The Outside Influence: How Society Raises The Bar On Confidence

In our recent introduction to GRACE In The WorkplaceTM, as I illustrated the relationship between our DNA “hardwiring” and our confidence level, you were reminded of the power pose. Have you given this instant confidence builder a try? If you haven’t, I assure you’ll be impressed by the results.

This time around, I’d like to expand your understanding of confidence by putting you, the person, into context with society. We as social beings may feel sure of ourselves, but doubt has a mysterious ability to assert its protective instincts when we’re around others. It turns out that our embedded and implied societal memory banks, which dictate our norms, expectations, biases and agreements, can notoriously affect our confidence.

The Built-In Bias

The root of this confidence-busting energy is rooted in an unconscious bias that has been transferred forward for generations. What had preceded us still affects us hundreds of years later. A poignant example comes from Verna Myers’ TED Talk, where she shares the findings from The Implicit Association Test, highlighting a deep-seated societal bias. Here’s how Verna shared the summary of the test, which was taken by more than 5 million people:

“We are more quickly able to associate a picture of a white person with a positive word than we are when we are trying to associate positive with a black face, and vice versa. When we see a black face, it is easier for us to connect black with negative than it is white with negative. Seventy percent of white people taking that test prefer white. Fifty percent of black people taking that test prefer white. You see, we were all outside when the contamination came down.”

This disturbing example puts into perspective how our surroundings fuse with the inferred and spoken messages we hear and become fossilized in our brains. A good example is how little girls are praised for behaving, while little boys are commended for being tough. A personal and more specific example involved a grocery cashier who made what she thought was a harmless jab in front of my husband as I stepped off the checkout line to grab a last-minute item. “There she goes spending more of your money!” How does such a sentiment, even if good-natured, arise from a working woman herself? To her surprise, the credit card we used bared my name!

Getting Proactive

Societal expectations put women into a perpetual conundrum. We want to be liked, causing us to second-guess what we say, because we’re fearful that we’ll come off as bossy or even bitchy. This anxiety alone magnifies into impatience or judgment, which can snowball into aggressive behavior. As Shakespeare put it, we’re “hoist with our own petard!” This social paralysis manifests itself in other ways in women’s careers. A common frustration I hear about is being shut down in meetings, as men interrupt without even realizing the effects. The interrupted woman’s confidence then wavers and falls, making her reluctant to speak in future meetings to avoid feeling the burn of the past.

When you combine our inherited societal norms, the current gender expectations, and our past experiences, it’s no wonder our confidence wanes. One realistic alternative it to employ our ability to proactively build confidence. Here’s how it goes down:

First, meditate on the power of being respected verses being liked. I appreciate the mantra, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” Particularly in business, we have to make tough calls, spearhead difficult conversations, make demands, and inspire people to push past their limits. It’s part of the job. Simply being “nice” doesn’t make numbers, and certainly doesn’t get you promoted. Being a fair, sound-thinking, articulate professional who sees with perspective is what you’re being paid for.

Next, realize and accept that much of the judgment from others is not about YOU personally. It’s how the other person sees the world as a result of their unique life experiences. Since their agenda features their own name at the top, they’re not thinking about unfairly judging you. They’re convinced their assessment is fair and balanced. In such instances, it’s wise to take the advice of spiritual author Don Miguel Ruiz, as featured in his 2nd of 4 Agreements: Don’t Take Anything Personally.

It all might sound easier said than done, especially when the biggest threat of sabotage against self-confidence is….yourself, which will be explored in the very next article.