I sit at my desk, determined to get some good work done. But I’m certain I’ll miss the mark, somehow.
I keep this quote from my friend and super-marketing speaker and strategist David Newman on my desk, hoping a daily reminder will sink in. It’s not that I don’t agree with him. I do. I get it.
But that’s where it seems to stop.
I know I’m not alone. I’ve written about imposter syndrome in the past. And I’ve heard from many friends and colleagues – especially women – who deal with this, too.
But what’s the cause of the problem? Why is it so many of us question ourselves daily? Why these internal monologues about our misses, even when the external feedback is positive?
Why am I always more willing to credit others for their skill and talent while downplaying my own?
Why is it so easy to give in to the voice in your head singing “imposter”?
I decided to look into this a bit. And once I did, I thought I should share it with you.
Confidence and gender are connected
An Atlantic article, written by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman a few years ago, offered some good explanations for a lack of confidence.
First, I’m female. And confidence has a strong gender component. In general, men are more confident than women.
(And yes, of course, generalities don’t apply to everyone. Your mileage may vary. But generalities still shape the world we live in.)
It starts with biology. It seems estrogen makes women better at social skills. (Very important for fundraising, of course.) But testosterone makes men surer of themselves and more interested in winning.
We’re socialized along those lines as well. Girls are expected to behave well. We’re praised in school for being nice and playing well with others.
Boys are expected to be more active. Playing together, they learn to let insults and other attacks to their self-esteem roll off their backs. The constant ribbing buffers them for life. They can take the blows better without it affecting their confidence.
And apparently, this socialization – and how it affects women – is far stronger in western cultures. Western women compare themselves to confident men. In comparison, they feel they come up short. In other cultures, women compare themselves only to other women.
Resilience and risk-taking are key to confidence
The Atlantic article cites a useful example of “Robert” and “Rebecca”.
Rebecca sounded very familiar to me: hardworking, polite, a listener and a note-taker.
Robert was outgoing, unfazed when his ideas are shot down, and willing to keep trying. Rebecca’s ideas were excellently researched – Robert’s were not. But he kept at it, tossing new ones at the boss daily, while she researched each idea extensively.
Her ideas were almost always good – when she was ready to present them to the boss.
His were often no good. But he offered many. And sometimes, he hit on something very good.
There was little doubt he’d end up doing better.
We’ve got to be willing to fail – often – if we want to succeed. Scary, right?
But women are caught in a catch-22.
If you’re like me right about now you’re adding “unwilling to fail” to your list of failures.
We’ve all heard the exasperation in the expression “give me the confidence of a mediocre white man”. But the expression resonates for a reason. It’s frustrating, but confidence is what leads to success.
But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Women have to walk a fine line. Women who are perceived as very confident are not seen as likable. Studies show their confidence (expressed by speaking more during a meeting, for instance) makes these women less liked by peers and managers.
So you need to be confident to succeed. But behave with confidence and you risk being seen as bossy, arrogant, even mean. It’s a tricky one.
That dynamic affects women and leadership in all sector. In the nonprofit sector, most workers are female. But in the largest organizations, the chief executives and board leaders are more likely to be men.
In our sector – especially in fundraising – the skills that make women good at dealing with people may also be hurting us. In men, “nice” is a plus. In women, it’s both expected and interpreted as a lack of leadership qualifications.
And here’s the kicker: it may be. Confidence is a skill we need to develop to succeed.
Why confidence really matters: it leads to action
In The Atlantic article, the authors quote Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University. “Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.”
Without enough confidence, it’s natural to hold back. When we’re not 100% sure we’re right, we pause before talking. When we’re unsure of our ideas, we do more research.
All that leads to inaction.
And of course, the greatest ideas in the world don’t achieve anything until we act on them.
That sure hits home for me.
I don’t like making mistakes. I internalize criticism. A lot.
I’m cautious. I think twice. Or fifty times.
And when I allow it to, all that thinking stops me from doing.
Thoughtfulness is good. Paralysis, not so much.
Confidence: how you can find yours
So, how to fix this? Whatever your gender, confidence – the right kind – is necessary for us to do our best work. So can we keep the positive (“niceness”) while cultivating confidence?
Another piece in Inc. says anyone can develop confidence. Becky Blalock, author and former Fortune 500 executive, offers the following suggestions:
- Be aware of negative thoughts. They make up most of our thoughts throughout the day. Just knowing that, and being mindful, can help.
- Know your goals. It’s hard to move confidently if you don’t know where you’re going.
- Start with gratitude. Begin with it and it will frame your day. (Fundraisers should be good at this, right?)
- Stretch your comfort zone every day. Do something that scares you. You’re likely to find it’s not so frightening. And your comfort zone will expand.
- “Dogs don’t chase parked cars.” In other words, if you’re getting pushback, it’s because you’re getting somewhere. Challenge the status quo.
- Bounce back. Blalock says it’s not failure that hurts our confidence, it’s getting back up when we’ve been pushed down. Not every failure is fatal. Like Robert in the earlier example, learn to let mistakes roll off your back. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the lesson they provide, however. Learning is the point of making mistakes.)
- Find a mentor. This is really important, I think. When we can support each other, we can all succeed. I’m grateful for the people who have taught me. And my hope for this blog is to give a little of that back.
- Choose the right people to spend time with. I’ve certainly noticed this as I raised my children. The kids who find positive, encouraging friends do better. Give your time to the people who uplift you.
- Do the work. Like Rebecca in the earlier example, do your homework. Practice. Research. Bluffing your way through life isn’t the way to go.
- Take care of yourself. Sleep, eat, exercise and breathe. It’s true that you can’t save the world if you are exhausted or unhealthy. Prioritize good habits. (Check out Beth Kanter’s new book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit. She’s been learning all of this by doing.)
- Fake it until you make it. No one is suggesting you be a fraud. But this is where confidence comes in handy. And sometimes, gaining confidence means acting like you already have it. Blalock cites “a company that did a study to discover why fewer of its female employees were getting promotions than men. It turned out not to be so much a matter of bias as of confidence: If a man had about half the qualifications for a posted job he’d be likely to apply for it, while a woman would be likelier to wait till she had most or all of them.”
- Ask for help. It’s OK. People like to help. They feel powerful and flattered. Asking for help can be a relationship builder. (And we ask for help all the time, don’t we? For our organizations. And see how generously and happily people react?)
Still not convinced? Another article promised science-backed ways to find your confidence.
Improve your posture.
Apparently, standing tall makes you feel more authoritative. (Which might be part of the “fake it until you make it” technique.) It can also alter your hormone levels, increasing testosterone – which is responsible for an increased sense of power and willingness to take risks.
Try some stretches – get up from the desk and get the blood flowing.
Stand up straight, just like you mother always told you.
Play some music with a strong bass line.
(They suggest rap – pick your favorite.) Apparently, “those who listened to “high-power” or bass-heavy music felt more confident and powerful when going into interviews and meetings.”
Remember a time you felt powerful
You must have one – and I bet you take that memory out from time to time already. I can think of one: playing Kate in Taming of the Shrew. I remember mentally taking the audience into my hand and holding them there as I spoke. I had them. So a lesson there for me to remember: I can at least play a confident person!
A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology looked at professional interview outcomes. They found “merely asking participants to remember a personal experience with power dramatically affected the impressions that interviewers had of them.”
Give yourself time for a morning grooming ritual
A New York Times article shares that “Grooming rituals can be temporary confidence boosters, and studies suggest that the confidence they inspire is itself attractive.” This works when it’s pleasurable – not when you feel compelled.
Similarly, dress to feel confident. Remember those “power suits” from the 80s? Yeah, apparently there’s something to that.
Find similarities with people you admire
A study found that “when people with waning self-esteem wrote down positive qualities they see in their favorite same-sex celebrities and themselves, they felt much more compelled to become their best self”.
Learn something new
Take up a new language or something else that really uses your brain. It may not make you more confident, but it will likely make you happier.
One last idea that works for me
One person can’t change systemic underpinnings that make it more likely for women to feel less confident. But we can be aware of how we’ve been shaped and make conscious efforts to overcome both biology and social training.
We can also make a conscious effort to bolster the confidence of the women we encounter. Not just our friends, but everyone. Life isn’t a contest. A more egalitarian, “let’s all win together” outlook sure is needed now.
But here’s the thing that helps me the most – maybe it will help you, too.
Think about how you can help.
When asked to describe myself as an expert, I shrink. But if someone needs help – writing an appeal, for instance – I’m happy to jump in and share what I know. That’s how I approach my work. When I do, I feel confident and happy at the same time.
For me, the key is whether confidence is in the service of others or just me. And if you work for a nonprofit, I guess you might be motivated in the same way.
So try some of these ideas – and feel free to borrow mine.
Because if your lack of confidence keeps you from acting, you’re not doing all you can to further your mission.
(Oh, and this post is either going to suck or be useful. I can’t decide. Let me know what you think.)
Photo: Brooke Lark