Confidence isn’t necessarily an innate quality. We've been getting the equation the wrong way around. We think that if only we were more confident, then we'd be able to overcome our self-doubts and perform better.
It is, in fact, the other way around, and I am backed up by science on this: You have to embrace fear first and then do it anyway. Your confidence grows through being in action. You have to do what scares you to become the confident person you desire to be.
Reckoning with Our Fear
Let’s be honest, we all tend to know when we are copping out on ourselves, and yet, we do it anyway for a multitude of reasons, but the main reason is typically plain old fear.
When we don’t want to own up to our fears and how they are keeping us small, we rationalize that fear with self-talk, such as, “I didn’t want that project anyway” or “People who speak directly are seen as rude, I don’t want to be rude”.
The problem is that we stay small and our desired job advances, recognition and the satisfaction of having our ideas and work taken seriously don't materialize. When you play small, your voice is not heard and, if you are honest with yourself, you know that rationalizing this is a bit soul crushing.
The thing about fear is that it is always there. This is not a bad thing…except when it has you doubt yourself, hesitate, pass up awesome opportunities, and has your brilliance go unheard.
Fear can be a good tool to double check your intentions before taking action:
Is it in alignment with your core values?
Is it on purpose?
Will your action be of the energy of playing big or will it hold you small?
To keep fear from running the show, you have to bring fear down to a manageable size and develop strategies for working with fear, rather than letting fear work against you.
But it doesn't end there:
There are habits women tend to engage in that have us appear and feel less confident, which can result in women not being heard, not getting noticed, not getting the juicy projects or plum jobs. Many women I have coached downplay their brilliance or even seem to be unaware of how brilliant they are. They feel uncertain, under-qualified, and they subconsciously engage in behaviours that undermine their confidence and undermine their ability to lead brilliantly.
You are brilliant!
My deepest desire is that you own your brilliance
and make your unique contribution in this world.
Let's begin with a look at what I'm calling The New Rules alongside the undermining habits I hope women will stop doing.
1. Own Your Brilliance
I have a female colleague who is my trusted, go-to mentor because she is outstandingly intelligent, professional, knowledgeable, and her integrity is second to none. She has many credentials and every time I check in with her, she is engaged in more training even though I think she might actually be more qualified to teach these programs. I, and many who know her, look up to her and yet she seems to doubt her qualifications and I get a sense she is hesitating in truly launching her career.
It is possible she is falling into the trap so many women, including myself, and so many of my clients fall into: self-doubt; thinking you aren't good enough unless you…get more training, gain mastery, have more credentials, do more research on the topic, collect other's voices on the topic.
The Antidote to this form of self-sabotage is trust.
Trust your wisdom. Trust your voice. Trust that you can do it. Trust that while you might not give yourself credit for your knowledge, you actually do have the knowledge and are likely more knowledgeable than others in the room on the topic and even if you aren't, your knowledge is valid and useful.
Studies show that women downplay their abilities and this, in turn, actually causes them to underperform, while men tend to over inflate their abilities. When women in these studies receive positive messages about their abilities, they actually perform better and also perform better than the men. By choosing to trust yourself and provide yourself with positive messages about your abilities, you will perform better and this will further boost your confidence.
How will you bring awareness to when you are side-stepping your own voice?
How can you live from your knowledge and wisdom right now?
How will you own your space?
2. Take Action - Just Do It!:
Women are incredibly adept at playing a game I call the "I can’t do that until I…" game. It looks like this: You hold off on being in motion with an initiative, or launching a project, or contributing an idea because you feel you must get all of your ducks in a row, all the details completely sorted and all the specifications specified before you'll share or launch what is likely a terrific idea. It is really about perfectionism, which is essentially your fear taking control and having you hesitate.
Just do it! And if you can't just do it and you are still listening to that inner voice that has you hesitate, then observe and notice.
How are you playing the game?
How are you holding yourself as small?
What gets to be possible when you when you are in action?
Notice how the men you may work with tend to just share and launch half-baked ideas certain they are great. Notice your hesitancy in doing the same and then give yourself a new message:
"I'm ready and I can figure it out as I go because I'm brilliant".
Seriously. I want you to trust that you likely already have more details in place than you give yourself credit for. Take action. You are brilliant.
3. Own Your Voice:
Have you ever caught yourself hedging or softening your message? Do you say phrases such as, "sorry, I just wanted to say…", or "I'm not sure, but what if we did it this way…"?
Or are you guilty of the upspeak? This is when you raise the tone of your voice at the end of a sentence so it sounds like you are asking a question when you are actually making a statement.
Or are you speaking so hesitantly and quietly that people don't quite hear what you are saying?
Why do you feel you have to dumb down what you have to say?
Sadly, it is a tendency of many women, especially earlier in their careers. And the reason is complex. It stems from women's desires to seem likeable, or a fear of being criticized. And then there is the societal gender stereotyping quicksand that slows us down.
Research shows that in male-dominated corporations, women who speak directly can be seen as abrasive, even when their male counterparts are equally as direct, yet viewed as competent and likeable. Wow!
This puts women in a double bind. So how do you handle this?
First assume this is not always the case. While you may have been criticized once for being direct (or assumed you were being criticized), it does not mean that this is always happening. Put self-awareness to good use and check in: Are you frequently getting negative feedback about your communication? Does your team have high turnover, low productivity, low morale, etcetera? If so, then maybe you really are abrasive, in which case you really do need to tweak your style and ensure you are not mistaking rudeness for directness.
Calibrate: Being direct is not the same as being mean, impossible and disrespectful. You can be direct and be respectful…and be respected. Speak directly, speak from your core values, respect other's opinions and ideas and don't take it personally if someone doesn't like your idea. Instead you can check in and enquire what is behind the criticism or pushback. This promotes your own learning and it has others feel engaged and respected.
And please stop the upspeak. Say it with confidence. Say it like you mean it. If you don't sound confident others will not see your points as valid.
4. Aim for Respect, not Likeability:
Another way to dumb yourself down is to be self-deprecating. It stems from a belief that to be likeable one must make oneself seem less threatening or less smart. Similar to hedging and softening, self-deprecation is when you say things, such as, "Well, I'm not really an expert on this, but…", or "You know me, always forgetting something…", or, "Oh, I was never strong at math, you’d better check my budget figures".
When you do this you are being wishy-washy and while you may think you are just being modest, humorous and more likeable, you are actually telling the world that you don't have confidence in yourself. You are failing to honour your wisdom, expertise, hard work and capabilities.
Worse, you are sending the message that others shouldn't trust your abilities because you don't trust them yourself. Furthermore, you send the message that you are a pushover.
For any of these undermining communication styles - hedging, apologizing, self-deprecation - choose a more powerful and trust-building style. Think of the scenario when someone has been tardy on a deliverable that you need. Your fear may be that to request it will appear demanding and so in the hope of maintaining likeability the overcompensation is to approach with, "Sorry, I know you are busy….and….I kind of dropped the ball on following up, but when can I expect that item from you?"
The better approach is to just say some of the message you've left unspoken - your intention and the need. Example: “I understand the demands and work load that may have caused you be late on this deliverable, however, I do need it and you did say you could deliver. When can I expect it from you? What support do you need to enable delivering on this?”
Use a neutral tone of voice (e.g. not impatient or condescending) to convey your empathy and understanding in a way that is respectful and trust-building and conveys that you still hold them accountable – both for the deliverable and for asking for support. And if the person still feels you are being demanding, that is their stuff, not yours. What they do learn is that they can trust you to be understanding, to communicate from values and compassion, and that you hold team members accountable.
It is important to be liked as studies show that it is critical for success for both men and women and women are expected to bring likeability to the table. However, if you focus too much on being liked it can kill your confidence. Instead, you can convey likeability in more positive ways that won’t undermine you:
Use humour that isn’t self-deprecating (nor demoralizing to other people)
Praise people’s work where due
Express sincere gratitude
Acknowledge people’s ideas and input
Empathize while still holding people accountable (and ask them what they need to help them get their work done).
Notice when you use self-deprecation or downgrade your abilities and ask:
What is the impact to your sense of self of telling yourself you are less capable than you actually are?
What is your inner critic having you believe?
What would your inner sage tell you?
How do you feel when you employ more direct language?
5. You Have Nothing to Apologize For (unless you really do):
If you haven't done anything wrong, there is no need to apologize.
Women, more than men, apologize a lot – for asking a question, having an opinion, expressing an idea or having a standard of expectation of team members. It is similar to hedging and softening.
How it looks: You pop into someone's office because you need to get information from them and you say, "I'm sorry, but can I have a moment of your time?" or you are presenting a strategy and you say, “I’m sorry, but I think we need to take this direction.” What are you sorry for?
Instead, ask them, "Do you have time for a quick questions?" Or, "I want your opinion on something, is now a good time?" And if the answer is "no", don't apologize! Offer two to three schedule alternatives that work for you and let them know what your timeline is for receiving their feedback or information: "O.K. - I want to have your input before this goes out today. Can we chat in 30 minutes, or would 2:00pm work for you?"
Instead tell them, “Here’s the direction I think we need proceed in and here’s why.” And if they object, don’t apologize. Have the objector offer other options or solutions and have them justify how their options satisfy the team’s or company’s objectives, or measure up against the set of criteria. And hold to your strategy if you think it is a good one.
6. Be Thick Skinned:
Women have an incredible capacity for ruminating over small slights or perceived criticisms. We also worry more than men do and we tend to overthink things. We are, in fact, hard wired for this. Our brains are structured just a bit differently than men’s brains and this can work against us, especially when we are stepping up and playing big.
When we receive a criticism or if we’ve failed to perform as well as we'd hoped, we are very good at making it about ourselves, about an internal attribution. We say things like, "I made the wrong call, I shouldn't have done it like that, I wasn't good enough." This undermines confidence. Studies show that men tend to shrug things off and make an external attribution, thinking, "The situation was really tough, the process was flawed" which keeps their confidence intact.
Externalize rather than self-flagellate. Instead of ruminating on all the ways you failed and placing the blame on yourself, reframe it to be about an external attribute. With criticism, keep in mind that you are not the centre of everyone's universe and people are not excessively thinking about your stumbles. If you receive criticism at work, it is not about your value as a person, it is about your performance and you can reframe criticism as positive information for learning. Just thank the person for their feedback and if it seems skewed or unfair, check in with others to gather a more rounded perspective from which you can filter and then make your own best choices.
When do you notice yourself ruminating or taking things personally?
What are your internal messages?
How will you reframe your thinking so you can move out of rumination and into positive action?
Remember, it is not effective to just tell yourself to stop ruminating. You have to give your brain a new thought to focus on that moves you into positive action.
7. Develop Your Resilience:
It is no secret that women face a lot of pressures in both their leadership roles and in their personal lives and this can be overwhelming. It is important to develop habits that bolster your resiliency and deepen your well of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy.
Stand in your authenticity: Know your values, voice your values, be yourself. It is a big confidence killer to try to fake-it-till-you-make-it, or to try to be someone you are not. Develop your own natural style based on your values and sense of purpose and feel proud of it.
Practice gratitude: It sounds hokey, but the research supports the notion that those who practice gratitude are happier, more optimistic and feel a greater sense of peace and abundance. This will reduce a tendency to ruminate and it will bolster your confidence.
Practice mindfulness: You can literally rewire your brain by practicing mindfulness for as little as ten minutes a day. It shrinks your fight or flight reactive centre of the brain, the amygdala, and it increases the size of your planning and emotional control centre, you prefrontal cortex. You will become less reactive more calm and more decisive.
Develop your wellness habits: What keeps you feeling nourished and energized? Eating healthful meals regularly, taking brain breaks, taking mindful breathing breaks, exercise, practicing yoga or walking in the fresh air all calm your nervous system and grant power to your prefrontal cortex and enable better sleep patterns. Keeping yourself hydrated throughout the day with fresh water fuels the electrical capacity of your brain. Equally important is to engage in these activities from the energy of self-compassion rather than from rigidity or self-flagellation.
Grant power to your inner sage and shush your inner critic: Your inner critic is a voice of fear and holds you small. Your inner sage is your deep knowing voice that knows your essential self.
Notice when you are engaging in critical self-talk and send that voice packing. Rewire your brain by then reframing in the more positive and supportive voice of your inner wisdom. You can even practice gratitude here by thanking your fearful inner critic voice for trying to keep you safe and then stand in your power by invoking your sage voice.
Practice power poses: Practice sitting up straight, heart forward, abs in, chin slightly up. It is a simple exercise that gives you an instant confidence boost, flooding your system with testosterone and oxytocin. (This is supported by several research studies.) You also send a subconscious signal to others who are more likely to agree with you when you speak from this position. Try other power poses, either in private that you might do before a meeting (such as the warrior poses from yoga), or in public – sitting or standing tall yet at ease with openness (arms and legs uncrossed) and turned towards those with whom you are speaking.
Acknowledge yourself: Pat yourself on the back frequently. Acknowledge your accomplishments; speak of them out loud to others. Don't wait for other's to praise you. Women are very good giving others the kudos while not acknowledging their own brilliance and efforts. We need to validate ourselves and honour our capabilities.
8. Pay it Forward:
The world won’t change until we change and this begins by championing, celebrating, acknowledging and mentoring other women.
I am irritated when women tear other women down as a way of bolstering their own egos. Let’s stop needlessly competing and working against each other. The woman who takes pride in herself and authentically leads from her values has nothing to fear from other women. We can all succeed and change the nature and approach of how we work. Who knows, we may even cause a paradigm shift! Why not?
This is an engaging and well-researched book by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. I found the information on how the structure of women's brains can influence how we undermine ourselves fascinating. Equally fascinating is how the research they outline supports my belief that some of women's neurological circuitry provides us with unique strengths.