What if the disparity in criticism, and not women’s innate trust in their abilities, is what’s really behind women’s so-called confidence problem? Perhaps it’s not that women are unsure about the technical aspects of their jobs. It’s that women are going to get criticized on style no matter what action is taken.
Kim Perkins, Ph.D., organizational psychologist and author of the upcoming book, Winner Take None: Rethinking Competitiveness for the New Economy, recently joined us for our Future of Work Roundtable series, taking on Criticism, Confidence, and the Imposter Syndrome. What follows is an edited version of Kim’s compelling presentation.
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“Criticism, confidence, and imposter syndrome are some of my very favorite things to talk about because this is something that we associate as something that women feel, but actually, the research shows that this is something that everybody feels and wrestles with in their own work life in the feedback they’re getting. Everybody wants to be confident about what they’re doing, and a lot of people, not everybody, but a lot of people feel a little bit of that pull that people call the imposter syndrome.
Let’s talk a little bit about what it means to have imposter syndrome. This term has been around since the 1970s, and this idea is it’s not really a diagnosable syndrome but it’s the idea that you feel like you’re in a little bit over your head, like when you have success, that you’re attributing it to something that’s outside of yourself.
Dispelling the Myths Around Imposter Syndrome
The thing with the imposter syndrome that people get wrong, however, is thinking that it’s necessarily a lack of confidence in your abilities. A lot of the research shows that that’s not really what is at the root of imposter syndrome. Everybody, however, wants to feel this confidence. Everybody wants to feel like you know what you’re doing and people around you see you for your strengths and understand how you fit into the bigger picture. However, there’s been a lot of folks, especially in the last couple of years, who are directed at women about boosting women’s confidence at work.
A lot of people have been suggesting things that we need to do in our own HR systems to make sure that women get the resources that they need to develop, that women feel like they can bring their whole selves to work and not meet half of themselves at the door. I think that these are worthy things to talk about, but that’s not really where the roots of both imposter syndrome and a lack of confidence come from.
A lot of times, people talk about programs especially reaching women that it’s like a ‘fix the women’ approach. Meaning, if we just get women thinking about it the way men think about it or women thinking about it differently, then everything will be fine. I’m really against this approach because a), it puts the burden on the people who are not doing as well in the system and that doesn’t work very well. And, b), that’s not necessarily the root of the problem.
What I’m going to talk about today in terms of where imposter syndrome can come from and also why people aren’t feeling the confidence that they would like to feel, I want to talk about the nature of the feedback and the criticism that people receive that it’s sometimes based on who they are, it’s based on identities and it’s based on assumptions that people make.
Going back here for a second to imposter syndrome, one of the hallmarks of imposter syndrome is feeling as though people are going to find out that you aren’t any good at what you’re doing. That you’re somehow a fraud and that you don’t actually have the skills to be here.
It’s not always your skills that are the thing that you’re worried about here. That’s one of the things that I think people often misunderstand. It’s not necessarily can I do the job, it’s will they accept me as I am? Will they accept a person in my position? I’m a mixed race women of color. I’m sometimes a lot older than the people that I end up working with in the tech situation. I worry about those things, not so much necessarily do I have the skills but will they be able to see me? Will they be able to see me and include me and be able to use what I have?
Will they be able to see me and include me and be able to use what I have?
How to Avoid Stereotype Threat
This brings up a lot of things around the concept of stereotype threat where we’re worried that we’re going to confirm stereotypes about the groups that we’re in by our behavior and that then puts extra pressure on us to perform. Then that has the opposite effect of then reducing our ability to perform because we’re worried about confirming the stereotypes people have of you.
Again, as a person who is older than the average tech person, I feel like I have to be on top of the tech every moment or else somebody might notice that I’m older. Then that would be bad. That often means there’d be a lot more fumbling. That’s that cycle that we get into that again, going back to the ’70s, people associate with imposter syndrome where you are being self-sabotaging. In the ’70s people really didn’t understand the idea that this was dynamic. This was something that happened between people rather than something internally to yourself.
I’m not going to fault them for that. There was a lot less computing power to really tease out these relationships the way there is now. There wasn’t quite such a social focus on it, but now we know that it’s a dynamic between people who are giving feedback and receiving feedback and that all day long, whether it’s official or unofficial feedback, we’re always out there trying to figure out how we’re doing, vis-a-vis other people or what people think of us and so it’s always fluid and dynamic thing.
A lot of the older advice we have for imposter syndrome, it’s really very person-focused and we’re doing our power poses and we’re trying to influence how the world sees us and take back our power. I want us to do that. I want us to take back our power when we’re feeling one down in a situation, but it’s also important to know that some of that isn’t going to go away. You can’t control all of that. You can’t always control how you are received.
You can’t always control how you are received.
When I work with younger people in their own leadership development, people go through stages. In the beginning part, everybody wants to make sure that they’re doing it well enough, that they’re meeting everybody else’s criteria, that they’re being able to achieve a standard level that they can do this. Then as you go along in your life as a leader, it becomes more that what you want to accomplish and who are you being in this situation? Are you achieving your own goals?
This is a time when it’s really important to surround yourself with other people who are on this journey with you. Again, the higher you go in the organization or the more impact you’re having if you’re a solo practitioner or whatever level you are, the more people are going to see you and they’re going to criticize and that doesn’t mean that you have to take all of that on board.
A lot of it is about figuring out what you want to actually take on board versus a step that you can leave there that is not part of that. That’s really in terms of the soul of confidence, it’s about knowing your worth and what you have to offer, rather than being attached to, are you controlling how people see you for whatever reason? That’s why in my opinion, so much leader development focuses on your own values and your own goals because you’re always going to get criticized. Eleanor Roosevelt had a great quote about this, which was ‘Do what is you believe is right for you will be criticized either way.’
When you get that criticism, there may be some signal in with all of that noise. What I don’t want is for people to just start ignoring everything that people say about them. I know that on social media, we make a big deal about like girl bosses and we’re going to just brush it all off. The problem is that that actually inhibits our ability to develop a lot of the time because a lot of research has shown that women tend to not seek out feedback as much as men. When women are in a very male-oriented situation, they will often seek out feedback.
Sometimes, especially in male-oriented industries and situations like engineering, sciences, etcetera, what ends up happening is that the male way of doing things and the traditional way of doing things ends up being the way of doing things, when there are actually far more creative and better options for how women get things done.
In the ’80s, everybody knew that business was male and male was business and so if you wanted to be in business, you had to act more like a male. We know from research, so much research that that is a terrible way to do it because when you’re bifurcating from some of your own qualities that you value, it reduces your creative thinking, it puts more stress on you. It’s just exactly the opposite of how we’re doing business these days where the value is with authenticity and trustworthiness.”
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