There are words that are used to characterise confident people who don’t fit into the mainstream view of the status quo. Suzanne Doyle-Morris PhD looks at what confidence should really look like - and compares it with the usefulness of impostor syndrome and what we should expect in terms of competence.

Who doesn’t want more confidence? It’s the supposed panacea of all life and certainly career ills. However, when you delve deeper into our expectations about what it looks like and who has it, things get murkier. Indeed, redefining what we assume confidence to look like would serve IT employers well. Being ‘forthright’ or ‘fighting your corner’ were expectations about what it looked like that I often heard when I interviewed 40 leaders about this slippery word we all seem to agree on, yet I’d argue we completely overvalue. 

However, when I dug deeper things became much more nuanced. During interviews with these leaders from 12 different nations, they cited who got rewarded for these behaviours, and who didn’t. In my latest book I explore what we expect from confidence, and how we interpret and then respond to it based on factors such as socioeconomic background, race, levels of introversion, gender and cultural background amongst others.

The closer you are to the ‘status quo’ of what leadership looks like amongst most Western technology firms - i.e. white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, native English speaking - the more likely certain behaviours are interpreted as ‘confident’ and you’ll be duly rewarded. However, the greater the ‘status distance’ you have from what leadership looks like, the more negatively you are judged when showing the same behaviours.

There is a litany of words we use primarily for confident women - ‘bolshy, brassy, brazen, bossy’ and that’s the words just starting with ‘B’!  Women are routinely referred to as feisty - but I have yet to see an older white man ever described as ‘feisty’. Feisty is reserved for small animals who get riled up, yet have no real power.

Black people who show confidence are too often described as ‘angry, uppity or aggressive’. Those from working-class backgrounds who are certain in their value (the basis of confidence) will be rebuked for ‘acting above their station’ or ‘needing to know their place’. The irony is that as employers, we implore people to have more confidence. We pay for self-development and encourage them to speak up, yet penalise them when they display it. There are unspoken rules about who’s allowed to wield the power that comes with confidence.

As we think about the behaviours we want to reward in the IT industry, we must redefine confidence so that it works for a wider range of people. This must include the ability to show and respond to vulnerability. For the ‘The Con Job’, I spend time with Silka Patel, who’d been at Cisco but now works for Leidos in Scotland.

Patel would be considered confident by anyone who knows her. However, even she prefers to show vulnerability when necessary and responds well to it in others. A few years ago, Patel was tapped on the shoulder to become a Board Member for Technology Scotland. She was cautious about her invitation onto this all-white male board. Patel, an Asian woman, laughed and recalled:

‘In the interview, I was getting on well with the CEO so asked: “Are you looking at me because the deeply technical men you already have are all at least 50 years old and all white?” He leaned back in his chair, slightly embarrassed and said “I’m not going to lie to you. You do tick many of the boxes I’d like to fill. But I need someone confident and capable enough to hold their ground in a boardroom. It’s a tough crowd of alpha men.”

Patel laughed: ‘It was a lightbulb moment for me! It made me realise the brand I’d spent years creating around being a confident woman of colour was actually working!’ Patel wanted to continue to break down stereotypes of Asian women in technology, so joined their board.’ What made her listen to him?

She replied: ‘His honesty. I was scared of asking him for fear of the answer. But he meant well and that he probably was just as afraid of saying the wrong thing, so I believed him. He had a vulnerability, and I could see his squeamishness. There was a willingness in him to go with an uncomfortable, but true answer.’ Patel was unequivocal: ‘Showing your vulnerability is confidence.’

She explained: ‘When people admit they don’t have all the answers, I find that endearing. They may say: “Things aren’t great financially, but I think the team we have now is the right one.” But if a stereotypically confident person comes into the same situation, pretending all is fine, my alarm bells go off sounding: “Alpha male, Alpha male!” I just don’t trust him. The funny thing is I’ll work harder for the first person. They’ve shown a vulnerability over the person who assured me that all was under control when it clearly wasn’t.’

Patel joined their board two years ago. For the first several months she watched, listened and only contributed if the specific topic was in her ‘wheelhouse’ of competencies. This highlights what is perhaps the greatest secret about confidence: the inverse relationship it has to competence.

That is, the more confident you become, the less you worry about the detail. You trust you can ‘wing it’ or simply talk your way out of any gaffes. By contrast, people who have a competence-first mindset will never feel like ‘all-knowing’ because they know the truth - your field is always expanding, new questions are being asked, there is always more to learn.

Indeed, impostor syndrome is what keeps us improving. Patel had to listen to increase her knowledge; her understanding of the personalities and the way they worked - or didn’t - together. All this knowledge added to her competency. A few months in, she began to weigh in more regularly, using her own style grounded in competence, and explained: ‘I’m never going to shout the loudest. I had to do it via my quiet observations and the questions I ask. After they’ve argued between themselves, they’ll turn and ask my opinion. It takes time, but it’s where their expectations of my ethnicity, gender and my focus on competence have positively played a role in getting me that respect.’

Patel was willing to take the role of referee amongst a group of more traditionally confident people - men who ‘take no prisoners’ and ‘lead from the front’. However, she’s only got to that point by being competent in her quiet approach in those settings compared to the argumentative styles of her peers. What’s vital is that her peers had developed confidence in her. That’s the only type of confidence we should all be aiming for - being trusted by others in our ability to deliver.