Despite the mammoth efforts for affirmative action and some encouraging shifts in gender representation at middle management levels, the rise of women leaders to the lofty peaks of organizations remains glacial. One report forecasts that at the current rate, women will not see equal representation at the CEO level until 2100. This is far too long to sit and wait for gender equality.
Not discounting the structural barriers that still very much affect women in the workplace, such predictions invite the need for honest reflection on what female leaders could be doing differently to rise to the next level faster. Are there things that we could be doing as women that, by not doing them, inadvertently slows us down?
Confidence is one of the key gender differences that shows up consistently, particularly in the workplace. Richard Petty, a psychology professor from Ohio State University defines it as “the stuff that turns thoughts into action.” This begs the question: Why do women in particular struggle to take action? From a young age, girls are socialized to be “good” and quickly learn that they receive praise for doing things perfectly. As Carol Dweck asserts, “If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world.” This is reflected in research showing that perfectionism disproportionately affects women.
Many women leave school and studiously put their heads down, hoping that if they master their competence first and perfect every single step, that confidence and progress will surely follow. This is the confidence myth. It leaves many women waiting for the illusive sense of confidence to strike, before they make big moves. The pursuit of perfection inadvertently undermines our confidence and slows us down. When we seek perfection, we are focused on the difference between our ideal output and our current performance. This reinforces self-doubt and kicks the confidence boost we are waiting for down the metaphorical road. We are stuck on a confidence hamster wheel.
You may recognize the outgrowths of this pattern in yourself or in the women who surround you: working doggedly to get everything right, not speaking up until we are certain we have the correct answer, engaging in endless rounds of training before taking the floor, or hesitating to take on new opportunities until we have studiously practiced and perfected every skill necessary. These patterns are reflected in research, indicating that women typically do not apply for jobs until they meet 100% of the job criteria, as opposed to men who are willing to apply once they meet 60%, as noted in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” This reluctance also appears to inhibit salary discussions as men negotiate their salary four times more often than women. The cumulative effect of seeking perfection has dire consequences for women’s career trajectories, which get compounded by other factors that delay our progress, such as the years often dedicated to having and rearing families.
The good news? We don’t need to wait until we feel confident to perform well. One experiment found that women did not perform as well as men on a spatial reasoning task. Analysis of the data indicated that this was because women were less likely to answer questions that they were unsure of. When the researchers shifted the experiment, forcing participants to answer all questions, women and men performed equally. Men, without knowing any more than their female counterparts, were simply more willing to take a punt when they weren’t 100% sure. In a world that increasingly rewards innovation and risk taking, the pursuit of perfection is a slow, grinding path to success and leadership. We need another way.
This requires a paradigm shift for female leaders. We need to quash the myth that confidence will come from perfecting every step, and replace it with a willingness to take a leap, trusting that we will learn as we grow. Confidence is the belief that we can do something, so we need to trust ourselves, and remember: This is imperfect progress.
If the mere mention of “imperfection” gives you the jitters, then learning the steps to taking “imperfect action” is likely to serve you, and the women that surround you, particularly well in preparing for the year ahead.
There are three things that you can start to do differently to practice imperfect progress:
1. Practice Imperfect Leaps
The nature of perfection is that nothing ever feels good enough, no matter how hard we try. This makes waiting for the perfect time to act futile. Rather than waiting for perfection before we act, we need to practice taking imperfect leaps.
So, when opportunities come knocking, don’t turn them down, wait around or delay. You won’t actually know how ready you are to take a leap until you’ve done it. Before that, you’re just assuming that you can’t, without any evidence to the contrary.
How to do this? Choose one thing that you aren’t 100% ready to do yet this year, and do it. Some tips to remember:
- It should be something that brings up a level of fear, desire to avoid and/or self-doubt.
- There needs to be visibility, rather than something you strive for privately.
- It needs to be something that moves the needle on your desired outcome.
2. Know Your Proximal Development Zone
We all know the old adage, “two heads are better than one.” When it comes to trying something new and outside of our comfort zone, we need to call on the support of others.
Your zone of proximal development, a term coined by Lev Vygotsky, refers to the space between what you know and could achieve on your own, versus what you could achieve if you were supported by someone who’s more familiar with a task. Essentially, Vygotsky found that children learned faster when they had someone to help them bridge their skills gaps. The same applies to adults.
When it comes to imperfect progress, asking for support in the areas that we’re unsure about can help us to build our capabilities faster. We’re never going to know everything that we need to know, but we can always be resourceful. This means drawing on those around you to fill in the gaps, so that we can dive into action and learn along the way.
How to do this? Identify where the skill gaps are for you, and get support. Some tips to remember:
- Find someone who can support you to fill those gaps. A coaching relationship is ideal.
- Identify an ongoing mentor relationship that you can call on when you need a boost.
- Ask for feedback on what you’re doing well, so that you can capitalize on this further.
- If you’re a people leader, use this approach with your people to further their skills and sense of competence.
3. Respond Compassionately
While it’s important to rely on the support of others, what’s more important is to be able to rely on ourselves for support. There are going to be times when things don’t pan out, when we make mistakes and get things wrong. It’s in these moments that responding to ourselves with the same kindness that we reserve for others is crucial.
Each time we make a mistake and respond harshly to ourselves, we create an internal environment that stops us from feeling safe to take healthy risks. On the flip side, if we can recognize that making mistakes is part of being human, we’re able to be with ourselves through the pain or disappointment, and recover much more quickly to refocus on the task at hand.
How to do this? Frame your mistakes as part of the learning process rather than as personal failures. Some tips to remember:
- Remind yourself that growth happens outside of your comfort zone, and anything meaningful is coupled with a certain level of discomfort (which you can tolerate).
- Be a mentor for yourself and reflect on what you have learned from the experience, and what you will do differently in the future as a result.
- Be patient with yourself and acknowledge your small (or large) gains.
As we dawn on a new year, let’s get off the confidence hamster wheel and focus on imperfect progress. Consider this: What is one thing you want for yourself this year and how will you put this into action? Happy leaping.