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Shefali Salwan March 8 2022 14 min read

How to Bridge the Gender Confidence Gap

Research has established a clear gender difference in the assessment of talent in the workplace, where confidence (which men tend to display more of) is mistaken for competence.1

In my experience in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion space, and as a female professional, I have seen women asked to lean in more or portray themselves differently, more confidently (subtext: like men) to establish their credibility. These suggestions are both misogynistic and further perpetuate the stereotype. I believe there is an antidote that can more effectively and inclusively bridge this gap and ensure a high chance of success for companies, teams, and talent.

Becoming Aware of the Charisma Trap

We’ve been hiring talent for too long based on the candidates’ charisma and communication skills. Unfortunately, this practice tends to favor male candidates who are more often hired for their perceived capability based on their confidence rather than their actual accomplishments.2 This hurts both organizations and talent as value is washed away by having the wrong person in a critical role. Most hiring processes are not designed to dig deep enough to gather the right kind of information and background on a prospective hire and their history of success. In addition, hiring managers may not be trained to expertly extract the details needed to determine if the talent is just a skilled salesperson with a gift for storytelling or is a secret superstar who lacks the ability to self-promote.

There are numerous articles, books, and TED talks intended to help individuals learn the art of self-promotion, and many of them are designed specifically for women. But that solution creates several issues in the hiring process:

1. It puts the onus solely on the talent and removes responsibility from the hiring team. This can cause exceptional talent to slip through the cracks.

2. It asks women to behave more like men rather than allowing them to exhibit their natural leadership and problem-solving abilities.

3. It can create an environment where the talent takes control of the interview to ensure it goes in the direction they want it to, rather than the direction it needs to go in to uncover the truth.

There are already too many incompetent leaders driving value and morale into the ground.

In my experience, there is a more effective way to ensure the right person is brought in to execute the ambition for the role, regardless of how dynamic, confident, or charismatic the talent may be.

Research reveals that the skills many leaders use to climb the corporate ladder, like narcissism, hubris, and charm, are the wrong skills we need to create an environment of growth, productivity, and fulfillment.3

“…what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well.4

– Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

 

How to Uncover the Truth

When conducting interviews to identify who is right for the job, how we ask the questions that get at role-talent fit is critical. I have heard executives talk about a “special trick” question that they use to truly discover the candidate fit. But we believe that it’s essential to base the interview on the outcomes and metrics for success for the role. We can’t identify star candidates if we don’t know what we’re measuring against.

At CEO.works, we call these metrics Jobs To Be Done(JTBDs). Once the JTBDs have been determined, the essence of the process uses one simple but precise question: Give us your best example of when you did [whatever JTBDs we’re looking for].

Hiring managers need the candidate to:

  1. Explain the situation
  2. Provide details about the actions they took
  3. And reveal what the results were.

Now we have a way to begin matching experience to the JTBDs.

Of course, it’s easy for a skilled communicator to invent an impressive story. That’s why we ask for lots of context and have the talent walk us through the process. We ask them, “What did YOU do,” to uncover their behaviors & actions. We take our time here and ask the same question repeatedly in the same conversation. That way, there is less risk of distortion or exaggeration, and the interviewee must be specific.

It’s harder to invent an impressive story when we continue to press for details.

Bias, or noise—as Daniel Kahneman, would refer to it—is inherent whenever we make judgements. Carefully considering the evidence is one way to counter the bias.5

man and woman back to back

When Everyone is a Star

Sometimes, when promoting from within, we will run into a situation where different people share the same story. For example, I led a leadership assessment program for a large transportation and logistics company in North America. A key business challenge revolved around one of their major ports where there were inordinate delays in bringing cargo from the trains to the ships—on average 22 days—which had huge cost implications. The company managed to reduce the turnaround time to a mere eight days through an internal initiative!

During the interviews, eight people all referred to this challenge and success as an example of their operational capabilities. This makes sense because projects of a large magnitude never involve just one person. I then needed to understand what each individual actually did—what their individual actions and initiatives were—not what their team did. We kept presenting the same questions: What was YOUR role, what did you DO? Because we continued to press for details during the interview, it became harder to provide accurate information unless one was closely involved in solving the problem.

The good news is that the people who’ve done the work will shine. And in this case, they certainly stood out by the end of the interview.

Predicting Future Performance

The most significant predictor of future performance is past behavior.

At CEO.works, we use a robust scoring methodology, and the key metrics are relevance and impact. Vague actions and outcomes simply won’t pass the test. They might sound nice and move the interview along quickly, but they are not a good predictor of success.

For example, we often come across this interview scenario that I’ve simplified for your amusement:

HR: Give me your best example of when you had to deal with a motivation issue.

Talent A: The business wasn’t winning in the marketplace, and there was a general despondency. So I worked to understand the vision of the business, our competitive differentiators, then used that to clarify the roles for the team. We had a team off-site where we identified areas of collaboration and conflict and worked through those. At our following review, not only were the engagement scores higher, but my team’s financial results had significantly improved.

Talent B: Oh, we had a motivational issue, so I worked with HR to create team events. I think motivation was better after that.

Which story is more relevant and reveals a measurable impact? If we have a JTBD that requires the ability to inspire and motivate employees, it should be obvious which candidate is a better fit.

The Bonus to Hiring for Competence

Not only does using a rigorous, metric-based hiring process increase the chances of successfully creating value, but it also has a hidden benefit for both organizations and talent.

This process weeds out overly-confident candidates and organically opens the door to creating an environment of diversity. Women, people of color, those with disabilities, and other minority groups who bring valuable capabilities and experience are too frequently overlooked in the traditional hiring process.

Now, if you want your interviewee to take you on a lovely ride, just ask the worst interview question ever:

Tell me a bit about yourself.

 


1. Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2022, February 24). Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2013/08/why-do-so-many-incompetent-men
2 . Barsh, J., & Yee, L. (2021, March 1). Unlocking the full potential of women in the US economy. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/unlocking-the-full-potential-of-women
3 . Ohio State University. (2008). Narcissistic people most likely to emerge as leaders. Newswise. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.newswise.com/articles/narcissistic-people-most-likely-to-emerge-as-leaders
4. Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2022, February 24). Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?  Harvard Business Review. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2013/08/why-do-so-many-incompetent-men
5. Kahneman, Daniel. (2021). Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. New York: Little, Brown Spark.  1934-, Olivier, Sibony and Cass R., Sunstein.
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Shefali Salwan

As a coach and advisor to C-suite leaders, Shefali has decades of experience in HR and is the head of the CEO.works Talent to Value Academy.