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The Utility of Self-Doubt

For a long-time I took self-doubt as a signal that I lacked knowledge or ability. This was particularly difficult to untangle because early in my career (and at regular intervals since) self-doubt has coincided with a lack of knowledge or ability. But untangling these two things (self-doubt and actual capability) was important, because the relationship isn’t causal, and continuing to believe that it was may have prevented me from capitalizing on the value of self-doubt.

You don’t have to look very far for encouragement to believe in yourself, build your #confidence, and to “fake it til you make it” at work. This advice sort of makes sense in a world in which apparently 70% of us have Imposter Syndrome, and women contend with a “confidence gap”. The brash self-belief that so many “successful” people in the media display suggests that we need only wrap ourselves in the warm blanket of confidence to enjoy the same level of achievement. On the other hand, self-doubt is uncomfortable, paralyzing even. I can see why we’re so eager to push it away.

It was a major breakthrough for me when I realized that feelings of self-doubt or confidence were not directly correlated to my actual ability or performance. And while confidence is a more comfortable feeling, for me it’s not nearly as useful as self-doubt.

Frequent periods of self-doubt, while uncomfortable, have always pushed me to question what I know, notice gaps or inconsistencies in my underlying mental models, explore and learn about alternate viewpoints, and often integrate those into my understanding. Even though I dislike feeling unsure of myself, and it’s not without its costs, self-doubt has fueled every major leap forward in my personal and professional life.

As with so many things, discomfort is a doorway. I need self-doubt as much, if not more, than I need confidence. And I’m not the only one.

Without self-doubt close at hand, how will we be alert to signs that our understanding is incorrect or incomplete? If we ignore small internal murmurings that something might not be quite right, will we wait to have that conversation with ourselves until the stakes are much higher? Until we are so personally invested in being right that we cannot accept contradictory evidence without it threatening our identity?

Yes, confidence can propel us forward, but it can also blind us to the fact that we’re going quickly in the wrong direction.

No Answers Here

This week, a conference I’m presenting at in November shared a tweet promoting my session. I’m really looking forward to speaking to HR leaders about sexual harassment, and appreciate the work that the HR Leaders Summit is doing to attract attendees. And yet, the notion that I have “the answers” is super uncomfortable. Because I don’t. That’s not false modesty, it’s actually the whole point of my session.

Screenshot 2018-09-03 13.53.58

Since the Weinstein story broke last year, thrusting the #MeToo movement into mainstream discourse, too much of the conversation in the HR profession has focused on better execution of the same tactics we’ve used to date: policies, cursory training about our policies, and after-the-fact investigations. But this isn’t an execution problem.

These tactics haven’t prevented the continued prevalence of workplace sexual harassment to date, so why do we think that, done more fervently, they’ll do so now?

This is a complex and nuanced issue, which requires better questions, not more confidently proclaimed answers. The way through is via humble exploration, not increased velocity forward. For a start, we’d be best served by questioning our basic assumptions about the prevalence of harassment, looking more deeply into what the evidence tells us about how it is prevented, and reflecting on the role we play as HR professionals in perpetuating conditions that allow it to persist in our workplaces.

We should doubt ourselves. We should doubt what we think we know. We should doubt those who suggest that there is an easy fix. If we don’t, we’ll continue to confidently put off an inevitable reckoning for our profession and our workplaces.

Recommended Reading:

Why You Should Take Time to Mourn During Career Transitions – Kimberly Lawson, NYTimes

I’ve spent the last few weeks wrapping up my work at Actionable. It’s been really hard. I joined this amazing team full-time at the beginning of last year, and it’s been an incredible, transformative experience. And as a company we’ve made a lot of difficult but smart choices over the last year to repeatedly narrow our focus on the incredible traction we’re seeing across our Consulting Partner community. Recently it became clear that it made sense for me to step away, and so I’m moving on. I read this article at the right time to help me process all the feelings that’s prompted.

But feelings of grief are common when you leave a workplace you love, said Kim Scott, author of “Radical Candor.”

“Even if you’re moving on to something that you really want to do and it’s the right decision, change is really hard,” Ms. Scott said.”

“Work is more than simply what we do, she added.

“It’s really important to value the complexity of what goes on at work. It isn’t this experience where you just execute tasks,” Dr. Orbé-Austin said. “There are really complex, dynamic growth experiences that are occurring, and when you experience loss, you’re acknowledging the full breadth of all you experienced at that workplace.”

Cotton textile production in medieval China unravelled patriarchy – Melanie Meng Xue, Aeon

Fascinating (brief) overview of research by Melanie Meng Xue on the impact that the rise of cotton-textile production in China (starting in 1300) had on cultural beliefs about women. From 1300-1840 cotton-textile production, which was overwhelmingly done by women, came to account for 25% of domestic trade in pre-modern China. This led to significant increases in women’s incomes and Xue’s research suggests that influenced a long-lasting change in how women were viewed in areas of China where cotton textile production was widespread. She found that being from an area which historically engaged in cotton-textile production correlates with the likelihood that a woman would be acknowledged as the head of a household in modern day China, and the likelihood that parents would engage in sex-selective abortion in the year 2000 – that’s 700 years after the rise of cotton textile production. Mind-boggling stuff.

“Economists have been asking why the gender wage gap persists for decades. Answers range from theories or suggestions that men are more productive than women; notions that men and women vary in important behavioural traits that have consequences for their earnings; and that there exists a set of beliefs and attitudes that systematically disadvantage women. Recent studies have shown that certain aspects of gender norms and gender roles, such as the gender-identity norm, are extremely resilient.

Using a detailed historical case – the cotton revolution in China – we can see that patriarchal beliefs are indeed highly resilient but also that they can be transformed by a sufficiently large increase in women’s productivity. The image of highly productive women positively shapes cultural beliefs about women’s ability, and then translates into a more positive view about women in general.”

Louis C.K. returned to the stage and women in comedy have thoughts – Lila MacLellan, Quartz at Work

So, this is coming up in a lot of conversations right now, in both my personal and professional life. And I think that’s great, because it prompts some difficult questions, like “What do we want from harassers?” and “What do harassers owe the people they abused?” and “What do we think we owe harassers and why?”. Some of the best commentary I’ve come across is from women in comedy on Twitter (many of those tweets are included in this article, as it happens).

Screenshot 2018-09-03 12.45.58Screenshot 2018-09-03 12.45.45



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