As a manager, I can usually tell when my employees have a problem with self-doubt because I see them pulling back when they should be pushing forward. They don’t raise their hands when I ask for someone to take the lead. They don’t apply for promotions, even though they might be qualified. They don’t challenge the assumptions or misstatements of others, even when they should. The irony for many managers is that these self-sabotaging employees often possess tremendous potential, apparent to everyone but themselves.
When people doubt themselves, they tend to project that doubt onto others. That perceived lack of confidence leads others to assume that they can’t handle hard assignments or won’t achieve desired results.
Evidence and personal experience suggest that pervasive self-doubt especially plagues women. From workplace choices to parenting decisions, men tend to, if anything, overestimate their competence while women consistently underestimate theirs. Some consider it a “confidence gap” between men and women. Others have talked about “imposter syndrome,” where people routinely assume that they don’t deserve to be where they are, and they fear exposure. One author I recently heard interviewed described the problem in terms of an overactive or unchecked inner critic. The author, Tara Mohr, describes the inner critic as an extreme, repetitive, pessimistic voice of doubt and fear.1