Can do vs have done: To what bar do we hold ourselves, and does it hold us back?

“Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism.” — Elizabeth Gilbert

This quote has really been sticking with me for a while. Maybe it’s because I have a middle management crisis on my hands, and I’m trying to diagnose issues to help resolve some bottlenecks. Did I promote the wrong people, or is there something else going on?

Issue: the women I promote to middle management really struggle with ambiguity in their new positions. As a junior person, you’re told what to do. As a manager, you direct others. But what if you haven’t directed others before? I observe paralysis from women who are uncomfortable with being promoted to a role in which they are now the ones who have to define a way forward.

I’m coming to the conclusion that many women gain confidence through experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the only place confidence can come from, and in fact, the higher up the ladder you go, the less first-hand experience from doing the individual mouse clicks comes into play. At all levels, for junior, middle, and senior female professionals, confidence needs to come from a place of “I can do that” (i.e., skills) as much as “I have done that” (i.e., experience).

The quote above points to women not being confident in what they believe they can do vs what they have actually done. Men may define their qualifications in terms of possibilities, while many women may define their qualifications in terms of battle scars.

I would like to see many more women think in terms of possibilities, point to examples of how they used relevant skills to get something, even something unrelated, done, rather than opting out of new roles entirely until they have an example of having done a particular thing.

Another aspect of this issue is what happens after a thing is done. Failure – a word I hate! – is an unpleasant but possible/acknowledged outcome in some circles. It’s always something you try to avoid, of course, but if you fail, some are privileged to have a great support network in leadership, or a decent place to land. Many white males in white collar professions benefit from this, and as a result, bounce back from “failure”, both professionally and mentally/emotionally, better than others.

Many women are terrified of failing in general, and some of this is due to societal pressure – fear of failing at being the ideal wife (“What did I do to make him leave me?”), fear of failing at motherhood (“You should breastfeed or your baby will be sickly or not as good at math!”), and certainly fear of failing in the work place. Double standards still exist, but the root of the confidence crisis in middle management among the women I observe is that failure is unacceptable rather than just unpleasant. A lack of a safety net in terms of professional network (in leadership above her pay grade, not just peers) may cause a woman to be more cautious than her male counterparts. But more often than not, we are likely to rise up to meet the challenges, realizing our potential, not come crashing down!

We can all be a part of each other’s safety net. We will pick each up, we will give each other support, and contrary to the thought that I promoted the “wrong” people, I like to think that we will give each other opportunities, learn to see possibilities, and see each other through shifts in thinking – to be successful in the end.

 

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