Secrets to Confidence for Every Woman Leader

It's time to bring your inner champion to life.

G-Stock Studio / Shutterstock
G-Stock Studio / Shutterstock

Do you ever say to yourself, “If only I had more confidence?”

As a leadership development consultants who works with organizations to advance women leaders, confidence is a theme I see continually. I hear statements like:

“I don’t speak up because I’m afraid I’ll sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about,” one highly skilled Director of Marketing admitted.

“I’m not sure I have what it takes,” another rising leader explained, “so I don’t try to get promoted.”

These are accomplished women whose companies believe in their potential, and yet something is holding them back from fully contributing.

Our experience is not unique. Leadership experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman analyzed 360-degree reviews and found that women leaders are perceived to be as competent as men. In fact, women were rated as more effective than their male colleagues in critical areas such as taking initiative, driving for results, bold leadership and building relationships. In their self-ratings, however, women were harder on themselves, suggesting their confidence lags behind their actual performance.

Interestingly, their research finds this gap persists until age 40, when men’s and women’s confidence appears to equal out. And surprisingly, over the age of 60, male confidence declines while female confidence increases.

Another remarkable perspective comes from Catherine Tinsley of Georgetown University and Robin Ely of the Harvard Business School, who have studied gender differences extensively and found no discernable differences between women and men when it comes to confidence in the workplace. Their work points to workplace structure and unconscious bias as the real impediments to women’s advancement. Tinsley and Ely believe that women don’t speak up because their ideas are scrutinized to a greater degree than men’s are. They urge organizations to take these steps to enable women to fully contribute and succeed in the workplace:

  • Connect women to information networks that give them the insights they need to navigate their careers
  • Correct biases that penalize women disproportionately for mistakes
  • Ensure women get specific and direct feedback that helps them develop.

Regardless of whether there are real differences in confidence levels between genders, women need strategies to trust themselves and their contributions, especially given the organizational barriers that exist. In our work, we’ve found women benefit greatly from these four strategies:

1. Cultivate an Inner Champion

One key influence women can control is the inner voice they choose to listen to. We all have an inner critic – a voice that’s constantly at the ready to tell us what we did wrong or why we’re not good enough. But we can also cultivate an inner champion – an encouraging voice that reminds us of our accomplishments and all the challenges we’ve overcome. A voice that says, “Don’t hold back. You have an important contribution to make.”

The first step is noticing when the inner critic shows up. What does she have to say? Instead of believing whatever she tells you, examine whether there’s anything useful in her message. If not, choose not to listen.

Then foster an inner champion. Think about what you would tell a friend who needs encouragement, then apply these same kind words to yourself.

2. Take Action

Another effective strategy to build confidence is to get out of your comfort zone and into the risk zone. Overcoming a challenge builds self-efficacy, which results in increased confidence. Challenge yourself to have difficult conversations, interact with leadership several layers above you and share your opinions unequivocally in large meetings. When you overcome your fears and take action, your view of your capabilities expands and so does your confidence.

3. Let Go of the Need to be Perfect 

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code, explain that “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.” The problem with perfectionism is that it’s unattainable, so linking confidence to perfection keeps women stuck. Instead, they need to give themselves permission to be good enough. Caring a little less about every detail frees up mental space to make more strategic contributions.

4. Lean into Values

Getting clear about what really matters can provide the impetus to ensure those career goals are met. One of our clients knew she had to bring in more business to her law firm in order to get promoted, but she doubted her ability to be a rainmaker. When we discussed what she really cared about, she passionately described the role model she wanted to be for her daughter. Harnessing this value gave her the courage to put herself out there and ask for business. And her confidence grew as her efforts resulted in new clients for her firm.

Becoming aware of what is holding you back is the critical first step in reaching your professional goals. We all benefit when women overcome systemic and internal barriers, resulting in enhanced contributions. When women own the value they bring, businesses and careers thrive.

Originally published on Ellevate.

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