Is low confidence holding you back?

Posted: Thursday July 15 2021

By: Abbie Coleman

Is low confidence holding you back?

By Gayle Johnson

Have you got work-related dreams? A juicy new project, job or promotion, maybe? What’s stopping you achieving them?

There’s been a tonne of research about the difference between men and women when it comes to putting themselves forward at work. Perhaps most famously, Hewlett Packard reviewed their personnel records and found that, taken as a whole, women would only apply for a post if they felt they matched 100% of the job criteria. Men felt comfortable applying if they thought they matched 60%.

The book ‘The Confidence Code: The Art and Science of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know’ by journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman uses this and many other examples to suggest that women are missing out on work opportunities because of self doubt and low confidence compared with men. Where men might be prepared to give it a go, women stay safe or put their success down to luck rather than skill.

Now, in my view, it’s a dangerous game if the single message from this is that women need to overcome confidence issues to do better in the workplace. It’s not that working women need to be ‘fixed’– there are massive social issues at play.

For example, girls being assertive at a young age routinely being discouraged by being called ‘bossy’, a term that Sheryl Sandberg of ‘Lean In’ fame is trying to eradicate with her banbossy campaign. Or the distinct lack of high-level part-time roles – disproportionately affecting mothers, as they tend to be the ones working flexibly around parenting responsibilities. Or the Everyday Sexism accounts of women speaking up in meetings, being ignored then the same point being roundly applauded when a male colleague raises it moments later.

It’s also a mistake to assume that getting the top exec job is what everyone’s after. Many people don’t define professional success for themselves in that way, me included.

That being said, professional self-sabotage from under-confidence is a real issue affecting plenty of working mothers. People who’ve let opportunities pass by because “I’m a bit rusty” or “X could do that better than me”.

If you’re even slightly familiar with not going for something because you’re worried you’re not good enough, here are some sneaky things to watch out for – plus some tricks I’ve found useful in dealing with them (though I’m still working on it):


1. Over-thinking
Going over and over something in your mind – a conversation that didn’t go as you wanted, something that might have caused offence, endless what-ifs. I’m guilty of this. I can agonise over every sentence, either in person or on paper. I’m doing it now. I’m thinking: “I can’t possibly do this subject justice in a blogpost. I should hold off, get a PhD in it then write a fully referenced journal article, maybe in 2019.” The trouble with overthinking is that it can lead to paralysis. Confidence is about taking action. I’m not claiming to be a world leader in work-based gender issues and related psychologies. I’m starting a conversation. So – Let It Go. Listen to Elsa. Do your thing, learn from it (good and bad) and move on.
2. Perfectionism
Apparently women suffer from perfectionism more than men. The difficulty with perfectionism is that it can lead to fear of failure, so you stay firmly in your comfort zone. And that’s where you get stuck, because if you’re perfect at something, what are you learning, where are you going? If this is you – try something new. A small thing. Maybe a project at work, a hobby at home, whatever. Enjoy figuring it out. Let yourself make mistakes, celebrate them, and see where it leads.

3. Nerves
Everyone feels nervous when new, important or unusual things are happening – it’s the whole fight or flight survival thing. But how we talk to ourselves makes a difference. Words matter. My life changed (in a small way, but it did!) when by chance I heard a chat on the radio with a Neuro Linguistic Programming practitioner who suggested that every time you feel nervous, you reframe it as being excited. Same type of emotion, but nervousness is associated with weakness and fear, excitement is all about positivity, anticipation, feeling in control. Waiting to give a presentation with butterflies in your stomach? Not nervous, excited about the interesting thing that’s about to happen. Such a simple switch – but so powerful in how it sets you up to face whatever’s next.

So, not forgetting the complex social issues wrapped up in this, can you spot any gremlins in your self-confidence? What can you do to take their power away and achieve your work goals over the next twelve months?