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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Unlocking confidence: strategies to help women thrive as leaders 

Published 17 July 2023 in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion • 8 min read

As more women take up leadership positions, the generalization that we lack confidence is cracking. And yet, as old stereotypes are challenged by new realities, some crucial misperceptions remain concerning the appearance of a lack of confidence. Addressing those could unlock potential for the good of all. 

 

I’d like to tackle the topic of confidence because it’s a thorny one, tangled up with women’s leadership. And it must be said: my views on it are not mainstream. Drawing on my experience as an organizational behavior and leadership professor and as a trained psychotherapist, I see the interplay of gender and confidence in a different light than many. 

To start, I believe that women today do not lack the confidence it takes to succeed in business. I say that based on my own experiences and perceptions, working with female executives for the past 13 years, and looking at the latest scientific evidence. Times have changed, and recent research simply does not support consistent gender differences in self-reported self-confidence.  

Getting meta 

But here’s a wrinkle: Women seem to be more likely than men to think that others have lower confidence in their abilities. We may believe – rightly or wrongly – that outside observers underestimate our capabilities and contributions. That is actually a question of meta-perceptions 

Meta-perceptions, or the ability to correctly predict how others perceive us, matter because they impact our behavior. For example, if I think I have what it takes to occupy the CEO’s office, but I doubt the decision-makers would see it that way, I may assume it’s futile to apply in the first place. Meta-perceptions of this kind can hold us back because they impact our decision to act. And this is how some psychologists define confidence – as a mindset that serves as a magnifier of our thoughts and feelings, thereby stimulating the translation of thoughts into actions. 

Meta-perceptions, or the ability to correctly predict how others perceive us, matters because they impact our behavior.

So, it’s important to understand how meta-perceptions can interfere with our striving and learning when they are negative. Whether perceived accurately or not, they can get in the way of having the confidence to grow.   

Gendered perceptions of confidence 

Before we get to solutions, let’s try to unpack the issue and what gender has to do with it. 

For women, having influence and making progress at work have been linked to gendered perceptions of our competence or abilities. Consider this: “To seem confident, women have to be seen as warm,” summarized Margarita Mayo, who, along with Laura Guillen and Natalia Karelaia, co-authored an eye-opening scientific study in the tech industry.

Their 2017 study found that perceptions of warmth did not matter as much for men in the workplace as they did for women. Guillen explained: “While self-confidence is gender-neutral, the consequences of appearing self-confident are not” since “the ‘performance plus confidence equals power and influence’ formula is gendered.” In other words, self-confident female leaders might be penalized on the job for not conforming to gendered role prescriptions. It’s the appearance of confidence that may harm them. Is that fair?  

It’s clear to me that these findings have implications for women who want to succeed and behave in a confident way at work. It’s also clear that all leaders should take confidence into account in strategic ways.  

Unmasking impostor syndrome 

Before we look at the practical implications of gendered perceptions of confidence, there’s another point I want to make.  

Michelle Obama and Sheryl Sandberg have both proclaimed that they suffered from “impostor syndrome.” And if they did, with their far-reaching influence and outward signs of success, what help is there for the rest of us? 

Michelle ObamaFormer U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged girls to resist the “imposter syndrome” she had felt on the way up and fight men for power, saying plenty of them didn't deserve it

As a trained psychotherapist, I must admit to feeling uneasy about how much we tend to pathologize relatively moderate levels of anxiety and self-doubt in this way. Words have the power to become reality and we have to be very careful how we frame issues 

I believe that it’s normal to have doubts before doing something you have never done before, like starting a new leadership position. Calling it “impostor syndrome” is taking it too far. If we’re talking about the fact that others’ perceptions of our abilities fall short of the mark, we’re not being impostors. No, it’s not fraud, it’s realism here.  

Getting practical about misperceptions of confidence  

To get practical, let’s look at some common, self-limiting behaviors that are misinterpreted by others as lack of confidence. Three things that I see all too often are: (1) reluctance to claim achievements, (2) not asking or negotiating, and (3) remaining too quiet or invisible because of the perfectionist trap. Naming these three problems helps us to formulate solutions to mitigate the damage they can cause. Self-limiting behaviors demand self-imposed corrections. 

Remedy 1: Take public credit for achievements  

While women may assume their achievements should speak for themselves, men tend to be more willing to take public credit for their success. If you think your achievements should speak for themselves (and they probably should in an ideal world), remember that busy people may not devote time to noticing who did what in an organization.

Don’t presume that others will invest the cognitive effort to analyze individual contributions as they happen. If you achieved something positive, something beneficial, claim credit for it. Especially if you are someone who assumes blame when things go wrong, don’t deflect credit to external factors or others. Own your hard-won achievements.  

Remedy 2:  Ask for what you want… and negotiate 

Studies have found that women are less likely to overtly negotiate or ask for a raise or promotion. That puts us at a disadvantage. Not asking for a promotion might be interpreted as a lack of ambition.  

Let me approach this with an example. A couple of years ago, a colleague came to my office visibly upset. She had just learned that a senior position, which she had been hoping to be promoted to, had just been advertised. Her boss had not informed her of the posting. “I’m the best person for this role and he knows it,” she told me. “An external hire would take years to get to know the organization as well as I do and to reach my level of competency.” 

human value and leadership
“Confidence leads to influence – which leads to getting things done for the good of all.”

Her immediate plan was to confront her manager in a routine meeting she was supposed to have with him two hours later. I suggested that she prepare her approach proactively, with something like: “I’m glad the position I’ve been waiting for has finally been advertised. I would like to let you know that I’ve started working on my application. All these years I’ve been preparing for it and now I’m going to apply with confidence since I meet all the criteria required.”  

A couple of hours later, she came to my office again, face beaming. “You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “My manager apologized that he didn’t think of me straight away as he realized I was the best candidate because of my intimate knowledge of the organization and the quality of work delivered so far. He seemed to be upset with himself by this blunder.”  

The upshot: My colleague received the promotion and has been appreciated in her new role.  

Remedy 3: Speak up to introduce others to your competence 

In a first meeting, speaking up and taking initiative are seen as “competence cues,” signaling leadership potential, since those behaviors are associated with proactivity. The cues can include speaking up to summarize the data, writing on the board, or just asking a question that stimulates conversation.  

A study by Adam D Galinsky and Gavin Kilduff suggests that we can propel ourselves into proactivity by priming ourselves before a first encounter with a new group. The priming is simple: take five minutes to “write about your ambitions or a time when you felt happy or powerful.”  

The study provides impressive evidence that this priming helps us to speak up, steer decision-making, and be viewed by others as leaders. Being proactive at the beginning of a group’s life is essential since status is ascribed early and group members who achieve high status early are likely to retain it. Remember this next time you are tempted to keep quiet during a meeting.  

Managing meta-perceptions 

If the above advice on correcting meta-interpretations of confidence doesn’t seem to apply to you personally, consider its implications as a manager of others. As we have seen how gender and confidence are enmeshed, here are some questions for managers to reflect upon: 

  • Do you apply the same criteria when you provide feedback to your direct reports, male and female? Have you tried preparing feedback for female and male direct reports simultaneously? By making entries in parallel, you might notice if you have a propensity to apply different criteria.  
  • Do you systematically link your feedback to business outcomes? Is your feedback actionable? Does your feedback focus on behaviors and not on personality traits (e.g., collaborative, nice, or abrasive)?

Managers of any gender should strive to dig out double standards at work – like the aforementioned expectations that women be warm as well as competent to get ahead. Managers should also be aware that some of us are, inadvertently, prone to exhibit low-confidence behaviors – like reluctance to claim achievements or speak up. With some support, correcting these confidence misperceptions can help women thrive without feeling like impostors.  

And let me end by saying to women: there’s work we can and should do to correct the misperceptions that limit us. Confidence leads to influence – which leads to getting things done for the good of all.  

Authors

Ginka Toegel - IMD Professor

Ginka Toegel

Professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at IMD

Ginka Toegel is a teacher, facilitator, and researcher in the areas of leadership and human behavior. Specialized in providing one-to-one leadership coaching and team-building workshops to top management teams in both the public and private sector, her major research focuses on leadership development, team dynamics, and coaching. She is also Director of the Strategies for Leadership program and the Mobilizing People program.

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