Women into Leadership: Confidence & self belief


Category: Leadership

December 16, 2019

“Confidence doesn't mean you're always right, it means you are not afraid to be wrong.”

Image of girl feeling happy and confident
Confidence: Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

During the Hilda Matheson: Women into Leadership programme, the first topic we worked on was confidence. Knowing I had struggled with confidence my whole life, I thought this is perfect for me, but thought this might only be useful for a couple of the women, like myself. I couldn't of been more wrong. Everyone in the room had some issues related with confidence and as a group of women, we looked at what it meant to us and how we could all be more confident in ourselves. As if we aren't confident, how can we expect people we lead to be confident in us?

What does confidence mean?

There are many different ways of defining confidence. There is no single ’right’ way of defining it and it can manifest itself in many different ways. Take a look at these definitions. Which ones do you connect with?

Definitions of confidence:

  • A feeling of trust in one's abilities, qualities and judgement

  • Our cognitive and emotional appraisal of our own worth

  • Belief in one's ability to perform a specific task

  • A feeling of hopefulness about the future

What confidence looks like

There are many different ways confidence can look and there are many types of confidence. If you type the word 'confidence' into Google Images, you will find lots of thumbs up, smiles, fist pumping and jumping!

Growing up, I thought being the loudest in the room was to be 'confident'. And whilst being able to communicate loudly requires confidence, I now understand that it's not the only type of confidence. You can be quiet and still be confident, you can be self-confident, you can be confident enough to not be afraid of being wrong and you can also act confident.

In the workplace, and in leadership, confidence is something that helps us build trust, relationships and encourages fellowship, so when work is challenging, volatile and changing we are trusted to still deliver.

We often feel we lack confidence because we see it as something you either have or don't. However, confidence is not something we are born with, it's something that can be learnt.

Women and our confidence barriers

There are two research concepts that have been developed to help explain our barriers to confidence.

Tiara syndrome

This is the concept, coined by Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, where women expect that if they do their job well, someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head. The tiara is often seen as a promotion, a pay rise or any deserved reward, that women believe they will get naturally for doing a great job. However, this never happens.

Women are therefore less likely to apply for promotions, even when they are deserved. They are also often too busy meeting the needs of their current role to focus on their next strategic career move. In addition to this, the playing field is still not equal, the fact is women have to negotiate for things their male colleagues may take for granted.

To avoid the Tiara syndrome, we need to start taking the time to reflect on our goals & next career moves and get more comfortable with negotiating for what we deserve. I have often found documenting achievements, for example after a successful piece of work or presenting to stakeholders, helps give myself confidence but also helps me keep track of the work I've been doing to provide me with an armour of information ready for my negotiation.

Imposter syndrome

This describes individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments. They have a persistent fear of being exposed as a 'fraud.' They perceive their external success to be down to luck or from convincing others that they are more competent than they are.

Research shows that women & girls are more likely to internalize failure and criticism and men & boys are more likely to externalise these things. When a woman makes a mistake, she blames herself, seeing it as proof of her supposed ineptness at a task.

To combat the Imposter syndrome, we need to try to see mistakes and failures as learnings for ourselves, not evidence that proves we are no good. Again, documenting or looking back at accomplishments can help to build up your self-belief in completing tasks successfully and confidence that you have the skills and knowledge yourself to do things well.

How to build confidence

Confidence is like a muscle, you need to build it up with time and practice. There are lots of different ways to do this. Here's a few key strategies we were given, that might also be useful for you...

The Inner Critic

"The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel" - Steve Furtick We know ourselves from the inside (our flaws, our doubts, our insecurities) but we know others from only the outside. We don't tell people about our frailties, however we tell ourselves these repeatedly and this holds us back. If things go wrong, we instantly criticise ourselves and we become feared of hearing people say 'no' but would we do this to our friends and family? To beat the negative inner critic, think about how you would speak to a friend if they felt they had messed up and speak to yourself in the same way, be kind.

Getting out of our comfort zones

"It’s ok to fail, we need to move away from perfectionism and towards a learning and growth mindset" - Carol Dweck Have you ever done something you really didn't want to do that really pushed you out of your comfort zone? But then after doing it felt full of confidence and exhilaration, ready to do it again? This is because we completed something we didn't think we could and it reiterates that we do have the confidence to do anything we put our minds to. If we are in the mindset that if we try, learn and grow from challenges and experiences, we start to close the confidence gap and lose the fear of failing.

Power Pose

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy makes it clear that non-verbal communication (aka body language) makes a huge difference both in how people perceive our confidence and within our own performance.

She and her team conducted a study to see how people performed in job interviews with and without the addition of one simple thing: striking a 'power pose' (hands on hips, feet on floor, arms up in a V, think Superman or Wonder Woman pose) before the interview. Interestingly, participants that did the power pose before the interview came through with increased ratings of passion, authenticity and confidence compared with the control group.   Cuddy's research on body language reveals that we can change other peoples perceptions and even our own body chemistry simply by changing our body positions.

In another way, we can fake it until we make it. So when you're not feeling too confident in a situation or feel confident but the nerves are taking control, try power posing to build up that confidence through your body. I've tried it and it honestly works.

Act more, think less and be authentic

In 'The Confidence Gap' Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explore the deficit of female confidence. They concluded that the ways in which females are taught to communicate from a young age, such as listening rather than speaking result in a lack of confidence. However, once girls enter the working world, the rules change and being 'reserved' and a 'good girl' is no longer valued and again it cripples their confidence.

This lack of confidence leads to inaction. Women become less likely to do things that might be more risky, for example going for a promotion or taking the lead of a highly visible project. However, we are only holding ourselves back. If we use some of the techniques talked about in this post and keep being authentic, we can be confident enough to go for that senior job, lead a team of people, speak up in that meeting.


  • Confidence in ourselves is key to leadership. If we don't have confidence in ourselves, how can we expect the people we lead to either.

  • Confidence can be defined in many different ways. There are also lots of types of confidence and it's all about what relates to us as individuals.

  • Confidence is a skill that can be practiced, it isn't something we are born with.

  • There are barriers to confidence women face, including Tiara syndrome and Imposter syndrome.

  • There are loads of techniques and guidance to help us build our confidence, think of shushing that inner critic, going out of our comfort zones and power posing whenever we want!

  • Act more, think less and be authentic.

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