On Confidence in Business: Women Who Think Too Much (with Katty Kay and Claire Shipman). . .

In today’s blog, I’m visiting a recent book for women in business and professional worlds.

In The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know (New York: Harper, 2014), Anglo-American and American journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman collect interviews, reading and research that they have done on the epidemic of professional women who lack confidence. Exploring the latest research and perspectives of neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists and others, as well as the stories of some of the world’s most powerful women (from business, politics, the military and academia), the authors analyze why and how overthinking life’s challenges undermines women’s confidence.

In the past century, human confidence has generally been understood as starting in childhood. Kay and Shipman argue that a generation of children has been nurtured to have false self-esteem and false confidence by being told they’re “great,” or that they “can do no wrong” and that they don’t need to improve, merely for completing a task.  The disastrous results are clear in the scores of contestants who are eliminated from “Reality T.V.” shows, for instance, who fail spectacularly and publicly, after having overestimated their own skills.

1.    The Problem:

By contrast, Kay and Shipman argue that authentic confidence is about developing ability and mastery in a “growth mind-set,” so that “the most successful and fulfilled people always believe that they can improve and still learn things” (128).

Caregivers can raise children for success by celebrating what children do well and discussing what they learn from it. Caregivers also need to address children’s failures by talking about what they did well and also what they can learn to do better the next time. The emphasis of this nurturing, Kay and Shipman argue, must be on the child’s action and not on her or his thought or feeling. Such emphasis is part of the “growth mind-set.” Without that, many women assume that talents are determined (genetically) and finite, while men, by contrast, think they can learn almost anything. Those beliefs lead to action (for men) and inaction (for women).

There is in fact an epidemic of professional women (all the world over) who lack confidence because we over-think what we are doing. The process of trying (and sometimes failing) is what yields confidence and, done right, becomes contagious.

Kay and Shipman observe that women undermine themselves “with tortured cycles of useless self-recrimination. It is the opposite of taking action, that cornerstone of confidence. There is a formal word for it: ruminating.” (Ruminating activates the “amygdala” or ancient part of our brains that is about primitive “fight-and-flight” responses. Recall Seth Godin’s discussion of the damaging power of the amygdala in Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?) Women tend to ruminate much more than men and we must find ways to stop, if we are to increase our confidence.

Ruminating or brooding over things puts women at risk of anxiety and depression, by allowing worries, thoughts and emotions to swirl out of control, draining our emotions and energy. The successful British businesswoman Jane Wurwind stresses that: “You’re not born with confidence. You build and you build [it]” (119) through effort.  While men will shrug off failure as the inevitable result of external forces and not their lack of ability, women doubt themselves and undermine their own capacity for confidence. We personalize setbacks. Perfectionism therefore is our most crippling attitude, causing us to “hold back,” instead of “leaning in,” when the going gets rough: “Perfectionism inhibits achievement” (107).

So how can we address the problem

2.      Fail Fast:

The authors adopt the buzz phrase of technology gurus as a theory for overcoming women’s unconfidence. In the tech world, “failing fast” means “it’s better to throw together a bunch of prototypes, roll them out quickly, see which one sticks and toss the rest” (130). The world doesn’t wait for perfection and endlessly refining your product costs too much time and money. “Failing fast” allows for constant readjustment, testing and then moving to success. Kay and Shipman say that action is similarly compulsory for women, so that “when you fail, you fail small, rather than spectactularly. You have less to lose if you fail fast and learn as you ‘fail.’” And if one fails a lot at little things, it stops one from ruminating on one’s possible shortcomings or from imagining worst-case scenarios: “quick failures let you choose how you spend your time,” because there is “no longer a need to get everything right.”

3.      Take Action. And the Importance of Self-Compassion:

Kay and Shipman also argue that confidence is linked to doing. “When in doubt, act” (141 my emphasis): “nothing builds confidence like taking action, especially when the action involves risk and failure. It keeps you growing, improving and gaining confidence. Action separates the timid from the bold” (141). Commonly called “exposure technique,” this approach allows you to try taking smaller steps to build up to a major challenge. (E.g. If you’re going to ask your boss for a raise, why not first try out your approach with a good friend?)

Kay and Shipman write: “Missteps . . . provide accelerated opportunity for growth,” as well as an opportunity to develop self-compassion that is a more “sturdy emotional safety net” than our “traditional [weak] concept of self-esteem” (143). Compassion for oneself should sound like this: “Yes, I sometimes do fail, we all fail and that’s OK. I’ll keep doing and improving.” As women, we need to extend the kindness and tolerance we show others, to ourselves.

4.      Think Less (and Do More):

Women don’t just think too much, but they think about the wrong things, like uncertainty in one’s career, family or future. Ruminating never resolves the issues, but breeds insecurity and paralyzes one from making decisions and acting. Thinking directly affects how we feel, so that even if nothing has happened, “[o]ur minds did the work” (146). And our moods reflect it.

The Confidence Code refers to both “nature” and “nurture” as causing women’s brains to be aware of everything happening around them and to take it all in, cognitively. The thoughts are too often negative and quickly become nightmare scenarios, so that they drain confidence in the guise of “problem solving.” Women “lose the ability to be in the moment, to trust our instincts” because we are held captive by “distracting, destructive thoughts.” Kay and Shipman recommend converting the “default mental mode” into a more positive alternative channel to remind oneself, consciously, of achievements and successes: “I did x  well. I got y done faster than I expected,” and so on (146).

Do the preparation necessary for a task, they say, and then “turn your attention to how much it will help the team or the company” (151). Thinking beyond yourself liberates you “to be bold and assertive and to redirect the spotlight.” A willingness to learn and lots of practice make one a “doer,” not some image of a “natural” (over-) achiever.

5.      Be Authentic and Not  “Too Good”:

Kay and Shipman refer to how the Californian “Valley Girl” subculture leaves professional women with an “upspeak,” in which we raise their voices at the end of their responses to questions asked by others. This happens epidemically to women who know the answers to the questions, but are “nervous [about] sticking our necks out.”  So: “Say it like you mean it” is another essential strategy. Don’t pretend to be anything or anyone, they recommend, but take repeated action, so that “one small brave thing leads to another” and so that each action becomes easier: soon confidence will flow from you.

As Sheryl Sandberg says, in her book Lean In, women need to sit at the table, not in the peripheral chairs of the boardroom. And practice sitting up straight, with authority, instead of in a self-humbling, round-shouldered slouch.

Kay and Shipman particularly argue that girls need to be raised to become themselves and not be rewarded for being “good all the time.” The 21st century version of the “Angel-in-the-House” female persona does nothing to address the rough and tumble workplace: “Perfection is the enemy of the good [and] the enemy of confidence” (176). The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott famously posited the concept of the “good-enough” (healthy, not “too good” or perfectionistic) mother as one who allows for small manageable (non-catastrophic) failures, as she raises her dependent child. The child grows to develop increasing self-reliance, as a result. The “good enough” concept, developed in the mid-20th century still has not sufficiently infiltrated the business world’s understanding of women’s confidence.

And Kay and Shipman also helpfully cite the practice of Japanese primary schools in using struggle in the classroom (e.g. a child struggling, alone, in front of a large class, to learn to draw on the chalkboard a geometric shape). The struggle there is treated as an opportunity for him or her to grow and not as an indicator of failure or stupidity that must be improved upon, by the nearest adult (168). To build authentic confidence in the classroom, healthy struggling must be cultivated. Canadian school systems (for one) fail terribly in this area.

High-powered, confident women don’t have to be “bitches” or hypercompetitive toward each other, so that when we have found authentic confidence, we can encourage and raise other women to do the same.

For professional women in general and businesswomen in particular, inadequate self-confidence is a trans-generational epidemic. But Kay and Shipman argue that building confidence is within our grasp, by acting small and repeatedly (in a “growth mindset”); by failing small and quickly; by ending rumination; and by finding a “good enough” level of performance that allows women to occupy space and speak authentically.  These may not be radically new insights, but women in business need to hear them.  When we stop thinking too much, we can finally begin to thrive in a time that for us is long past due.

What is my Call to Action? The Confidence Code reminds me to stop over-planning that cold call, that networking event, or regretting a difficult moment or conversation. How can Kay and Shipman’s insights about women’s confidence challenge and enrich the way you conduct business?

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