In 2014, a book was released onto the market creating almost as much impact as Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean in’. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, two journalists, released their book “The Confidence Code”. They were talking with talented senior women in business, politics and the military who felt like frauds and put their success down to being lucky and being in the right place at the right time (The Imposter Syndrome). Clearly from their capabilities and accomplishments, this wasn’t true. These women were experiencing self-doubt and their lack of confidence was at odds with their success. This consistent message caused the authors to wonder whether this was simply anecdotal or whether there was more to it than that. They say that once they started to dig into the data, they realised it was real and that led them to investigate further, ultimately writing “The Confidence Code”.
I do get excited when people validate the Imposter Syndrome and its significant impact on leaders, in this case, specifically female leaders.
I agree that confidence is a critical success factor – confidence is equated to competence – which is why the lack of confidence is such a problem for many women.
I do have a challenge though with the seemingly interchangeable use of self-esteem and self-confidence. It might sound like I’m being petty. Some might even say I’m wrong and that they are the same thing.
I have no attachment to being right. I do have an attachment to finding solutions that work and to me, by seeking to resolve self-confidence, we are seeking to fix the symptom, not the problem. It is akin to having a leaky water pipe and fixing it with some tape. It may hold for a while, but eventually the seal will break and the problem will resurface.
Let’s pull it apart.
How are self-esteem and self-confidence different?
Self-esteem is a psychological construct and is defined as a sense of worth and self-respect. It’s a subjective emotional evaluation of our own worth. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs and emotions and is a statement to ourselves about who we are.
Self-confidence on the other hand is defined as a feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities and judgement. It relates to what we can do and how we feel about that.
As I’m sure you know, we filter our experience, each of us creating our unique perception of reality. Our amazing brain organises these filters into an hierarchy. In unpacking how we do that, Robert Dilts built on the work of Gregory Bateson, a well-known anthropologist, to visually represent the power our brain attributes to each of the influences on our thinking, our behaviour and our outcomes.
The higher the level in the model, the greater the influence on our performance in whatever context we care to nominate. Self-esteem is a sense of personal identity. It relates to the beliefs we hold about ourselves, our value and worth. Self-confidence relates to our capabilities which have a lower level of influence on our behaviour and outcome. The way we perceive ourselves – identity – impacts whether we can see and access our capabilities.
Have you had the experience of knowing logically you can carry out a particular task and yet find yourself doubting it, procrastinating, second-guessing yourself? Yet at other times, you can carry out a similar task with no problems at all? The difference isn’t the capabilities: they haven’t changed. The difference is something in the ‘environment’ that creates personal uncertainty.
I have had that experience. Many years ago, I spoke at a network event for senior women. It was the first time I had presented my Skirting Leadership(TM) keynote. However, I was a capable speaker, having presented on the Imposter Syndrome for quite a few years before that occasion. As I talked about how the Imposter Syndrome impacts women in their leadership journey, one of the audience members aggressively threw her hand in the air, identified herself as a psychologist and demanded to know whether the Imposter Syndrome was something that impacted people around the globe. In that split second, I was triggered into a feeling of not being good enough. It wasn’t that I had lost my speaking skills, although in that moment, I had certainly lost contact with them. In fact, I did my best impression of Elmer Fudd as I struggled to get past the white noise in my brain. The problem was that I instantly judged myself as being less qualified to be talking about the Imposter Syndrome than the women in my audience. My belief around my own worth in that context undid me. That’s the power of self-esteem.
Can someone experience low self-esteem and be successful at the same time?
I have been challenged by many people over the years when I talk about the Imposter Syndrome being a problem of low self-esteem.
There are two types of low self-esteem. The first is the trait or characteristic of low self-esteem which is debilitating and would be unlikely to be experienced by someone who was successful by any objective measure. People with this trait of low self-esteem rarely if ever achieve anything of significance because they unconsciously allow their self-perception to rule their behaviour.
However, there is another type of low self-esteem and that is the state of low self-esteem. The outcome of the state of low self-esteem is that the individual affected has fluctuating self-esteem, at times feeling good about themselves and at other times, feeling like imposters. The trigger to activating the state of low self-esteem is a situation in the external environment that creates a personal feeling of uncertainty. Like the psychologist in my experience.
How does ‘splitting hairs’ over self-esteem and self-confidence help in its resolution?
When we seek to solve the feeling of not being good enough by addressing confidence, we are seeking to resolve the outcome rather than the problem itself. We are looking to increase capabilities by increasing knowledge, skills and insight. That may take away the pain in the short-term. It doesn’t resolve the underlying problem.
Addressing the real problem – the state of low self-esteem associated with the Imposter Syndrome – involves a personal journey to reclaim yourself. It is the journey to acceptance of your qualities, talents, strengths and successes as well as the weaknesses. It involves letting go of the yoke of perfection and judgement. It requires you to unpack your unconscious filters including beliefs in order to question their validity and usefulness. It’s a journey of personal integration; of bringing into line how we see ourselves, how we would like to see ourselves and how others see us according to Alfred Adler.
How does the Imposter Syndrome (a limiting mindset) and working on self-esteem relate to business?
It does seem to be a personal area and at first glance, not relevant to business. However, it represents a huge opportunity for organisations. A majority of any firm’s assets lie between the ears of its people.
When we experience the feeling of not being good enough, we engage in coping behaviours that can be detrimental to personal and business performance:
- when perfection drives us, we may become judgemental of the way people behave, criticising them and use the same criteria to judge ourselves, impacting morale and engagement;
- that same perfection driver may turn us into workaholics in an attempt to ensure others can’t find fault or improve upon our work, providing a sizeable barrier to high performing teams and collaboration;
- we can withhold our talents and capabilities, afraid that we will be judged and found wanting, impacting improvement and innovation;
- we may become defensive, taking situations personally and reacting emotionally making it hard for others to provide feedback that would improve our performance;
- we could seek to do our work while staying under the radar, paradoxically hoping our good work will be recognised and rewarded ultimately becoming resentful when that doesn’t happen;
- handling conflict is uncomfortable so we don’t, instead behaving in a passive-aggressive and covert manner which can cause problems in the workplace;
- we may downplay our talents and capabilities in order to fit in and be just like everyone else, in the process forfeiting our ability to make our unique contribution
- we could have such a burning desire to prove we are good enough that we fail to consider risks and consequences exposing the business to fall out.
Each of these behavioural responses has an impact on performance and outcomes.
When you address low self-esteem, you can unravel these complex work situations.
In doing so you can recognise and embrace your unique combination of talents, capabilities, experiences and successes, and as a result, make the contribution only you and your talented team can make.
Doesn’t that beat taping the leaky pipe?