This is one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons. Like most things, it’s funny because it’s true. To get ahead (or even heard), we women have to start talking about our expertise before we’ve fully developed it. And for those of us who only feel comfortable talking about what we can do after we’ve perfected and proven it, this is a problem.
Sometimes the women I coach ask, “are you saying fake it till I make it?” Absolutely not! For one, I never coach people to lie. That just creates anxiety. And two, it doesn't actually change the way we feel about ourselves. In fact, it keeps us stuck in the false belief system that we can’t say we can do something until we’ve actually done it. Instead, we must learn to look for and acknowledge every bit of confirming evidence that we have the skills necessary to do the jobs we are seeking.
For many men, confidence gives them the edge to put themselves out there and seek promotions far earlier than women. In their book The Confidence Code, Katty Kay & Claire Shipman talk about a Hewlett Packard study which showed that women apply for promotions only after they believe they meet 100% of the job qualifications, whereas men apply when they only meet 60%. Tell the truth, have you ever applied for a job for which you are only 60% qualified?
Advancing in our careers requires speaking confidently about our abilities because, as Ohio State University professor Richard Petty has said, “Confidence is the stuff that turns thought into action." We may hesitate to suggest a course of action that we are not positive will succeed, and we certainly may hesitate to ask to be promoted to a job that requires skills we've not yet honed. Putting ourselves out there before we're sure we're ready takes courage. But once we do, we have the opportunity to grow, develop and improve. Yes, failure is a possibility; but as one of my colleagues says, FAIL stands for first attempt in learning.
The first goal in coaching for promotion is to understand that we women must build our confidence in order to get ahead. And we do that by acting with the belief that we can learn to do things and further develop our talents. Carol Dwek, author of the book Mindset and a Stanford psychologist, explains that the most successful and fulfilled people in life believe most in their ability to learn and improve. And, indeed, it is true. The major factor in whether people achieve expertise is purposeful engagement not innate talent.
Sure, we can try to figure out where this all began and why. There are lots of well researched reasons why women doubt their abilities, suffer from imposter syndrome, fall into the perfection trap and struggle to stop ruminating over what went wrong. There is research that shows boys and girls are still reprimanded and rewarded differently as they grow, therefore reinforcing certain behaviors that do not serve women.
And we can go to therapy. Incidentally, one of the ways I describe the difference between coaching and therapy (and believe me, I've had my share of both!) is that coaching is about looking forward and therapy is about looking back. My therapists and I have looked at all kinds of choices I made during my childhood and adolescence (okay, who am I kidding, and well into my twenties and thirties) that may have served me once upon a time, but no longer do. Understanding why they seemed like, and maybe were, intelligent choices at the time is kind of useful. But more useful is really knowing that what got me here won't be get me there. And in coaching, I help my clients develop confidence. Because that is what we need to get ahead.
Self-efficacy is our belief in our ability to execute the behaviors necessary to achieve success in a given situation. I like to talk about self-efficacy because it doesn't mean a belief that what we do will be perfect. It's about a belief in our ability to execute.
To build self-efficacy, I help my coaching clients retrain their brains. Our brains are not hard-wired like computers, but are more like playdough. It's what we call neuroplasticity. This means the ingrained or automatic thinking "I can't do that" can be retrained. So that when faced with an opportunity, our automatic response is, "I haven't done that yet, but I certainly have the skills to do it!"
Here’s a simple coaching exercise I do:
Go through all of the positive feedback that you’ve received. Notice that while you may not be an expert in the exact thing you are asking to be promoted to do, the feedback makes clear that you have some serious strengths. Look for data about your raw skills and talents: a core intelligence, an analytical mind, a clear communicator, a tactical problem solver, an ability to read the room, to name a few. If you don’t have good written feedback, then ask those you trust "when am I at my best?"
Using this data, craft four or five really strong sentences that you believe are true about you and that emphasize your strengths. Make them clear and concise. When you’re done, put them on a clean sheet of paper and commit them to memory. Repeat them. Seven times a day for seven weeks.
I did this with my coach when I first started facilitating retreats. I used to plan for days in advance. I would read, write, outline, interview and once I had a plan I would call my mentors for advice. The retreat would come and not much would proceed to plan because when people do deep work, you never know what might happen. While the pre-work that I did served me in learning (I read more, listened more, and connected more), even I had to admit that there came a point where all of this preparation was of diminishing returns. I realized I was trying to be perfect and expertly predict everything that might happen. But that was impossible. I was at the sixteenth decimal point when I shouldn't even have been doing math.
My own coach helped me construct six simple statements that, while hard for me to believe at first (I found them embarrassing, self-promoting and it actually even made me cry to say them aloud), I knew they were true. They were based on feedback from others. And I also knew that my believing them would make me a more confident facilitator, which in turn would serve the people l was working with. When you say something seven times a day for seven weeks, you retrain your brain.
This exercise changed my life and it has changed the nature of what people say about me as a facilitator. My self-efficacy led to greater confidence. My confidence led to action. My action led to stronger skills development. And this all continues to lead to much more work.