It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been coaching women on their careers, there is one issue that consistently comes up in each session, with each person, in each industry, and at each level…that’s confidence (or the lack thereof). And it just reared its ugly head again yesterday with a client.
Today, more women than men graduate from American universities, women are in space, women hold cabinet positions in the White House (and maybe in the Oval Office), women are doctors and lawyers, and women are CEOs while balancing marriage and parenting. There is no question that women are extraordinarily competent…but the truth is a lack of confidence can sabotage any career.
Confidence is the number one quality hiring managers look for, and it’s the number one quality women need in order to achieve and/or exceed their career goals. There are many reasons why women lack confidence and hold themselves back in the workplace, but there is good news. If women are competent enough to perform at increasingly high levels, then they’re powerful enough to change self-sabotaging behavior and gain the confidence they need to get ahead.
Three confidence-deflators – perfectionism, risk avoidance, and external validation – are all that stand in the way of success!
Perfectionism is a blessing and a curse all wrapped up in a (perfect) little package. On the one hand, it’s admirable and ambitious to set lofty goals and higher expectations and standards for ourselves. That’s how we grow and build a successful career. On the other hand, it can be a trap that women fall into and end up feeling disappointed, inadequate, and worthless. There is no such thing as perfection, there is no such thing as perfect timing, and there is no such thing as a perfect career path. Women obsess over being perfect, and that quality can lead to destructive, self-sabotaging behavior when it comes to career success.
For instance, when women review a job description they need to have nearly 100% of the requirements and qualifications to feel confident enough to apply. Unfortunately, women will hyper-focus on the one skill they don’t have, convince themselves they’re not qualified enough, and then decide not to apply. They places limits on themselves and sabotage their professional potential. Men, on the other hand, barely need to match 60% of the job description before they apply. They have much more of a “strike while the iron’s hot” type of attitude, and are confident enough in their abilities that they’ll be successful in the new role once they get it. It’s not that men don’t feel insecure or unsure; it’s that they don’t allow those negative thoughts to stop them from advancing their careers. It’s ultimately a lack of confidence, not competence, that’s preventing women from excelling in the workplace.
My client, Melissa, is a public relations executive. She is bright, successful, and a total perfectionist. She had been looking for the “perfect” job for about 6 months, but had only applied for one position. In Melissa’s opinion, if she didn’t match the job description perfectly, she didn’t feel confident enough to apply. Instead of focusing on her successful track record to boost her confidence, she found an abundance of excuses…that position is too big of a stretch, I only have 5 years of management experience instead of 7, and I forgot more about Excel spreadsheets than I ever knew. Once Melissa recognized that perfectionism was stunting her career not advancing it, she adjusted her expectations, gained the confidence she needed, and found the “perfect” job as Director of Public Relations.
Not only can the push for perfection be limiting, but so can the inability to take a risk. Women struggle to distinguish a big risk from a small risk, because any level of risk presents the potential to end in failure, and no reward seems worth the risk. The way women cope with risk-aversion is by sabotaging, declining, or ignoring opportunities that could potentially lead to a promotion or greater responsibility and exposure. The reality is that women are low risk-takers, and are paralyzed at the thought of looking stupid, silly, or incompetent.
Remember Melissa… a very polished and articulate, Director of Public Relations, with years of public relations and public speaking experience. She was asked to deliver the keynote speech at a national conference. Melissa had never spoken to an audience that large, she was completely petrified, and strongly considered delegating that opportunity to someone else. All she focused on was the “what if’s”…what if my mind goes blank, what if I faint on stage, what if I look stupid and incompetent? These fears were so overwhelming that Melissa couldn’t see or appreciate the rewards. She was offered an enormous opportunity to gain greater exposure in her industry and she almost said, “No, thank you”.
After several coaching sessions and a heavy dose of courage, Melissa finally agreed to face the fear and do it anyway. She accepted the offer, delivered a great keynote speech at the conference, and found that none of her “what ifs” came true.
Confidence is a gift we should give ourselves, and not wait for a positive performance review, an “employee of the month” award, or any other external recognition or validation. Unfortunately, women rely much more on the opinions and actions of others to dictate their level of confidence. Many women need frequent, positive feedback in order to feel confident about their abilities. Some women receive the feedback they need, but many end up waiting for that external validation and put their confidence on hold until they get it.
My client, Jane, has been a successful sales executive for her entire career. She has won every sales award, exceeded every sales quota, and was consistently ranked number one in her territory. She was recognized, rewarded, and celebrated on a regular basis and felt enormously confident…until she started a new job. Jane’s new boss had a much more hands-off, minimal communication type of management style, and Jane suddenly felt very insecure and unsure about her performance. Her confidence was contingent on external validation, and Jane questioned her ability to continue her track record of success. Jane’s sudden lack of confidence was so severe she viewed herself as a failure and considered changing careers, until she figured out a way to measure her own success, reward herself, and encourage herself to set and achieve even greater goals.
My clients are not the only women struggling with confidence and guilty of self-sabotaging behavior. Most of my female clients admit to stomping on the brakes instead of hitting the accelerator at some point in their careers, whether it’s applying for a new job, campaigning for a promotion, or optimizing a golden opportunity.
We don’t regret what we did nearly as much as we regret what we didn’t do, and there is nothing worse than a missed opportunity.
It’s time for women to give up on perfectionism, take a risk, and acknowledge their own efforts so they can bring confidence to the workplace to match their competence.