Actual talent or self-perceived talent?- know how to spot competence not just confidence

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As a woman business leader or an HR Director looking to promote and develop your best talent, are you backing confidence or competence when it comes to leadership roles? Can you really discriminate between actual talent or self-perceived talent?

Or are you unconsciously trapped by ‘accepted’ leadership concepts and behaviours, missing the talent that’s right in front of you?

Businesses need more women leaders. And they want them too – companies with three or more women in top positions are achieving 16% higher return on sales and gender-diverse executive teams have above-average profitability. Click To Tweet

But women’s progression up through the marzipan layer to the top roles is still glacial. Perceptions in the workplace, in society and our own mind-sets can hold us back. And if we don’t understand our existing work- and self-assumptions, we are limiting leadership potential all round.

A confidence trick?

Women and men may enter careers with the same levels of confidence, but after just two years women have had that confidence halved Bain 2014.  They’ve found their confidence is not perceived, judged or rewarded the same as men’s. They’ve also had to work harder to show their competence. It’s not personal, but the impact of subtle age-old prejudices that have boxed women and men into certain roles over generations.

We are all still influenced by leadership ideas from out-dated gender expectations and social conditioning developed over millennia. These are based on agentic qualities that are seen as masculine: ambition, confidence and dominance. Communal qualities of warmth, approachability and caring are seen as feminine, but not as desirable leadership qualities. Because leadership is (still!) perceived as agentic in nature, imbued with masculine characteristics.

You may not even realise that your confidence has been eroded or that you’re acting on these preconceptions. We adapt our behaviour to fit in with the organisation and world around us. And we often think it is something wrong with us when there is friction or static, not the system.

Move beyond rage

This inherent unfairness may make you angry.

As Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off”. Click To Tweet

The workplace needs to change to make it a level playing field for sure.

Absolutely – things need to and are changing. But it is a slow process and what can help potential women business leaders right now? How do we navigate this work landscape as individuals and as part of an organisation? How do we negotiate the confidence versus competence paradox without exhausting ourselves and alienating others?

Just arguing that it’s down to women developing business confidence isn’t the answer and is still based on the same skewed premise that is about female failing.

What we CAN work on however is:

  • Changing our mindset
  • Developing new skillsets
  • Recognising and using all our skills and qualities, not trying to suppress some to fit in with others’ preconceptions.

The leadership double whammy

Women can often feel trapped in a double bind of gender and leader role expectations:

1. We need to act authoritative and confident in keeping with the expectations of a leadership role.


2. We also have to act approachable and warm in keeping with the expectations of our gender role.

We can then get stuck in a dilemma mindset faced by a seemingly ‘either/or’ situation, where neither option works for you. This is paralysing. You can’t figure out the best option to go with – and it’s an impossible place to learn from.

But we don’t have to settle for the double bind, or being constrained by a dilemma mindset. Re-evaluate the situation with a paradox mind. This means being able to deal with two seemingly opposed ideas at the same time. You can be both warm and ambitious, both authoritative and caring.

Paradox can be used as a tool, and a perspective, to understand and solve contradictory demands. You refuse to go with ‘either/or’ but rather say I can do ‘both/and’. Fight against the so-called Tyranny of the ‘Or’ and embrace the Genius of the ‘And’.

“As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Take comfort in discomfort

Moving to a paradox mindset means learning and developing new skills. This is both in how you present yourself to others and how you boost your internal perception to yourself.

  • It can feel like you’re being inauthentic, not ‘being you’. All learning is some form of imitation or mirroring. Feeling uncomfortable with a new attitude is not a signal that you’re doing it wrong but rather that you’re learning. The temptation is to use ‘being authentic’ as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable. But you need to find comfort in the discomfort of learning and changing. This will give you the resilience to challenge learned behaviour.
  • It takes time and practice. You will need to become consciously incompetent first in order to then become unconsciously competent. In a way, it’s like learning to drive. It all seems so unnatural and demanding at first, but in time it becomes second nature and you no longer have to think yourself through it.
  • It means building your own resilience. Challenge your own negative thinking and stuck beliefs. Be aware of talking yourself and your competence down.

While many organisations may be misinterpreting confidence as a sign of competence, we don’t have to be forced into playing the game that way.

We need as leaders to be able to differentiate between actual talent and self-perceived talent. Embrace the challenge paradox and bet both ways. Click To Tweet

You might be interested in my podcast episode with Natalia Karelaia on confidence and influence strategies for women leaders. Click here to listen.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

If you like this, please share:

  • “Penny’s compelling approach to leadership is steeped in her wealth of experience, knowledge and wisdom – she is an insightful and empowering mentor whose guidance has had a hugely positive effect on my approach to matters of presence, impact, self-awareness and authenticity.”

    Emma James COO Kamwell
  • “Penny for me is a stand out role model of women in leadership. She fought for my career, believed in me and showed firsthand what being a powerful woman in business can look like. For this especially I am eternally grateful.”

    Celine Floyd, Director of Leadership Assessment Capp & Co Ltd
  • “Penny was a catalyst for significant change, redefining the strategy and structure, developing the senior team to achieve their best through her coaching style and driving a more commercial approach. I am proud to have had the opportunity to work with such an inspirational, innovative and insightful leader.”

    Gaynor Lewis. Head of Commercial Development. ILM
  • “Penny is without hesitation one of the best CEOs I have worked with. …She is results focussed driven and challenging combined with an engaging style, an incredible sense of warmth and a clear passion for business.”

    Sara Barrie – Sara Barrie & Associates
  • “Penny is one of the most accomplished professionals I have had the privilege of working for and with…She has a real focus on results but creates an environment/culture that allows people to be their best”

    Stephen Randall Partner Melior HR
  • “Superb at managing stakeholders, calm in a crisis and always with her sense of humour close to the surface, Penny is one of the best CEOs I’ve ever worked with and I’d have no hesitation in recommending anyone take the opportunity to work with her if they get the chance”

    Kerry Simmons Marketing Director LHH
  • “Penny was my boss and inspiration for over three years…With Penny you want to work hard and be your best. And work hard we did, but we also had a great deal of fun and satisfaction in making a difference at ILM under Penny’s leadership”

    Helen Oldfield, Sales and Marketing Director, MRS
  • “She has a strong focus on customer experience and cutting through ‘stuff’ to deliver results. I can’t think of anyone better placed to provide first class advice on business and personal growth”

    Hilary Hall, Chief Executive, National Hairdressers Federation
  • “Penny is without doubt one of the most impressive senior professionals working in the people space. Her presence, intellect and stature dictate that Penny is a leading light in her field, bringing both a commercial and deeply wise approach to business. She has other rare qualities for a senior executive, genuine charm, authenticity and humility. It is always a happy experience when one gets the chance to work with Penny and a fabulous opportunity to learn.”

    John Renz, Director at Executive Action
  • “Penny was (and remains to this day) an inspiration to me and so many others. Working with her is a highlight of my career, and one that I sincerely hope happens again!”

    Rob Sayers-Brown, Customer Relationship Manager at Eliesha Training Ltd
  • “Penny is simply outstanding in the capacity of coach and mentor. She has a warm personality which coupled with her sharp business acumen, professionalism and generosity in the way she invests in others professional growth is something which I have rarely seen in leaders who have held positions such as Penny has.”

    Caroline Mellor, Global HR Director, Transformation and Effectiveness at Dentsu Aegis Network