Confidence – not perfection – should be the goal

The great debate continues.

A controversial OpEd by clinical psychologist Lisa Damour in the New York Times about the fundamentally different approaches girls and boys take to school assignments caught my eye the other day. Lisa’s observation – based on years of clinical practice – rang true with me and judging by the comments on her article, lots of other readers too. Many of us have observed how boys tend to do things at the last minute (Mea Culpa!) and manage to get A’s and B’s while girls endlessly polish their assignments to take an A to an A+ in search of the elusive goal of 100. Why does this happen?

A self-imposed Glass Ceiling?

Lisa’s admittedly “generalised” observation wasn’t the controversial bit. What made her comments provocative was the hypothesis Lisa made on how this phenomenon played out in the corporate world. Her idea was that the boost to boy’s self-confidence from doing well with minimal effort carried forward to their confidence and approach to work as corporate adults. Conversely, the over performance anxiety experienced by girls and the limited impact their marks had on their self-confidence contributed to how women approached their corporate careers. In effect, the lack of self-confidence (girls) and abundance of self-confidence (boys) had a long-lasting, under-recognised impact on our confidence as leaders.

Conscientiousness matters in leaders

My own observations as a leadership mentor and management educator are twofold. First, there are the “Intrapersonal” factors from our native personalities affecting our behaviour. For example, based on decades of research and practice, my colleague Ron Warren PhD (the developer of the LMAP 360 leadership assessment tool) has consistently found conscientiousness (one of the Big 5 Personality Factors) is strongly correlated with effective leadership behaviour. However, too much conscientiousness – aka perfectionism – typically has negative consequences for leadership effectiveness while too little conscientiousness – aka laissez faire – typically has negative consequences. In the former, leaders need to learn to let go while in the latter, leaders need to learn to step up.

Role of Self-Efficacy Beliefs

The problem with focusing on Conscientiousness as a differentiating factor in the behaviour of school girls and boys is – to the best of my knowledge – it’s gender neutral as a naturally occurring trait. Therefore, something else must be going on. And that’s where the role of self-efficacy beliefs and social cognitive theory helps to explain what may be happening with girls and boys and their approach to school assignments.

Triadic Reciprocity

One of the 4 principles underpinning social cognitive theory’s explanation of human motivation and behaviour is known by the fancy name of “Triadic Reciprocity”. This principle describes the 3-way interaction between our personal factors (such as conscientiousness), the environment (for example school or work) and our learned behaviour. Given our personal factors are largely hardwired and we have limited scope to change the environment we operate within, people need to focus on modifying their behaviour if they want to act differently. In turn, changing behaviour is largely built on boosting our self-efficacy beliefs: our confidence in our competence to undertake challenging tasks, our sense of personal agency and control to influence our circumstances and our conviction that effort will lead to valued outcomes. Changing behaviour at school and at work means we first must focus on shifting perceptions of confidence, self-responsibility and perceived outcomes – not on gender stereotypes.

School Assignments and Gender

Lisa’s observation resonated with me but her underlying premise of in-built gender differences did not. Nevertheless, helping girls overcome their anxiety and performance obsession by giving them a greater sense of their ability to influence their life circumstances and changing what they see as valued outcomes would definitely be a good place to start boosting their self-confidence for the short and long term.

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