Modern media has had much to say regarding female leaders allegedly lacking confidence, underestimating their abilities and holding back in business. A well-regarded piece from The Atlantic called “The Confidence Gap” discussed how and what professional women could do to close that loop.
But I see it very differently from my work with female senior leaders and executives as a performance coach. We need not start with confidence — which currently reads like an exclusively female problem. Instead, let’s start with turning questions about female leadership into business-defining strategy questions, in order to draw everyone into the conversation about this critical business blind spot: gender diversity at the top levels of organizations.
Why are women not climbing the corporate ladder?
Businesses today are experiencing instances of high-achieving, competent women refraining from stepping into their full potential at their highest desired career levels, or to borrow the phrase from Sheryl Sandberg, moving along the jungle gym. My experience uncovers some female leaders are struggling with imposter syndrome, strongly desiring to add strategic value to their organization or team, but unclear on how to open their own doors or have their voices heard.
I see this behavior pattern over and over: competent, head-strong women inflicting their own suffering and shutting down their performance potential through self-talk that I call “head trash.” I hear confessions in this theme from women often: “I try not to offend anyone and don’t speak up just to keep the peace.” “I am frustrated with myself because I want to step up to key roles for which I am qualified and that require my level of subject matter expertise, but something is holding me back; I keep thinking I do not fit in here.” “I need to make decisions that are not popular and need to be less concerned with being liked. I lack the belief that I can make these type of decisions successfully.”
Why are competent, capable women self-selecting out of organizations?
Recent Gallup research states that even with 5 million available jobs, women are leaving the labor force at an increasing rate. For high-impact and high-achieving women, recognizing that they are not stepping into their full potential — whether this demographic stays or exits — is a still multifaceted strategic business blind spot, as well as an individual performance blind spot. Especially since Gallup found that 45% of women aspire to executive level roles. These well-documented strategic business blind spots are having a significant implication on business outcomes as well as women leaders.
Based on my work in this space, I consistently find competent women show up and then mute their intensity by not taking risks or putting their knowledge, opinions and concerns out there for collaboration. The current reality of being the minority in the room and the gender power differential is real, even at the highest levels, and can factor into this tendency to refrain from contributing. When women hold back, it sends several wrong messages to their peers. I can sum it up this way: Women are not being fully valued and not showing their full value. If the social defeat roadblock is large enough, self-selecting out seems like the best option.
As a leader, what climate do you create around yourself?
The solution for leadership is to approach their talent strategy very differently in order to keep the organization relevant and competitive. Leaders are served well by gaining clarity on how they show up to a conversation or business exchange. High-achieving women are looking for a business climate that invites them into the dialogue to add strategic value, allows them to assert their opinion without being judged, and offers them opportunities to demonstrate their value at higher levels or with challenging assignments. Additionally, workplaces offering strong, connected relationships are better equipped to shut down imposter syndrome’s mantra of “I do not belong here.”
The work of evaluating the business climate surrounding an organization, leader or team begins with understanding styles of communication. Neuroscience teaches us about stress and its negative impact on confidence; it shuts down our ability to communicate, think clearly, problem-solve and take calculated risks. One way workplace communication styles, in my view, work against women, is that they create power differentials that lead to women experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, fear and head trash, which all impact the confidence factor.
How do you uncover the hidden performance blind spot?
Look at the climate of your organization and communication styles it utilizes. Does it foster a one-way dominant “command and control” style of communication? Does it foster connected and trusted, high-quality communication, based on an exchange of information, ideas and opinions? If the dominant communication styles are transactional interactions and command and control, then you risk allowing stress and head trash to run at peak levels. Judith E. Glaser’s Benchmark Communications, Inc. Conversational Intelligence Model is a helpful resource for auditing and adjusting your workplace communication styles.
Inquire with female leaders: What is their risk tolerance for putting their opinions out there? Is there a power differential causing female employees to shy away from their full potential for fear of being perceived as having situational incompetence? Do women frequently experience being interrupted or discouraged from fully developing opinions or ideas? When you see this happening, redirect back and invite them to finish their contribution.
When an imbalance of power accompanied by a domineering or authoritative opposite gender is detected, it is easier for professional women to reduce their contributions to important discussions, saying little or nothing. The flip side of staying “safe” and rarely being heard on strategic issues is that women then lose opportunities to demonstrate knowledge, interest and competence. In the end, both women and their organizations lose. A leader must be alert to these patterns and actively invite two-way dialogue, be ready to listen to connect without judgment and fully explore all possibilities to render the best outcome.
By Samantha Tassone
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