I once asked my boss, "so, are you going for that new director position?" and was stunned to hear her say, after dodging the question just the teeniest bit, "I don't think I'm ready". You're kidding me, I thought. This was a woman I had a great deal of respect for, possessed a PhD and had been working for that organization for a decade already. She was highly competent in her field, well respected with colleagues and stakeholders alike, patient, intelligent, focused, driven and held high, results-oriented standards. She seemed confident to me and pretty well everyone I knew. I went away wondering what might be missing, though, for her. Then another skillful, competent, well-respected woman of integrity in my circle applied for another director position and was turned down because she answered the where-will-you-be-in-five-years question modestly rather than ambitiously like another male candidate. He had pointed to the most senior member in the room and told him he'd have his job! Guess who was the successful candidate. Yup. The overtly ambitious male.
Why we think we want more confidence
Now, some of the reasons behind these shocking experiences make sense to me. Author and anchor-woman, Katty Kay, in a YouTube clip about the book The Confidence Code, which she co-authored with fellow journalist Claire Shipman, connects the dots for us. She asked an audience, "why is it that women believe they have to have 80% of the skillset to apply for a new job when men believe they only need 50%?" and "why is it that confidence matters more than competence" when competing for a new job. These questions are almost rhetorical because they highlight a huge disparity in how men and women typically perceive themselves in pursuit of a role. I dare say, that's the case with the two women I know. Theirs is a matter of confidence. But why is confidence such a big deal? Moreover, does a crisis of confidence happen for men as much as women? Or ever? It would appear that the answer to the latter is YES. But let's dig further.
"More confidence" is a request I hear often when working with coaching partners: women more so than men. Then again, more of my coaching partners tend to be women. Regardless of gender, when the topic comes up, I often joke about it saying I should have brought "pixie dust" for just such a request and ask my coaching partner to tell me why I might say that.
The hidden false assumption is people mistakenly assume confidence is a prerequisite for stepping out there, rather than the result of stepping out there. Let’s shift our perspective to look at it another way. If we assume we require confidence in order to take risks we'll never take them unless, perhaps, we see ourselves as reckless. But who wants to be the reckless candidate? If we instead accept that confidence is actually the by-product of risk-taking it comes more within our reach then. Little by little, with practiced and a thoughtful approach in scaling up our risk-taking, we gain more confidence in doing so. Kay and Shipman assert that this thoughtful practice will yield increased confidence and I agree. The more I have personally learned to take risks without full confidence - let’s say, that magic 80% level - and support clients in doing the same, the easier it becomes to build my confidence. Greater levels of personal confidence then give me the foundational courage to step out and take even bigger leaps, more important changes, things I never would have imagined in the past.
The link to comfort
I’ve said it before: comfort and courage are not synonymous. Courage, in fact, feels UNcomfortable. That's how you know you're doing it! Confidence, as it turns out, produces a similar feeling, although this is influenced by your genes and experiences. Sound familiar? Confidence is not a given behaviour trait that feels good or natural for all of us. In fact, some of us have more of it, while others have less meaning some of us feel less uncomfortable than others in using it. Yet like any behaviour trait, you can build muscle in it with practice, patience, small steps, self-compassion, reflection, more practice, more patience, bigger steps, greater frequency, continued reflection, and so on. But be prepared: it may feel moderately to highly uncomfortable leaning into courage that you don’t yet feel you have in order to build the confidence you dearly seek to acquire.
Initially, upon picking up Kay's book, I wasn't sold on reading it. It just felt wrong to tie confidence (or the lack thereof) to being female. Personally, I already "feel" confident. It turns out, however, that there is value in the research the authors highlight. I had no idea, for instance, that confidence has a genetic link. No wonder confidence feels fine to me but scares the daylights out of others. And, yes, there appears to be a gender-link though this link is not as exclusive as saying: men have confidence and women don't. Each of us has differing levels of confidence. Everyone of us wants to feel confident but few know how to get there.
If you are curious, Kay and Shipman have a website at http://theconfidencecode.com/, where you can take a confidence assessment. While I wasn’t surprise by my own results, it was uplifting to read that:
(a) confidence is genetically linked
(b) it can be behaviourally modified
(c) confidence can be overdone and
(d) even highly confident people are likely to go through periods of serious self-doubt
But if you want to work on your confidence there are small, measurable actions you can undertake to push your comfort zone, increase your personal confidence and stretch your tolerance for exercising even more personal and professional confidence. If developing a greater sense of confidence is on your mind, how might you begin today? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments below.