Combating the confidence gap isn't just down to businesses

Individuals can take specific steps to feel more assured in their capabilities, though companies have responsibilities too.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 07 Jul 2016

Are we placing too much emphasis on confidence in the workplace? In this month's MT, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote an interesting piece suggesting women should probably try to build confidence, ‘but only if it comes as a result of actual competence gains. And that men should do the reverse – ‘even when they think they are able, it may be useful for them to seek some honest and critical feedback about how competent they actually are’. Who knows, you might be in for a rude awakening...

The fact remains that many women do feel a lack of confidence, which is both restrictive and at times debilitating. There’s been some hefty research carried out into this – an eight-year study by Wiebke Bleidorn from the University of California analysed data from over 985,000 men and women across 48 countries. Participants had to rate the phrase: ‘I see myself as someone who has high self-esteem.’ Regardless of country, men had higher self-esteem than women, though the gap was more pronounced in industrialised Western places. But why is this confidence gap so pervasive and how can we address it, both as businesses and individuals?

Confidence coach Joanne Painter points out it’s a difficult tightrope for women to talk – they may feel they don’t fit the typical stereotype of success, or on the flip side, ‘if a woman speaks up in meetings, is assertive in asking for what she wants, she risks being thought of as aggressive’. Particularly in comparison to men with the same attitude. (See Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.) Painter thinks that, ‘Women need to realise that being true to themselves is the best type of confidence.’

Part of overcoming or at least improving these confidence troubles will involve changing the workplace to having a wider range of leadership styles and accepting different personalities can be effective at the top. ‘The workplace is often a fairly competitive, "alpha" environment,’ confidence coach Jo Emerson says. ‘Meaning many women and non-alpha males struggle to feel confident at work, because they believe they have to be masculine, hard and non-emotional in order to be successful.’ She thinks this is a myth.

Numerous people have come to see her, struggling to feel confident because they’ve lost sight of the skills they actually bring to the workplace. ‘One client told me recently he realised he could trace the beginning of his problem at work back to when he decided to put his numbers before his people,’ she explains. ‘All businesses need a variety of people and their skills in order to be successful and the best bosses will promote and encourage people who display emotional intelligence at work.’

These will be those who are good listeners, who respond rather than react and who can delegate to bring a whole team on board with a vision. ‘They are traditionally seen as more "feminine" qualities, and they are vital to the success of a team,’ Emerson points out. So individuals should remember how valuable these are and ‘be proud to show these qualities’, while bosses should make time ‘to promote and actively engage in this kind of behaviour’.

For an employer wanting to shake up the type of people they’re promoting or hoping to build employee confidence, a specific focus on encouraging and investing in people’s individual talents could be worthwhile (if time-consuming). ‘The more valued we feel, the more confident we become,’ Emerson says.

It’s also important to remember that while lack of confidence is a more widely felt problem for women, it does affect men too. Embracing and acknowledging the importance of so-called ‘softer skills’ can help people across the board, though some feel the term ‘soft skills’ denigrates their value right off the bat. Regardless, negotiation, coaching and nurturing are all crucial to business success and should be viewed as fundamental leadership skills. The more we do that, the more likely it'll be that we'll see a wider range of personalities in managerial positions and people will feel more confident in possessing such abilities. 

Confidence coach Joanne Painter’s tips for women in the workplace:

-          Use assertive language to get the balance between passive and aggressive. Stick to the facts, use ‘I’ statements and ask clearly what you’d like e.g. ‘There’s a new role being advertised. I believe I’m capable of the job and I’d like your support to apply.’

-          Step out of your comfort zone. Find it difficult to take risks? Start small and ask a question in a meeting. If you don’t do anything, nothing will change.

-          List your professional strengths and achievements to remind yourself of them and boost your confidence. If you find it tricky, ask colleagues.

-          Don’t engage with your inner critical voice saying you can’t do something or reprimanding you for saying the wrong thing.

-          Be authentic – confidence looks different in different people.

Tips for employers to build staff confidence:

-          Don’t micro manage your employees. It shows a lack of trust and will make them feel their work isn’t good enough.

-          Realise that confidence can appear differently in people – they could be a loud extrovert or a more reflective introvert.

-          Match workload to an individual’s talents and skills.

-          Think about having a range of mentors that employees can get support from.

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