Annie Auerbach
Apr 7, 2016

Career vertigo: Women and perfecting the art of confidence

The business of being (or at least appearing to be) confident is a tricky one for a lot of people, and even more so for many women.

Annie Auerbach
Annie Auerbach

Confidence is the holy grail of personal skills. We all want to ‘crack it’—to instil it in our kids and project it whether we’re talking in front of clients or meeting new people. Confident people are magnetic and fun to be around. They’re not desperate to be liked, and that makes them all the more likable.

But it's a psychological tightrope. Too much confidence, and you veer into arrogance. Too little confidence, and you’re in danger of being ignored and looking like you lack competence.

When we think about confidence in the workplace, there is often a gendered discourse. Flamingo recently conducted research across Omnicom agencies that identified ‘career vertigo’, a lack of desire or confidence to reach the top experienced by some women as they progress through their careers.

There is some evidence that women struggle with confidence more than men:

  • Self-doubt (Institute of Leadership and Management, 2012): British managers were surveyed about how confident they feel in their professions. Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with less than a third of male respondents.
  • Self-value (Linda Babcock, Women Don't Ask): While men often overvalue their skills and strengths, women too frequently undervalue theirs. Men initiate pay negotiations four times as often as women do, and when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men do.
  • Confidence may start high, but drops off (BAIN & Co): Women may enter the workplace aspiring for top management roles, but after two years in the job “women’s aspiration levels drop by more than 60 percent...with only 16 percent of women still thinking they can reach executive roles”.

In Asia, the picture is similarly gendered. Anne-Marie Slaughter talks of the ‘carer path’ as opposed to the ‘career path’, and it’s women who get put onto this carer path, whether for children, family or for elders. Preeti Varma, Flamingo cultural intelligence consultant, explains: “Women in Asia don’t want to let go of this role—they want to be the carer, but also the modern working woman. So they put immense pressure on themselves to do both perfectly. You don’t see women allowing themselves to fail and this can be a huge confidence shaker.”

The cultural element behind all of this cannot be ignored. In Asia, just as in other markets, society gives women fewer reasons to feel self-assured. It’s wrong to view a lack of confidence as ‘my own problem’ when it is in fact the result of a culture in which equality is still rare. The bigger question, as Jessica Valenti writes in The Guardian, is ‘creating a culture that values self-assured women’.

Regardless of our gender, in the meantime, we’re all going to have to manage confidence at some point in our careers.

At the 2016 Omniwomen Leadership Summit, Vanella Jackson, global CEO of Hall & Partners, Tammy Einav, managing director of Adam&Eve DDB, and I held a breakout session on 'cracking' confidence. Here are some of the tips we discussed:

Speak early and ask questions

Don't allow a whole meeting to pass without having said something. Say something early and don’t be paralysed by thinking that the thing you say has to be of groundbreaking profundity. Vanella believes asking an astute question can often have an 'emperor’s new clothes' effect, cutting through the marketing speak to the core of the issue.

Find your tribe

These might be mentors, role models, friends or the people you like going to lunch with at work. But the people that believe in you are a good place to start when you’re experiencing self-doubt. They’re the ones that will reflect back at you all the good stuff and help build self-belief. Likewise if there are any people who leave you feeling deflated about yourself, consider minimising your contact. Be amongst radiators, not amongst drains.

Do stuff that you love

This might be in work or outside work (anything from running in the park to writing short stories to doing some colouring with your kids). When you’re doing things that make you happy, you feel proud of yourself, and that boosts confidence both inside and outside the workplace.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Your best asset is you

It’s natural to look around at inspiring leaders and want to emulate their style. But truly, the very best asset you have is your individuality. Einav talked about being true to who you are, not ‘manning up’ or adopting someone else's style. Not only is it inauthentic, it’s exhausting, especially if you work long hours. Be yourself and have confidence in yourself…. it’s the one thing that is irreplaceable about you.

Care a bit less

Cindy Gallop says that the single most paralysing fear we have is the fear of what people will think. It stops us from speaking up, from sharing our opinions, from contributing, from challenging. It’s good to care what people think in an empathetic way, but not when it paralyses you. Try and care a little bit less and speak up a little bit more. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realised how seldom they do.”

Stop saying ‘Just’

Women use worlds like ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ in their emails more than men. Notice how many times you do this and stop using those words. It’s amazing how much more confident your tone is. There’s even an app for it!

Conviction trumps perfectionism

You don't need to know everything, you just need to believe in what you do know and say it with conviction, even if it’s different from what everyone else is saying—in fact exactly because it’s different from what everyone else is saying. Heed Bertrand Russell: “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

Annie Auerbach is senior director, cultural intelligence, Flamingo London

 

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