It’s Not That Men Are Too Confident, It’s That They are Not Confident Enough

Last month, we talked about Imposter Syndrome. This month, we want to talk about its cousin: Confidence. I recently heard Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders, speak on the subject of women and confidence. He posits that it is not that women are lacking in confidence at work; rather, it is that men are too confident at work. 

While I love how Tomas asks us to change our perspective, I think we need to ask whether it is actually true that men are too confident at work. My 10 years of coaching experience in Big Law tells me the opposite is true, and that male behavior that passes for confidence, or over-confidence, in many law firms actually is evidence of insecurity and fear.  

According to Merriam Webster, confidence is: “Faith or belief that one will act in a right, proper, or effective way.” When men and women are truly confident in their work, they behave in similar ways: calm, humble, honest, positive, and authoritative (not authoritarian). Confident people rarely raise their voices or try to dominate, because they do not have anything to prove.  

However, when men and women lack confidence or are afraid at work, they often behave in very different ways. When men feel less than confident in their work, they tend to get big – they become arrogant and brash, they talk over and interrupt others, and they try to dominate. When women feel less than confident in their work, they tend to get small – they do not speak up, they take up less space, they use diminishing language, and defer.

Of course, these are generalizations; the “getting big” behaviors are not solely evident in men, and the “getting small” behaviors are not solely evident in women. Nevertheless, the centuries of socialized messages about men being strong and dominant and women being weak and subordinate have generally shaped how we respond to feeling insecure and afraid in a work setting. In fact, research shows that when men and women stray from their gendered norms they get penalized.

How Men Get Penalized For Straying From Masculine Norms – David M. Mayer, Harvard Business Review

Law firms, as institutions, have been designed by and for men. As such, men have largely shaped the culture and defined the norms in law firms. It should not be surprising that many typical male behaviors, including the insecure male behaviors discussed above, tend to be viewed as “normal”. And, since law firms, especially Big Law firms, tend to be high-stress environments, these insecure behaviors are pervasive. This has resulted in a tendency among many lawyers – male and female – to mischaracterize the insecure male behaviors as evidencing confidence, or over-confidence.

This tendency is a problem for both male and female lawyers because their fears and lack of confidence are not being addressed. Male lawyers who are afraid, but mischaracterized as being confident, often are advanced. Meanwhile female lawyers, with the same fears and lack of confidence, often are held back. In fact, research shows that women tend to be penalized and given negative feedback for being both too confident (too assertive) and too insecure (too passive.) This contributes further to their lack of confidence.

How Women Manage The Gendered Norms Of Leadership – by Wei Zheng,
 Ronit Kark, and Alyson Meister, Harvard Business Review

When women look around law firms and see insecure men behaving in ways that are not admirable – such as being arrogant, brash, insensitive, etc. – they say to themselves: “If I have to be like that to succeed here, this firm must not be for me and I don’t belong here.”

What if we named the “puffing up” behavior for what it is – insecurity and fear – and encourage both men and women to work on developing real, deeply felt confidence? What would a culture that valued calm, humble, and kind behavior look like? I imagine many more women and men would thrive.

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