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The Con Job..

If you are anything like me, you have probably veered between days of supreme confidence and the deepest self-doubt. You can give a press interview to a journalist who thinks you’ve ‘made it’ and then discover that ‘sure deal’ has fallen through - all within minutes. That’s part of leading a business, but it also means it’s time to redefine confidence.

Each of my new clients cite ‘more confidence’ as one of their goals – somehow believing it a panacea on it’s own. However, that’s just not it works nor is it even advisable. The reason we get better is because we identify something we need to improve – and then work to get better. Indeed, research shows confidence and competence are conversely related; that is the more your confidence goes up, the more your willingness to improve declines. Your confidence makes it more attractive to ‘blag it’ - which should be a worry for any employer, let alone any business woman who knows her clients rely on her expertise.

The truth is, I never work with anyone on confidence per se, but rather on their competence in leading meetings, handling presentations and managing tricky stakeholders. If you get these competencies right; confidence is merely a by-product. However, I wrote my latest book: ‘The Con Job: Getting Ahead for Competence in a World Obsessed with Confidence’ for a slightly different reason. What I came to realise was that ‘more confidence’ means ‘I want my ideas to be heard, my contributions to be recognised, and to get ahead as easily as those around me’.

In addition to writing about how confidence works, it’s vital highlight that even when people did improve their confidence - if they weren’t part of the ‘status quo’ of modern leaders - that is largely native English speaking, white heterosexual men from economically advantaged backgrounds - they were often judged negatively for it. The ‘difficult or angry’ black colleague, the ‘fiery or loud’ LatinX peer, the man from a disadvantaged background who ‘acts above his station’, let alone the ‘bolshy, feisty, pushy bitches’ who, like you and I, are just trying to succeed as working women - often by displaying confident behaviours we’ve been encouraged to mimic.

As I explain in the book, Lynne Cadenhead, the Chair of WES and I talked about the way companies love to roll out ‘confidence-training’ for women as if that is the main issue. It’s certainly far easier to ‘train’ women than address systemic bias and the unequal ways we judge people. Cadenhead, who was one of nearly 40 leaders I interviewed from around the world, talked about her recent experience on a panel: ‘One of the male panellists rarely spoke, but when he did, everyone listened to his succinct points, which often got applause or appreciative nods.’

She noted: "The women also spoke up…. But they received less glowing feedback or praise from the audience. If they’d taken the quieter approach as the first speaker did, we’d likely be told to speak up more and sent to confidence training. It’s ironic and you can’t win." Other interviewees from Scotland, including those from the legal, banking and technology sectors, also saw the way we blindly over-reward confidence, when it’s actually skill and expertise we should be promoting.

In the West, our judgments of what confidence is and who gets to display it are modelled on the behaviour of ‘status quo’ leaders. However, I’d argue, ‘ballsy’ versions of ‘I’ve got this’ don’t work that well for them either and contribute to the reason suicide is the number one killer of men under 45 in the developed world. It’s part of the greatest Con Job the world of work has ever seen.

As we enter the second half of 2020, many businesses, my own included, will have to make cuts - and competence must rise to the top. After all, overly confident leadership decisions left the nation’s competent key workers to clean up the mess. I wrote this book pre-Covid, pre-George Floyd’s murder, but what is clear is that we are now having to redefine both the way we work and who we are in a way we’ve never had to before. If this is not also the time to redefine confidence so that it works for more of us, then I challenge you: When is?

Suzanne Doyle-Morris, PhD is a proud WES Ambassador and her third book – ‘The Con Job’ is available on Amazon now.