The Hidden Danger of Lacking Confidence

28 Jul 2014. Jennifer FarrerPodcast

In the cover story of the May 2014 Atlantic, “The Confidence Gap” journalists Claire Shipman and Katty Kay addressed an obstacle that my colleagues and I experience almost daily in our work helping female executives overcome their leadership challenges. Put simply, the best and brightest women often don't know—or don’t internalize—how valued they really are.

As common and well documented as this phenomenon is, I can’t help but feel a twinge of heartache when I hear a talented, interesting, articulate woman say, “I worry that I’m not ____ enough.” We have seen first hand what Shipman and Kay point out: a natural consequence of this lack of confidence is that women hold themselves back in any number of ways—not speaking up, not asserting her opinion, not forcing the tough issue.

But we also see something that the recent swirl in media coverage has over-looked. Lacking confidence often compromises a female executive’s effectiveness by causing her to overcompensate for what she perceives as a shortcoming. Put another way, lacking confidence can drive female executives to hold back and go too far.

Take for example one sales executive who would over-prepare so much for pitch meetings that she came off as scripted. In her determination to get through her talking points she would dominate the conversation to the point of talking over her clients—a cardinal sin in sales. The few times that clients were able to interject a question that was “off script,” she would get so flustered that she was unable to listen to and address their needs or objections. When I asked her about this, she revealed the insecurity behind it, saying simply, “I have to convince myself that I know enough before I can convince them.” This despite an overwhelming body of evidence in the form of feedback from peers, supervisors and clients that she was intelligent, credible, and knowledgeable about the business.

Another accomplished, highly regarded C-level executive confided to us that she felt she was in a one-down position, saying “I feel like I constantly have to prove myself.” She became obsessed with perfection and spent an inordinate amount of time mired in the details of day-to-day deliverables that she should have trusted her staff to execute. In doing so, she neglected other critical aspects of her role as a senior leader—positioning the organization for future growth, building relationships in the industry, and interacting with and influencing the Board.

Of course, lack of confidence—and the detrimental behavior that results from it—is not exclusively a female issue. We’ve worked with many male senior executives to overcome the self-doubts that cause them to hold back of overcompensate. Nevertheless, we do find that women tend to be far more self-critical than their male counterparts.

My colleague Rob Kaiser regularly conducts gender audits to analyze the leadership cultures within client organizations, which represent many different industries. One step involves comparing how male and female leaders’ self-ratings stack up to coworker ratings on the Leadership Versatility Index, a 360 assessment developed by our firm. The assessment asks raters to indicate whether the leader does too much, too little, or the right amount of leadership behaviors such as holds people accountable, thinks strategically, and encourages innovation.

When these 360 assessments are compared to the executive’s self-ratings in each category, female leaders tend to be much harder on themselves than their colleagues are on them. What’s more, even when a male executive and a female executive receive similar ratings of “too much” or “too little” from their colleagues, the woman is on average, likely to rate herself twice as harshly as the man will rate himself. The undeniable takeaway is that women’s calibration seems to be off compared to what others think of them—their internal sense of how far off the mark they are is exaggerated.

One senior executive who was described by colleagues as “a change agent,” making “bold moves” and “driving transformational change”, reacted to the feedback by saying, “that is the surprise of the day.” In fact, she had rated herself as doing too little strategically—the opposite of how her peers, direct reports, and supervisor rated her. Their take was that she was so determined to push bold change, she took on more than the organization could handle. In overcompensating for a perceived strategic weakness, she was breaking the system—and her people.

Certainly, as Kay and Shipman point out, women have made undeniable progress. The number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 has increased from zero in 1995 to 23 in 2014. Since 1997, the number of women-owned firms in the U.S. has increased by 59%—one and a half times the national average. As women continue to make greater strides breaking into the senior executive ranks, the focus will increasingly, relentlessly, turn to their performance. It will then become even more critical to help female executives overcome the confidence gap and its corrosive effects that can undermine that performance.

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