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by Sydney Finkelstein

Sitting at an outdoor cafe in London the other day enjoying the near-perfect weather that June sometimes brings, my gaze came across a group of 20-somethings engaged in a business-related discussion at a nearby table. There were three men and two women. While there was no apparent leader of the group, it was immediately obvious who the secondary players were: the two women.

I eavesdropped for the better part of 15 minutes, waiting for the women to speak up … but they didn’t. Lots of head nodding, leaning forward (but not “leaning in” in the Cheryl Sandberg vernacular), yet no talking. The men, meanwhile, were sitting back in their seats, all the while dominating the conversation.

Just as I was ready to apply my nosy antenna to another conversation, I heard one of the women ask one of the men a question. And that was it.

A small story, yes, but is it possible that this is one of the reasons why women so often play second fiddle, unable to get through the proverbial glass ceiling to the C-Suite of top management?

In their book The Confidence Code, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explain how genetics, schooling, upbringing, and society all conspire to chip away at self-confidence for women. But even more important than that, they also describe how even the most accomplished women occasionally behave in ways that would make them less likely to move up.

In other words, self-confidence is a choice people make. Sometimes all of us, but especially women, act in ways that damage our potential for effective leadership and success. If you don’t believe me, there is ample evidence from a slew of recent studies and research. For one, consider how the genders answer the following questions.

Would you rather be liked, or respected? If you haven’t gone to your boss to ask for that raise, or promotion, why is that? Just want to keep your head down, get the job done and not make waves? As it turns out, one of the reasons men earn more than women is because they ask for more.

If something goes wrong at work, or at school, is it because you screwed up or the game changed to a higher level? If all you ever do is internalise failure — “it’s my fault” —you’re much less likely to stick with a challenging assignment, or perhaps even more likely, not campaign for the next one. And yes, women tend to internalise failure more than men, according to research cited by Kay and Shipman.

Do you strive for perfection in your everyday work, as so many women often do, or are you more willing to experiment to try things out, recognising that it doesn’t always work out the first time? This is a tough one, because who doesn’t want to be perfect? How you get there seems important. If you’re afraid to make a mistake, not only will you never get close to “perfection,” since the best learning occurs through rapid, diverse and messy experimentation, but you also end up marginalising yourself by becoming a virtual observer, just like those women at the cafe I was watching.

Downsides to confidence

If confidence is a choice we all can make, does that mean we always should? The answer depends on whether you’re an ambitious manager working your way up an organisation, or a member of the board of directors of that company and the shareholders you represent.

Kay and Shipman make the point that men tend to overestimate their ability, while women tend to underestimate theirs. As a result, men have a greater propensity to say yes to opportunities, regardless of whether they are truly qualified, while women are more likely to hesitate as they think through whether they’re really ready for this next step. And once in the new job, men naturally believe they deserve to be there.

Hence, the higher you go in a company, the more men there will be. Even when factoring in the reality that it is women and not men who leave the workforce to have kids, this simple confidence calculation accounts for a sizeable portion of the disparity between men and women in the C-Suite.

But once you get there, what does it mean when the chief executive officer is a man who said yes to everything, was rewarded for being confident and believes he deserves to be at the top? Do we really want the uber-confident alpha male who believes he knows more than everyone else?

We need go no further than a seemingly endless array of super-CEOs who got into trouble because of ego, arrogance and over-confidence. Jeffrey Skilling at Enron, who truly believed he was the smartest guy in the room (and is now in prison for his role in the massive Enron fraud). Or Eike Batista, the flashy Brazilian billionaire who exaggerated the size of offshore oil fields, underestimated the difficulty and cost of extracting oil deposits and also happened to top my 2013 list of the worst CEOs of the year. Or Dov Charney, the CEO of American Apparel who was fired by the board last week for a long record of allegedly inappropriate behaviours off the job, and huge losses on the job. He has, however, filed a counter claim with the SEC and is contesting the board’s decision.

It seems that boards — as well as the media — love the powerful CEO who has no uncertain bones in his body. The confidence surplus that helps men move up faster can trigger self-destructive behaviour in the corner office. Boards of directors beware.

Women, who tend to be more balanced and open in their thinking (the positive spin) or more uncertain and less overwhelmingly confident (the negative spin), may be at a disadvantage in getting to the top. But perhaps it’s precisely these women that we need at the helm to avoid the giant explosions that regularly play out in front of us.

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Associate Dean for Executive Education at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College

 BBC Column
Twitter: @sydfinkelstein



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