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Kate Lanz

Lanz Executive Coaching

Managing Director

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Capability and confidence in men and women


Capability and confidence are two critical areas where men and women behave differently. What each gender needs to sustain confidence is distinct from the other and this is not an issue of personality, it comes down to fundamental differences in neurobiology.

Work cultures are more naturally geared to supporting male confidence building and therefore senior women can struggle, as their needs are subtly and inadvertently not being met over time. Many organisations fall into this cultural category and this is quite natural, given their male-orientated evolutionary history at top levels, and is certainly not ill intentioned.

However, senior leaders need to be particularly gender smart if they want to leverage the best of the female talent they have at their disposal. Often sitting in their collective blind spot is a lack of understanding of what is needed to support the female brains to be the best they can be at work.

Case study

As an example: Susan was promoted to deputy CEO of her organisation. She was one of two women on the operating board and the only one with full profit and loss responsibility in her area. A few board meetings into her new role, she received a passing remark on her way out that she “needed to have a really strong point of view on stuff and get her voice heard”.

Susan is ambitious, very bright and technically capable in her area, and she was really taken aback by this remark. The next time she went into that forum, her brain had tipped into protective survival mode and as a result she tried to be more forceful, direct and less consultative in the meetings. However, her contributions felt stilted as if she was trying too hard to put points across in a way that did not feel comfortable.

In previous leadership meetings, Susan had spent time with board members outside the meeting, discussing and sharing some of her thinking. She had asked questions such as, “what do you all think?” and “is there anything further that needs more discussion between us”? 

Another factor was her team had delivered some great results in the short time she had been in post but she did not believe that it was appropriate to trumpet these, even though many of her male colleagues actively publicised their own results. She felt the work should speak for itself, and found her colleagues behaviour rather off-putting.

Susan’s very relationally-focused behaviours did not appear to cut it with the male power players in the room. She believed she was isolated, and that she could not safely discuss how she was feeling with any of her colleagues on the board. The only other female presence in the room was the HR director who was notoriously close to the CEO, and Susan felt anxious about being portrayed as weak to him.

This was her first board role and she had to prove herself. Her confidence started to wane. This happened in tiny increments. Susan was also quite resilient, (you have to be to get to this level), but somehow a little bit of the spring had gone out of her step.

Gender smart intervention

A gender smart intervention was required in order to enable Susan to reconnect with her own sense of power and confidence in a way that felt authentic to her, (not as a surrogate man). Through coaching, Susan was able to generate a compelling conversation directly with the CEO about what she needed to flourish on his team.

She found that she could engage him on a scientific basis around the difference between men and women’s brains. This helped as it removed emotion and criticism from the conversation. Identifying that women’s brains tend to move more information around diverse brain centres, Susan was able to say why collaborating and engaging with others, even at leadership discussions, was important to her.

The CEO was fascinated by the science behind Susan’s explanations and began to more actively facilitate these types of discussion. Susan felt supported and her confidence started to increase again.  There were a number of other gender smart changes to the leadership team’s understanding that Susan was able to bring. Over a period of a few months the whole team started to have some fun noticing and working with these brain-based differences. They found that they could deploy them actively into their customer management strategy to good effect.  

Confidence affects access to capability and is indeed a gender-based issue. Getting the best from both genders is best for business.

2 Responses

  1. Gender effects recognition usage too

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article although we must not be lulled into thinking that it's limited to senior management. Gender makes a difference to confidence and performance throughout the organization, and sometimes more subtly than you would expect. in the sphere of engagement through motivation, recognition and incentives, our research indicates that gender has a marked impact on the sending and receipt of recognition.

    Supporting the 'collaborative' trait identified, women tend to recognize much more than men and are over-represented in low level recognition where there is little or no monetary value. However, as the status and monetary value of awards increases, men are proportionately over-represented and participation exceeds women's. This is a significant issue in terms of maximizing the power (and ROI) of recognition, encouraging confidence and adequately recognizing capability across both genders.

    As well as the one-on-one coaching identified in this article, we suggest that recognition programmes, which  foster collaboration and confidence at all levels in the organization, should also be reviewed. You'll find some useful tips in the article published in HR Zone in April: gender bias in in HR recognition programmes. If you would like a copy of the full research 'Gender in Recognition An Analysis' , please visit p&mm staff motivation matters.

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Kate Lanz

Managing Director

Read more from Kate Lanz