Have you ever felt like an imposter? Or stopped yourself from applying for a job because you felt underqualified?
Perhaps you’ve hesitated to say something in a meeting only to find someone else makes the same point and looks like a hero?
If so, you’ve fallen into what BBC news anchor Katty Kay calls the confidence gap. That’s where your self-perception is lower than your actual abilities. The danger of the confidence gap is that over a career, this can lead to less promotions, opportunities and pay.
Women suffer from the confidence gap more than men
It turns out that this happens more often for women than men. Katty Kay’s recent BBC article cites a Columbia Business School study which found that men tend to overestimate their abilities by 30% while women tend to underestimate themselves.
While Katty Kay rightly points out that closing the confidence gap alone will not level the playing field between men and women, it is something that we can do something about as individuals and as managers.
And in my experience, this confidence gap can just as easily apply to people who are new to a situation or people who are in the minority group.
What you can do to close the confidence gap
As an individual, it’s energizing to know that you can take action immediately to improve your situation. Especially when there’s such a significant payoff from closing the gap.
Here are five actions you can take. Choose the one or two that would most move the needle for you, and start taking action.
1. Change your self-talk
When you want to close your confidence gap, it’s useful to start by checking in with your thoughts. Notice what you’re repeatedly saying to yourself.
What parts are encouraging and supportive versus discouraging and destructive? Would you say any of those things to a team member or a loved one?
Simply noticing when your self-talk turns negative is an effective way to shift away from negative mode because you’re looking at it from a third-party perspective. Awareness is an important first step.
Then, once you get good at noticing, you can start substituting a new thought that’s more confidence enhancing.
2. Change your mindset
It’s easy to think that the way you’re looking at the world or at a situation is the only way. But the reality is that we all have the choice of how to frame things.
For example, holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl writes in his book Man’s Search for Meaning about the fact that even when every freedom has been taken away from you, you still have the freedom to choose how to react to the situation.
3. Choose who you listen to
Just as other people’s moods can rub off on us, I find that if I’m around people who are looking at the downside of things or constantly doubting themselves, I start to fall into that pattern as well. So, choose whose voices you listen to carefully.
Listen to the people who are both knowledgeable about the topic and have your best interests at heart. Ignore and avoid people who are negative and hypercritical.
4. Choose what you hold onto vs let go of
Whenever I got feedback, I would ignore the positives and focus exclusively on the one area for improvement.
For example, I skipped right over the part about being “a high-impact and articulate communicator”, but instead focused on “could be slightly more succinct” and obsessed about whether I was rambling in my speaking and conversations.
Instead, make a conscious choice to hold onto the positives, and then address the opportunities to improve. Hold onto the things that make you feel empowered and inspired, and let go of anything that feels demeaning because it serves no purpose.
5. Build your confidence bank
Every time you take a step outside of your comfort zone, whether that’s asking a question in a big meeting or applying for a new leadership role, it’s a reason to celebrate and recognize the courage it took.
That’s why I like Katty Kay’s story about feeling like a fraud, but finally putting her hand up at a press conference and asking a question in a room full of experts when she was the only generalist.
“By asking that one question, I had made easier to handle that situation the next time I was in a high level meeting. I had banked a bit of confidence.”
So take those opportunities to step outside your comfort zone and build your confidence bank. The pay-off for your career and your life can be significant.
What managers can do to help close the confidence gap for team members
I had a great department head who helped me close my confidence gap.
He had seen me in a client meeting where I presented our proposal with confidence, handled objections well, and won over a skeptical Chief Financial Officer.
He also saw me in the internal group meeting every morning, sitting quietly and saying nothing, while my colleagues (mostly male) had no trouble jumping into the discussion.
After a few weeks, he called me into his office and asked me why I didn’t speak up more. I mumbled something about feeling like I didn’t know enough, having been in the department 3 years less than everyone else.
That’s when he leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said, “You know just as much as those other guys, and probably more. You work harder, do more and are at least as smart as they are. I want you to speak up. Share what you know. You deserve to be confident because you’re great at what you do.”
He then proceeded to invite me into discussions and encourage a constructive tone to the meetings.
While it wasn’t a magic bullet that changed my participation levels overnight, my department head’s words and actions were the starting point for closing my confidence gap. I remember his words to this day and still pull them out when I need that extra bit of confidence in a new situation.
So, as a manager, here are three things you can do:
1. Talk to the person privately
Draw out their concerns, encourage them to speak, and help build their confidence. Let them know you are on their side.
2. Create an inclusive environment
Run meetings and lead the team in a way that makes it safe for people to speak up and be themselves. Don’t accept negative behavior from team members that causes others to close down. Call people out when they step over the line. This will make you a better leader and manager for all people.
3. Invite the person to speak
If you know the person has something to say, then ask them to contribute their views in the meeting. Sponsor them to have a slot to speak up but don't do it in a way that puts them on the spot. Be there to support them.
What will you do?
Confidence is at the heart of success in your personal and professional life.
When you’re living in the confidence gap, your fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy. To quote Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t — you’re right.”
The time has come.
If you’ve fallen into the confidence gap, allow yourself to recognize and own the value you bring. Stop underestimating what you are capable of, and start bringing your best self to the world.
If a colleague or team member is in the confidence gap, reach out and encourage them forward.
The world needs every one of us to fulfill our potential and make the difference we are meant to make in the world.
What will you do to close your confidence gap or help a team member close theirs?
Leave a comment and let me know.