Confidence Matters, But How Much Do You Need?

How important is confidence to women’s career advancement? There has been growing interest in the media about how confidence may affect women’s professional success. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Katty Kay and Clair Shipman discuss a new finding regarding the root of confidence and its potential connection to competence, pointing out a link between confidence and a “host of genetic factors.” They also note that women generally have a lower level of confidence, which may limit them from asking for what they want, getting promoted faster, getting paid more, and reaching the senior ranks of leadership.

Too Much of a Good Thing?
Clearly, your confidence level can have a major impact on how you show up and speak up at work. But the question that you need to ask yourself is: how much confidence is good enough? Based on genetic studies and gender research, men generally have more confidence than women. But is confidence truly what makes a great leader?

Possessing a certain degree of confidence can be an important factor in women’s success. Yet like any virtue, if you’re over-reliant on confidence, it can lead to self-limiting behaviors and outcomes. A recent HBR blog by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic titled, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” indicates that overconfidence does not always lead to competence. The author notes, for example, that men who exude confidence may apply for positions for which they are unqualified and unprepared.

Taking risks, driving for results, competitive bantering, and power negotiating don’t always result in success; they can instead lead to damaging results under certain circumstances. When we remember the 2008 financial crisis, the saying, “We should have had more Lehman sisters,” bears repeating.

This is not to discount the male leadership style, but we also shouldn’t discount the natural leadership style of women. Collaborative and integrated thinking can be very effective for decision making and problem solving, as can drawing on your emotional intelligence and coach-like behaviors. The whole point is that having a high degree of confidence is not always the secret sauce for leadership excellence. In fact, one could argue that the feminine leadership style is more in demand than ever before.

3 Pillars of Confidence
While an overemphasis on confidence can lead women to limit themselves unnecessarily, there’s no doubt that a certain degree of confidence is still an important foundation for great leaders because it helps determine how they approach business situations and their day-to-day interactions. Yet genetics are not the only factor that affects your confidence level.

SHAMBAUGH and other research indicate that confidence is based on 3 key pillars: brain science, your own belief systems, and targeted development. The direct path to your brain and genetics links to your belief systems, which can be hard-wired based on thinking and operating a certain way for years. In SHAMBAUGH’s Women in Leadership and Learning program and coaching practice for women, we get to the core of women’s beliefs by helping them pause and reexamine their belief system.

Your beliefs are the catalyst for your own thinking and internal narrative, which can be self-limiting. Some internal narratives I hear from women are:

  • “When I speak up in a meeting filled with men, I’m not acknowledged and don’t feel valued.”
  • “I don’t have the experience to go for this promotion, so I’ll hold off for now.”
  • “I’m not worthy or not sure of my value, so I won’t ask for that bonus or pay raise.”

While you could argue that these women lack confidence or perhaps were not gifted with the “confidence gene,” our research has found that women can learn to conquer their insecurities, transform their thinking, tailor their behavior, and build their confidence from within. In other words, if you don’t have the confidence gene, it doesn’t mean you can’t be confident. It just means you may have some additional work to do.

The work starts by gaining a deeper awareness of your beliefs, motivations, and intentions that channel your confidence and behaviors. In the next blog post, we’ll discuss how to do this in detail.

Learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s Executive Coaching, Leadership Programs, Keynote Offerings, Sponsorship Consulting and our signature Women In Leadership and Learning Program (WILL) by visiting

Becky’s talk at TEDx: It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor

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Rebecca Shambaugh

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