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What does leadership confidence mask?

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6th Aug 2014
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Kate Lanz explores how the confidence trap catches men and women out differently and what organisations can do to help.

Men and women can equally be confident in the workplace, yet presenting this confidence can impact others in very different ways. When speaking of a confident male leader, we tend to use terms such as charismatic, self-assured and impressive, yet if a female leader presents in this way, they are often characterised as aggressive, pushy and over-bearing. 

Confidence is a desirable quality in business, yet it can mask real vulnerability and leave a leader stuck inside their own veneer of confidence. Men often feel they need to have all the answers, make all the decisions and as a result can inadvertently disempower others. Women on the other hand can often overuse apparent confidence in their drive for perfection and as a result can erroneously come across as expecting everyone to work to the same pace and standards as their own. The result can be creating a sense of micro-management causing frustration in those around them.

Leaders can get stuck in a cycle where they over-rely on their appearance of confidence. This might work in the short term, but long-term consequences lead to lack of results and low morale within a team. So how can an organisation recognise when confidence masks vulnerability and what can they do to support the individuals to avoid burn-out or costly resignation?

Amanda, the global brand director of a well-known household electrical brand, was caught in the more typical female 'be perfect' confidence trap. She had been brought in to build the global brand capability due to the breadth of her own global branding expertise. She spent a huge amount of her time travelling between markets, the team was global so there was no real centre of gravity, she had had three line managers in the space of 18 months due to cost cutting at the company. She felt very isolated and was lacking a sense of belonging, relationship and connectedness. When we don’t feel safe our brains are programmed to go into survive and protect mode. This generates some version of fight, flight or freeze depending on what we have grown up with as a survival pattern. We lose our ability to stay connected to others emotionally and our sense of how we are being experienced by others.

"Confidence is a desirable quality in business, yet it can mask real vulnerability and leave a leader stuck inside their own veneer of confidence."

In her case Amanda fell back on a default pattern of being the expert. This was her version of fight. She came across as over-confident in her specialist role. This started to disenfranchise her team and instead of learning from her they started to resist her. She began to become more and more subtly controlling as she felt more and more isolated. She began to be seen as micro-managing and too hard a task master. She was terrified that the quality of the work with her name attached to it would not be experienced as top class.

Steve, director of regional strategy was known for his tough driving style and was appreciated for it. He took no prisoners and people around him, including his boss, really relied on him. He got promoted to a global strategy role. His need to be the tough driving one and to be seen as confident in the new role sent him in to overdrive. His new team began to find him suffocating as he always seemed to have all the answers and left no room for anyone else to think. He went from inspiring others with his self-assuredness to closing other’s thinking down as he rather brashly had all the answers, it appeared. Another fight response. In both cases, for different reasons these potentially very effective leaders became caught in their own confidence traps. This was an emotional cover-up for fear of not delivering in the new role. The organisations in question were at risk of losing good people.

So what can an organisation do to support leaders out of the confidence trap? The first step is for those around the leader in transition to realise that the individual is trapped and that the appearance of over-confidence is in fact a mask for the underlying vulnerability and fear. It is important not to take the behaviours at face value. Then the leader needs supporting to feel understood and not criticised. This enables their brain to face down the powerful limbic response which causes the fight or flight reaction. An appreciative and understanding line manager can play a really important role. Executive coaching can enable the leader to surface their anxieties in a safe and confidential space where shame is not activated vis a vis others in the organisation.

Sensitively gathering feedback can also be useful so that the individual gets a different perspective of how they are viewed by other people. Women tend to be more naturally self-critical than men on the whole. The way feedback is presented to the individual needs to take into account their existing inner dialogue. In some instances men might need a harder hitting message than women to really hear the feedback and take it on. Coaching can also help the individual leader to name - and thereby tame - their particular anxiety pattern. Personalised strategies need to be developed to support the individual so that they do not go onto fake confidence autopilot.

Kate Lanz has practised as a coach internationally for over 14 years and brings a powerful blend of psychological depth combined with 12 years of senior level business experience to her work. She has lived and worked in Hungary, the USA, Latin America and the Netherlands as an international expatriate over a 15 year period. She became interested in the psychology of leadership and performance at work as a General Manager herself

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