Self-awareness is the foundational leadership skill of the 21st century. Leaders who know who they are, and how they’re seen by others, are more effective, confident, respected, and promotable. Research has shown that women possess a slight self-awareness advantage over men. One study found women’s self-ratings of self-awareness were slightly (though not dramatically) higher than men’s. Other research has shown that women are rated slightly higher in self-awareness by direct reports, as well as managers and peers. Women are also better able to recognize the importance of self-awareness for their career success and advancement.
Despite these advantages, women continue to be underrepresented in senior leadership roles and are paid less than men. While gender inequity has wide-ranging causes, focusing on the role that self-awareness plays can give women, and those who champion them, tools to address some of these disparities. Three lessons from the self-awareness literature might help: 1) women underestimate themselves, but not in the way most people believe; 2) women aren’t getting good feedback; 3) women tend to take feedback to heart.
When I speak to business leaders about our five-plus year research program on self-awareness, one of the most common questions I get is whether we’ve found any gender differences.
First, the data: research has shown that women possess a slight self-awareness advantage over men. In one survey study of 275 people, we’ve found that women’s self-ratings of self-awareness are slightly (though not dramatically) higher than men’s. Other research has shown that women are rated slightly higher in self-awareness by direct reports, as well as managers and peers. Women are also better able to recognize the importance of self-awareness for their career success and advancement.
But despite these advantages, women continue to be underrepresented in senior leadership roles and are paid less than men. While gender inequity has wide-ranging causes, focusing on the role that self-awareness plays can give women, and those who champion them, tools to address some of these disparities.
So why aren’t women’s self-awareness advantages translating into better representation in senior leadership roles? Are there any lessons from the self-awareness literature that could help explain this persistent gap? And what can be done do to close it?
Lesson 1: Women underestimate themselves, but not in the way most people believe
It is often said that women are less self-confident than men — yet surprisingly, current findings do not support this idea. Though past researchers have documented differences in self-confidence between girls and boys, this gap shrinks dramatically by age 23. And where past research revealed gender differences in self-ratings of managerial effectiveness, more recent studies have shown that male and female leaders rate themselves similarly. As Sarah Green Carmichael aptly states, “Again and again, when we look at adult women, we don’t see a bunch of shrinking violets who could get ahead with just a little more moxie.”
Yet even though the average woman isn’t underestimating herself as a leader, she has a slightly more nuanced challenge: she may lack the confidence that others value her contributions. In one study, women and men’s self-ratings of emotional intelligence (EQ; a key leadership skill) did not differ. Yet when asked to predict how their supervisor would rate their EQ, women’s predictions were three times lower than men’s, despite being rated slightly higher by their boss than men were.
Why do women underestimate their true value? Researchers have suggested that persistent stereotypes about leadership being a male characteristic (whether implicit or explicit) can lead women to worry that they are validating negative stereotypes, which would cause coworkers to see them as less effective than they see themselves.
The ability to correctly predict how others see us, often called meta-perception, is an important aspect of self-awareness. And indeed, when women underestimate how others view their contributions, they may unintentionally hold themselves back. If a female leader believes that others don’t value her, she could be more cautious about applying for a job, putting herself forward for a promotion, or asking for a raise.
Therefore, to advance and thrive, women need to gain a more accurate picture of their contributions through the eyes of others. One approach for comparing our predictions with reality is the reflected best self-exercise (RBS). I often use the RBS with my executive coaching clients, and it is a powerful vehicle to discover our defining strengths as others see them.
A leader wishing to complete the RBS would identify at least eight people from different parts of her life — current or former colleagues, employees, supervisor, friends, family, etc. — and send them an email asking when they have seen her at her best, including a few specific examples. Once she receives the responses, she would review them to identify key themes and patterns. Finally, she would compose a self-portrait of who she is at her best through the eyes of others.
It is vital for women leaders to understand what others see as their defining strengths and contributions. It requires a bit of effort and an open mind, but in so doing, we can begin to remove any self-imposed constraints preventing us from putting ourselves forward for bigger, better opportunities.
Lesson 2: Women aren’t getting good feedback
Feedback is essential for a leader to understand her contributions, as well as the adjustments she can make to be more effective. And even though women ask for feedback as often as men, they are less likely to get it.
In my latest book, I tell the story of a client, Eleanor, who was leading a bid for a large water infrastructure program. When her team lost to a competitor, she asked for feedback from a colleague, Phil, to understand her role in the outcome. “You were there during my final presentation,” she began, “Did I do anything that could have cost us the work?” Phil replied, “No! Not at all! You did a great job!” Now Eleanor was even more confused.
A few days later, a colleague called to express his condolences. “It’s so frustrating!” Eleanor lamented, “I can’t figure out what happened! I know it wasn’t my presentation.” “Really?” he said, “That’s not what Phil told me. He said it was horrible!” Eleanor was dumbfounded. She’d gone out of her way to learn what she could have done better, and her colleague had out-and-out lied to her.
Giving honest feedback is notoriously difficult. It can become even more difficult when it crosses gender lines. Researchers have coined the phrase “benevolent sexism” to refer to behaviors that shield women from difficult information. In a work context, male bosses or colleagues may avoid giving women negative feedback because they don’t want to hurt or upset them.
When women do receive feedback, it’s typically less specific than feedback given to men. This has profound consequences: studies have shown that when women receive vague feedback, they’re more likely to be assigned lower performance ratings. Vague negative feedback tells a leader that her performance isn’t meeting expectations, but because it doesn’t identify the behaviors that aren’t serving her, she doesn’t know what to do differently.
A lack of specific positive feedback also puts leaders at a disadvantage. It suggests that she is doing well, but because it doesn’t point to the actions or results that are valued, she doesn’t know what to continue doing. And if she doesn’t have detailed, documented achievements, it’s more difficult to make the case for a promotion or raise. When women can solicit and record specific positive feedback, this has been shown to effectively eliminate men’s overrepresentation in top performance categories.
The question then becomes: how can women obtain more detailed feedback? In our research with highly self-aware men and women, we discovered an interesting pattern in how they got feedback: they turned to a relatively small circle, typically between three and five people, all of whom had an active interest in their success and a history of truth telling when it was difficult (for instance, Eleanor’s honest colleague would be a great candidate, whereas Phil surely wouldn’t make the cut).
When women leaders can identify and confer with such loving critics, they can ensure they get the feedback they need. You can formalize the arrangement in whatever way makes sense. One of my executive coaching clients likes to share the behaviors she is working on, then takes each of her loving critics to lunch bi-monthly to get their feedback. Another has a slightly less formal arrangement: after a meeting with one of her loving critics, she asks for a two-minute feedback download.
When it comes to the feedback conversations themselves, if they’re imperfect at first, it doesn’t mean they won’t be valuable. Business school professor Elle Bell Smith suggests that if feedback isn’t specific enough, women should ask follow-up questions like, “Can you give me an example [of] when I did that?” “What was the impact you saw [of that behavior]?” or “How often have you seen me doing this?”
Lesson 3: Women tend to take feedback to heart
Of course, no one should take every piece of feedback at face value, nor should they over-rely on others’ views to construct their self-concept. In general, there are three types of information we use to form a picture of who we are: how we see ourselves, how others see us, and comparisons we make with others. While men place more importance on their self-views and social comparisons, women tend to be more focused on how others see them. What’s more, even though men and women possess similar views of their performance in the absence of feedback, women are more likely than men to modify their self-views in the presence of it.
Granted, it isn’t adaptive to ignore feedback from others, but by that same token, it can be just as dangerous to discount our self-views. Placing greater importance on others’ evaluations of our performance can cause us to ignore our own standards and goals, which could make our behavior less consistent with our values. When we become over-reliant on others’ approval, we may ruminate more on our fears, shortcomings, and insecurities. (And yes, women do tend to ruminate more than men.).
Scott Fitzgerald once said that intelligence is “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Self-awareness is a bit like that. It isn’t one truth — it’s a complex interweaving of how we see ourselves and how others see us. In fact these two perspectives have been shown to capture different aspects of who we are. For instance, we usually understand our motives better than others, but others typically see our behavior more clearly than we do. So even though we should take others’ opinions seriously, they also shouldn’t define us or completely override our self-image.
To overcome the tendency to rely too heavily on others’ views, women can work to further develop their own picture of who they are. What are the principles by which they want to live their life? What are their greatest aspirations? What types of projects give them the most energy? No matter what form this work takes (journaling, mindfulness, conversations with loved ones, etc.), it’s important to prioritize it just as much as feedback from others. (If you want to assess the strength of your self-views — and see how they compare to others — you can take our free quiz.)
Women leaders can often benefit from an extra dose of self-reliance, especially when others can’t yet see what we’re capable of. So if, for example, you receive negative feedback from your boss on something you think you could excel at, don’t give up right away — think about what it would take to show them otherwise. As Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor once said, “In every position that I’ve been in, there have been naysayers who don’t believe…I can do the work. And I feel a special responsibility to prove them wrong.” Indeed, it never hurts for us to do just that.
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