Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What if the real problem is on the other side of the "confidence gap"?

I recently blogged about The Agenda's blog post about their difficulty booking female guests.  Steve Paikin framed the problem as prospective female guests not wanting to go on TV when they didn't feel they were experts in the subject matter, but, as a viewer, I think it's more of a problem that The Agenda is willing to books guests who aren't up on the subject matter but will read up on it before going on TV (something Steve Paikin presents as laudable.)

I had a similar thought when I read the article circulating about the "confidence gap", which proposes that men advance more than women because men are more confident, i.e. more likely to loudly declare "Yes, I can do that!" regardless of whether they actually can.

Why are they assuming that the men's behaviour is baseline and correct?  What if the problem is in fact that people who are overconfident are being unduly rewarded?  What if the problem is that the system isn't set up to recognize people who have a fair and accurate assessment of their abilities?  What if we could circumvent the Peter Principle by figuring out a way to accurately and proactively identify and recognize people's actual objective skill levels and set them up with commensurate responsibilities and compensation?

Disregarding my role as an employee, if I look at this solely in my capacity as a client, as a part of the economy, as a part of society, I find it unhelpful that people would get promoted and rewarded simply for being loud. In my capacity as a client, as a part of the economy, as a part of society, I need people in positions of power and expertise and authority not just to be the most competent, but also to have a realistic sense of their own abilities and limitations.  It is very important that they only say "Yes, I can definitely do that" when they can definitely do that.  If they're running around saying "Yes, I can definitely do that" when they don't actually know because they've never done it before but they're willing to give it a whirl, that just make things worse.  We need to be able to trust the professionals and experts of the world to actually be competent professionals and experts, and we can't trust them if their best credential is that they're loud.  This creates a world where you have to approach everything with caution - Can that shoemaker in fact fix my shoes? Can that doctor in fact do that operation on me? - even though you don't have the expertise to independently evaluate these people in the first place.  That would make things worse for everyone, so we need to make sure the people responsible for putting people in positions of expertise and authority are able to assess them based on actual expertise.

Talking with Ehrlinger, we were reminded of something Hewlett-Packard discovered several years ago, when it was trying to figure out how to get more women into top management positions. A review of personnel records found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. At HP, and in study after study, the data confirm what we instinctively know. Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in.
Are these men who meet 60% of the qualifications getting the promotions?  If so, there's something wrong.  Why are they listing qualifications if they aren't required?  Why are they considering applicants who don't meet the qualifications if the qualifications are required?

The people who are applying only if they meet 100% of the qualifications are doing the job poster the basic human decency of taking them at their word.  If they are being punished for that, the system is broken.
We were curious to find out whether male managers were aware of a confidence gap between male and female employees. And indeed, when we raised the notion with a number of male executives who supervised women, they expressed enormous frustration. They said they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist. One male senior partner at a law firm told us the story of a young female associate who was excellent in every respect, except that she didn’t speak up in client meetings. His takeaway was that she wasn’t confident enough to handle the client’s account. But he didn’t know how to raise the issue without causing offense. He eventually concluded that confidence should be a formal part of the performance-review process, because it is such an important aspect of doing business.
How to raise the issue is very simple: in the meeting, you say "[Young Female Associate], what do you think? Do you see any points that haven't been addressed?"  Then, after she says something useful, you mention to her after the meeting "I'm very glad you mentioned [useful thing] in that meeting!  It was very important, and no one else seems to have thought of it."  Lather, rinse, repeat until you reach a critical mass of feedback (which shouldn't take super long - half a dozen meetings at most.) 

This lady's manager thinks she is excellent in every respect, but does not have as accurate a sense of her own skill set as perhaps she should. She truly doesn't realize that, despite the fact that she's a relative newbie, the other people in the room don't see the thing that she sees or don't have the idea she does, rather than having already thought of and dismissed it (I've discussed my own experience with this phenomenon here). So she needs to have this demonstrated to her with specific examples and be set up for success. That's where the manager comes in - as someone who sees her work as well as others' and is more experienced in this field, the manager is the best person to give her a sense of what her own skill set is - strengths and areas for improvement.  But because he doesn't know how to do this part of his job without raising offence, her career progression suffers.

He's in this management job without knowing how to boost a shy, new employee's confidence - and instead coming up with the ridiculously ineffective idea of grading people on confidence.  He should be setting her up for success by giving her openings to see first-hand how her contributions are valuable and necessary, but instead he's setting her up for failure by adding a performance-review item that correlates with her greatest weakness, without doing anything to help her improve other than perhaps telling her to improve.

Which leads me to wonder: did this manager, who can't figure out how to effectively coach a quiet employee without causing offence, get his management job simply because he was the loudest person in the room?


I should also add my personal experience with confidence: the more confident I get, the more willing I am to admit when I don't know something or don't have a certain skill set.  When I was just starting out my tech support job in university, I pretended I knew everything everyone was talking about out of imposter syndrome, terrified that they'd mock me or fire me if I (a teenager who had never been more than a personal home user - and this in the 20th century) admitted that I hadn't heard of reimaging a computer. I just said "Yes, of course I know what that is," and frantically muddled my way through.

But as I've had more and more experience validating the fact that what I know is acceptable and I won't get in trouble for not knowing everything, as I've been influenced by Eddie Izzard and learned how to do Entitlement, I've become more and more confident - confident enough to accurately represent and express how capable I do or don't feel in a given situation.

For me, saying "Yes, I definitely can" when I wasn't certain I could was a symptom of lacking confidence.  Saying "Probably, but I'm not certain," or "Sorry, I have no experience in that," or "I'll give it a try but I can make no guarantees" is a sign of confidence.


laura k said...

Re your last 3 graphs, I have had the exact same experience, and I notice this in others, too.

I find that knowledgeable and confident people are more likely to ask questions, and even know *how* to ask better questions.

Now I can go back and read the rest of the post.

laura k said...

This is really good. If you wanted to edit it and send it for publication elsewhere, you could. I'm guessing you're not into that, but it deserves a wider audience.

I'll circulate it through the usual means.

laura k said...

Comments on this post from Facebook:

This is perfect.

This is a keeper.

Why is this the first time I have seen this notion explored? How much better would our world be if this were listened to? And I say this as a loud and perhaps overvalued person.

Plus a bunch of shares.

impudent strumpet said...

Thank you for letting me know you posted it on Facebook! I'm still irritated that there's no way for bloggers to tell who's linking to them on Facebook. Every once in a while I get a flurry of hits, and I have no idea why.