What Keeps Many Women From Feeling Confident In The Workplace

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This article first appeared on Forbes

Time and again we hear the same thing: the way to build confidence and courage is by acting with it.

And yet, the Impostor Syndrome remains a reality for many women from the board room to the Golden Globes. Over and over, women reveal that despite their recurring successes, they continue to doubt themselves when considering new roles and opportunities. This often inhibits them from taking risks and pursuing challenges. And even when they do, they experience the same gut-wrenching self-doubt every single time.

What keeps some highly competent women from seeing their own brilliance? Why does their competence not sink in despite ‘proving themselves’ every single time? When does “Just do it” not translate into “I can do it”?

These are questions that need to be addressed when helping people rise to their full potential, especially women in male dominated professions. The economic and business case for advancing women to senior leadership positions is clear and compelling. So is the dearth of women at the top despite the time, effort and money spent in their leadership development. Addressing these key questions and finding solutions to them should result in measurable success and improved performance for business and women.

My research over the years has shown that many women struggle with new challenges because they haven’t internalized the feeling of competence that comes with success. Consequently, success does not automatically lead to greater confidence the next time they tackle a project or task similar to one where they accomplished or exceeded their goal. The reasons for this can run deep, sometimes all the way back to early experiences. They can also stay hidden, because these feelings of incompetence operate largely outside of conscious awareness. And they can show up as the common female dilemma of “I know I am capable, but I still can’t do it”.

Luckily women do not need to play small and stay within their comfort zones, or go through the excruciating process of fighting the same recurring fears of revealing their perceived incompetence in order to do anything worthwhile. We now know that that the brain is plastic, and that we can change old patterns of thinking by consistently engaging in new (and more helpful) ones. Organizations can play a pivotal role by promoting systemic practices that help employees feel good about their performance in order to building lasting confidence in their competence.

Celebrate Success

Many organizations wrongly believe that celebrating success will make employees complacent and negatively affect performance. Nothing is farther from the truth! Studies shows that the practice of celebrating success helps embed them in long-term memory instead of being lost on the brain. Overtime, it builds a library of competence that shows up as genuine confidence in one’s abilities. This is especially important for women as they have inherited multi-generational training in modesty and find it difficult to share their success unless they’re encouraged to do so.

Allow Failure

Research shows that rebounding from failure builds feelings of mastery and not just competence. Mastery is the general sense that you’re able to handle whatever comes your way while competence is knowing that you’re good at what you do. In the volatile and ambiguous environments of today’s workplaces, where action and results are neither linear nor guaranteed, it’s crucial that organizations encourage risks that may result in failure—and provide safe spaces to learn from it. In this way employees feel confident to create, innovate and approach opportunities despite inherent risks.

Promote Work Life Balance

Working women continue to be the primary caregivers in most families, responsible for the bulk of childcare and domestic duties. Between putting food on the table, making sure homework is done and getting the kids off to activities and then to bed, there is little time left for a breather, much less for feeling good about their work. What is far more common is the “mother’s guilt” that comes from trying to find the elusive work-life balance. Organizations need to be empathetic to this female reality and take responsibility for their role in promoting a healthy work-life balance through a culture of flexibility, open dialogue and creative solutions.

Employees drive innovation, customer loyalty, growth and more. Only when organizations truly value their employees and meet them where they are by addressing their unique needs, challenges and aspirations, can they help them rise to their full potential.

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