We’ve all heard the advice: Believe in yourself and you’ll come out ahead.
A lack of confidence is often blamed for women’s failure to climb the corporate ladder. There are plenty of studies that back up claims that women suffer from a lack of confidence. A 2011 study from the Institute of Leadership and Management in the United Kingdom, for example, revealed 50% of female respondents experienced self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared to less than a third of male respondents.
Perhaps this is why workplace consultant Helene Lerner, who runs the site WomenWorking.com, was constantly asked how to gain more confidence. “I see confidence as something that women feel if they had more of they’d have a better job, make more money, oversee more people and in their personal lives, maybe their conversations would be more honest, more direct,” says Lerner.
After speaking with women in top leadership positions, however, Lerner realized what women really needed was a redefinition of what confidence is. While most of us think of confidence as “fearlessness,” Lerner says we should look at confidence as “courage” instead. “There’s no such thing as fearlessness, because when you step out of your comfort zone and do something differently, it’s not going to feel comfortable,” says Lerner.
It’s the myths that we have about confidence that create the language we use to hold ourselves back. In her book The Confidence Myth: Why Women Undervalue Their Skills, Lerner identifies the misconceptions women have about confidence and how these are holding women back. Here are three examples:
Waiting to have everything in place before taking action, Lerner says, is what prevents women from moving forward. The biggest myth about confidence, she argues, is that confidence is what occurs when the conditions are perfect. Real confidence is having the courage to take a step forward even though the terrain isn’t secure beneath your feet. “I’ve seen in the interviews that I’ve done with women (in leadership positions) that they stepped out not having these skills in place, not having every single contact they needed,” says Lerner. “What you don’t have, you can either learn or delegate.”
Many women, Lerner says, assume that leaders are born, not made. But she argues this isn’t the case. Following research out of the Center for Talent Innovation on executive presence and leadership, Lerner says the leadership qualities that are highly sought after today–poise under pressure, good communication skills, the ability to read a room, knowing how to dress the part–can all be learned. Women need to seek mentors who can teach them the skills they need to acquire in order to obtain these positions.
Criticism is an important part of growth, but many women avoid criticism, fearing it will deflate their confidence. But being able to accept constructive feedback is an important part of growth. Lerner says we can learn to overcome our defensiveness to criticism so that we can properly process feedback. Deep-breathing exercises, for example, allow you to slow down so you don’t react immediately. Repeating what was said also helps you to take a step back and gives you the space you need to process the feedback.
When processing feedback, ask whether it’s coming from a trusted source, whether you’ve heard it before, whether you have to accept all of it or only some parts of it, and what you may need to change. Being able to process feedback gives you the power and the courage to take a step forward. “Confidence is something active. The more we take our power back and start acting in ways that are powerful, the more confident we’re going to feel,” says Lerner.