leaders impact organizations.

He notices the universal belief that confident people have more leadership potential. Men are more self-assured than women. Therefore, more men than women are leaders, even when they might not be the more qualified for their roles. In his Tedx, he explains why so many incompetent men become leaders, referred to in his book with the same title.

Why Do We Reinforce Incompetence Disguised with Confidence? 

Chamorro-Premuzic concludes that most male leaders overestimate their competence. In other words, their self-perceived talents tend to surpass their basic skills. An overestimation of capabilities is a sign of limited self-awareness and increases the chances that leaders exhibit behaviors that derail leadership effectiveness.

In The Confidence Code, Kay & Shipman describe several experiments conducted at Columbia University with MBA students, revealing the impact of overconfidence on people’s perceptions of competence. Men students tended to overestimate their competence. They believed in themselves more even when having questionable merits. They used expansive body language, lower vocal tone, and a tendency to speak early and often calmly and relaxedly. As a result, others perceived them as more qualified than they were. They were more admired and enjoyed a higher status, making them more influential.

Chamorro-Premuzic refers to a fascination in our society for confident leaders. He said that we appear to want charming, secure, and even narcissistic leaders. The best leaders are humble rather than charismatic. He asserts there is a pathological mismatch between the attributes that seduce us in a leader and those that are needed to be an effective leader. The author suggests that if we want to improve the performance of our leaders, we should start by focusing on the right traits. If we do so, we will end with more women leaders. 

Breaking The Stereotypes that Hold Women from Rising

What Organizations Can Do 

Organizations play a crucial role by analyzing what type of leadership attributes they value and how those leadership competencies are embedded in every step of the talent development cycle: from hiring to development, performance management, succession planning, promotions, and more. It is crucial for organizations to identify if the leadership attributes they value are hindering women, particularly, women of color. Biases and stereotypes limit women’s abilities to compete for leadership roles. Stop promoting incompetent men because they look more confident. Instead, vet capabilities more thoroughly and look for the right leadership traits.

Personality assessments such as Hogan can help leaders explore blind spots. Multi-rater assessments are another way to collect valuable input from stakeholders regarding essential leadership behaviors. Reconciling the disparities in one’s self-image might be a challenging experience for most leaders who have not taken the time to explore themselves. A leadership coach can help increasing strategic self-awareness by understanding better how others perceive their competence and what areas they could make behavioral changes to enhance their performance. 

Regarding approaches to help more women rise, is the right direction to tell women to behave more like men? Or is it to have genuinely inclusive practices that celebrate women’s authenticity, even if that looks different from the outside?

In HBR webinar “How to Be a Glass-Shattering Organization,” Ammerman & Growsberg present specific organizational and managerial strategies to overcome and mitigate the barriers that hold women back. Organizations must embrace inclusive leadership; foster an environment that values everyone and celebrates diverse perspectives; distribute opportunities fairly, and commit to giving more women chances to elevate their careers. Male leaders can be the best advocates to open doors of opportunities for more women to lead.

Women benefit from actionable feedback that can help them understand what specific actions they can take to make their work more visible, speak more in meetings, and make better decisions. They also want to hear about what they are doing well, and the value they bring to their teams, customers, and the organization as a whole.

What Women Can Do

If more women get it and take charge, they can contribute by breaking the internal barriers that keep them from reaching their potential. Women are perseverant and they endure resistance and biases since not everyone supports female leadership.

In How Women Rise, Helgesen tells us that women tend to overvalue expertise when believing they need to master every detail in their jobs before they can prove that we are ready for the next step. 

We don’t have to be field experts or perfect to increase our impact. Perfectionism is detrimental to a woman leader’s brand because it leads to micromanaging, which plummets team morale and retention. If you are experiencing these tendencies in your leadership style, acknowledge them and ask for help. Working with a coach can help you to become a better delegator, and more confident and authentic in your personal style to lead.

Rumination and a tendency to not let go of past mistakes hinder women’s confidence. We need let go and find a softer place to land when failing. Positive Intelligence is a framework that helps us mitigate the negative impact of our self-sabotaging tendencies or those voices in our heads that tell us how bad we are. These are lies that keep us from shining. Learning to intercept these voices of self-doubt will help you to claim your potential for greatness. Let go of the past, be more present, and be willing to move forward believing in a compelling future for you and your team.

More women need to get out of their technical cocoon and venture to roles with wider scope, so they can increase their impact. If we speak more, we can contribute more. Organizations need us for their success, even when it sometimes appears they don’t want us. Don’t lose your chance to speak up in front of influential stakeholders. Occupy your seat at the table. Make your voice heard, even when you feel the urge to hesitate and hold back, take a deep breath and lean in.

Let’s admit that lack of confidence is a stumbling block for most of us. The good news is that we can learn by practicing small behaviors, such as an expansive body posture, raising our voices as we speak, and participating in meetings more. These micro steps to more confidence can help you build sustainable habits for more confidence in the long run.

Women can better understand their choices when managing insecurities at work in a playfield that seems to value confidence more than competence. Remember, you don’t have to know it all to rise. Believe that you have what it takes and let others notice your presence. You’re a leader that has the ability to leave a positive mark in all those people that you impact. Your organization needs you to show not only your competence, but also, your confidence. You have what it takes!

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