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The Self-Confidence Factor: How to Win as a Woman in Business

Posted by Dr. Kathy Laster on 02/28/2017

Have you ever down-played a compliment or your own success at work with a line like: “Oh, it was nothing,” or “I got it on sale!” or “I was just lucky,” or “It wasn’t really that difficult”? If so, you may be unintentionally hurting yourself more than helping.
Why? The fact is, though gender bias in the workplace is improving (albeit slowly!), when it comes to business, we still live by the male-dominated rules of hardball.
Dr. Pat Heim states, in Hardball for Women; Winning at the Game of Business, that women minimize praise in order to keep the peace—a phenomenon known as the power-dead-even rule: "the self-esteem and power of one [woman] must be, in the perception of each woman, similar in weight to the self-esteem and power of the other.”
The power-dead-even rule is rooted in our biology and upbringing as females, as it helps us preserve horizontal relationships and achieve “win / win” results that benefit us. But for males, the rule is hierarchy, where competition and skill (or whatever means necessary) always determine who wins and who loses. According to Heim, though girls learn lessons like, “We’re all equal,” and “Power is always shared,” boys learn lessons like,

  • Don’t challenge the coach.
  • There’s always someone above me and below me.
  • The guy on top gets all the privileges.
  • If you’ve got power, you need to use it or lose it.

So, though downplaying outright praise may be “a linguistic device that women use to keep the peace” and live by the power-dead-even rule, to men, minimizing or deflecting praise may appear like poor self-esteem, and can thus hurt your standing or reputation, your perceived competence as a leader, and your promotability.  
I don’t believe that women inherently have less confidence or lower self-esteem than men; I think that women express it differently. However, as we females go about blazing a trail in the hierarchical world of business, I’ve extracted five key strategies for how we can empower and elevate ourselves and each other-- and calibrate our internal perspective to set us up for success.
Seek Out Disapproval:

Males have an especially strong advantage when it comes to dealing with disapproval. From childhood, they practice receiving, managing, and giving criticism, for this is how they advance in the hierarchy.
Yet females often miss out on this valuable practice. In fact, we often internalize criticism, taking it as a personal affront or indication of deficiency. We go to great lengths to avoid direct disapproval—either receiving or giving it.
However, in a business setting, where optimal performance is paramount, avoiding disapproval may hinder us more than protect us. It’s important to be able to take or dispense negative feedback when necessary, in order to improve our outcomes and KPIs. By changing our attitude regarding disapproval, we can perceive it, as males do, as constructive criticism and guidance instead of a personal attack.
Yet, we must seek the right kind of evaluation, from the right people; ask for structured feedback on a regular basis from credible sources. Scheduled meetings with those whom you trust and respect are perfect for this. On the other hand, exercise cautious judgment when it comes to accepting criticism meant purely to undercut or harm.

Don’t Smile So Much:

Though everyone smiles when they’re happy, Dr. Heim thinks women often smile when we feel vulnerable. She calls this the “please-don’t-attack-me-anymore smile,” which is a natural reaction, even among primates, often associated with subordinate status. This nonverbal cue indicates fear, submission, or appeasement, but is often not productive for resolving important issues.
Smiling when you feel confused or vulnerable sends mixed-messages that weaken your future communication. Instead, try using the “stone face” in these instances. That way, your cues are less likely to be misconstrued, and you act and communicate with greater integrity.

In light-hearted situations, smiling may be perfectly appropriate. However, try not to smile as an automatic default. After all, your job is not to always make others happy; your job is to do your job. Become aware of how and when you’re smiling to make the most of your interactions with colleagues, clients, and coworkers.

Get Comfortable with Negotiating:
In a UPenn Wharton School article, “Women and Negotiation: Are There Really Gender Differences?”, Beth Ann Day, a managing director and chief talent officer at AllianceBernstein, states,
It makes me nuts when I hear someone like a female Wharton MBA say they are not good at negotiation or public speaking. Well, you don’t have to really be that good; you just have to do it…. Think, ‘This is what I need to do. This is how I move forward.’
For women, because we often perceive negotiation as confrontation—a ruffling of feathers, of sorts—we tend to steer clear of this activity, doing it as little as possible. Yet, this endangers our chances to advance—both the physical opportunities and the mentality of opportunity. We should be “leaning into” negotiation and similar activities, instead of leaning away.
Negotiation, like every other skill, requires practice and patience for mastery. It could be as simple and low-stakes as what Day suggests, in returning a pair of jeans after the 30-day return policy expires. Keep in mind the saying, “Done is the engine of more.”  The goal is not to be a perfect negotiator, but to just do it—flex your negotiating muscles. Day advises pushing yourself,
…to negotiate regularly and to get comfortable with a bigger ask, such as 20% more than you expect in compensation, or a promotion six to 12 months earlier. Sometimes, the answer will be yes, sometimes no, but the idea is to keep asking and not take it personally. A side benefit of this activity is that it signals to your manager that you’re ‘ambitious, hungry and ready to take on more.’
If the mere thought of negotiating more makes you squirm, it might help to extend your perspective on negotiation beyond yourself: “You’re negotiating for your family. You’re negotiating, if it’s compensation, so that you can have more money to take care of your parents when they’re old…” Hence, “realizing that it’s not “just about you,” Day posits, “might make you a better advocate for yourself”—and for those you love.
Furthermore, Heim advises women not to ask for what they need:
When it’s time for the negotiation, ask for only what you deserve. Many women will say, ‘My child-care costs just went up. I need a raise.’ Child-care cost has nothing to do with work and can be easily dismissed. Rather, ask for what you deserve, but at the same time leave enough room to bargain.
Get Motivated by Money:
Related to the issue of negotiation, men and women often have differences in attitudes towards money. According to Dr. Heim, for men, money is related to status and success, and is “affirm[ation] that they have won.”
Because men associate the dollar so closely with their worth as people, they’re more willing to fight for it. Conversely, because women are more motivated by internal rewards like pride in work or a sense of accomplishment, they’re less likely to push for money.
Yet when a woman doesn’t “push for money,” or at least allow herself the permission to be motivated by money, her circumstances are limited in the rules of hardball. Instead, reframe your mindset on money, like Dr. Heim does in the following example:
When I began my business years ago, I found myself extremely reluctant to ask for money, particularly large chunks of it. I felt a strong urge to bill below market rate, because otherwise I’d feel “money hungry.” I talked to a wise friend about my problem. ‘Don’t think of it as money,’ she said, ‘think of it as votes. If people like what you do, they’ll be willing to give you votes.’
Thinking of money as votes might just help you win big! Of course, allow (as in don’t look down upon) other women to be motivated by money as well. Doing so will show your support and may lead to the best bonus of all—another step on the path towards closing the gender pay gap.
Link Success with Self:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, men and women frame success and failure differently. Here are four truths universally acknowledged, compliments of Dr. Heim:

  • When men succeed, they point to self.
  • When men fail, they point outward.
  • When women succeed, they point outward.
  • When women fail, they point to self.

How true these are! I think we women should attribute success to our abilities, not effort, task ease, luck, or another external circumstance. (After all, how often do you hear a man be bashful of his contributions?)
Of course, give credit where credit is due—and be sure to recognize and praise others for mutual success—but don’t be quick to dismiss or downplay your own accomplishments and accolades.
It’s also important to, “document your successes,” so that you build out a solid portfolio of evidence to demonstrate your productivity. Heim suggests “collecting a file of evidence showing how you’ve impacted the bottom line.” She gives this example,
One of the toughest salary negotiations I’ve ever endured as a manager was with a woman who planned the company’s meetings. Over a year’s time, she had kept data on how her negotiations with hotels, restaurants, and vendors had saved the company over $260,000. The pay increase she was asking for, while substantial, looked rather paltry next to the savings.
A tip to help you document your success beyond the numbers is to “keep letters commending you for your work. If you receive verbal feedback, tell those who compliment you how much you appreciate it, and ask if they’d mind putting it in writing.” Of course, use appropriate tact with this technique; you don’t want to seem too desperate for praise.
When you fail, however—and we all will, in the process of becoming the best professionals and leaders that we can be—you should be realistic with yourself about the cause. Don’t engage in negative self-talk, though that might be the easiest option. (“Oh, I always do this. I’ll never get this right,” etc.) That leaves no room for constructive growth and makes you feel even smaller.
Instead, identify the root cause of the failure and relentlessly extract learning value from that mistake. (“I did the best I could for now; next time, I’ll know how to maneuver better.”) This ensures that you’ll get the largest benefit from the cost you paid in the failure.
In closing, as you’re living and learning and killing it as the capable and confident businesswoman that you are, find extra confidence in the idea posed by Jennifer Pereira, a principal in direct private equity at CPP Investment Board. She thinks that, as women, “we stay much calmer in situations that are stressful: situations where you have to multi-task, or when things go wrong. Men are more likely to get upset, to ‘freak out,’ for lack of a better term.”
So the next time you make a mistake, just “keep calm and carry on,” as your fiercest, sharpest self. And when that next compliment comes your way, accept it with fully-earned, non-diluted appreciation. (And yes-- a smile! ;))

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