Confidence and the art of product management
Do you need to be confident to be a product manager?
Is there anything as frustrating as being told to “Be more confident”? Not too long ago all my feedback seemed to contain some version of that phrase, and it would exasperate me. The best feedback is actionable, but how do you action confidence? Sure, there’s the concept of “faking it till you make it,” but often when we do something new at work it is a sensation metaphorically like being on a skateboard for the first time. You simply cannot fake not wobbling– you have to practise, feel what it feels like, and develop the muscles you need. Only then might you get away without wobbling, and appear confident.
Product management can be a lot like skateboarding. When it’s done well, it looks effortless, even though what you are doing is balancing at high speeds. When you’re in times of uncertainty, like discovery, being decisive helps your team stay focused and do their best work in fast-moving environments. Is this, then, the kind of thing we mean when we are told we need confidence? And if it is, why not say that?
On a recent episode of his podcast, Work Life, Adam Grant affirms that there is a connection between confidence and success, but it’s not the one most people make. Instead of believing that you need to build confidence to achieve your goals (as we’re told), it’s actually the other way around: you build confidence by going after challenging goals. His guest on the episode, actor Reese Witherspoon, agrees, noting all the rejection she’s faced over the course of her career, especially early on: “I learned that just because I wasn’t right for [a part], didn’t mean that I wasn’t good enough. Lots of failure helped structure who I am and my self-confidence.”
‘Be more confident’ isn't feedback that’s given to everyone
If you’re male and reading this, there’s a chance you’ve never been given the feedback to be more confident (but thank you for reading! This is important for all of us to consider together). That’s because ‘confident’ is something we only tell women to be. A study of both male and female senior leaders in the UK looked at how each viewed the impact confidence had had on their career trajectories. It found that most of the women felt a lack of confidence had been a major obstacle in their careers, while none of the men even mentioned confidence, except in relation to female colleagues. The same study found that when women lacked confidence, this became evidence for why they weren’t progressing, but ironically if they were ‘too confident’ this was also seen as detrimental to their career.
In this way, when women fall short, their “lack of career progression is blamed on them, an attack they share with other underrepresented groups". In society, women are often held accountable for their circumstances, whereas men often have the luxury of pointing to factors outside of their control to explain the situations they are in. I've been thinking about this a lot recently because it's been evident in the third season of Love is Blind (sorry, stay with me!), which portrays relationships created via a “social experiment” – and through editorial choices – in a way that makes gender differences appear stark. While the men freely express themselves and their opinions with little regard to those around them, the women attempt to alter themselves in response to how they experience their relationships. When the Love is Blind women are given unprompted feedback about things they can’t (and shouldn’t!) change, like appearance, there is a demonstrable impact on their confidence. In this way Love is Blind raises questions about what is expected from men versus women, and what success looks like for men and women.
If we define confidence as the degree to which others perceive someone as being reliable when it comes to achieving a task or goal, and self-confidence as the degree to which someone can rely on themselves to achieve a task or goal, these become independent of one another. If women in the workplace are always told by colleagues they’re not trusted to be successful, and given no clear path to changing this perception, is there any wonder that women feel this holds them back?
The downsides are felt by entire teams and organisations
Demanding that women develop their confidence doesn’t just affect them, but risks negatively impacting your broader work environment too. If your team faces a challenging time and applying your confidence allows you to keep your team focused, that is a good thing. But this shouldn’t come at the expense of other traits like expressing vulnerability, which increases the psychological safety that allows you and those around you to ask questions and admit mistakes. We need diverse inputs to build the best products, and inclusive leadership makes room for that.
Self-confidence is earned, and when you're doing something new it's hard to appear confident, but there are underlying habits we can learn – and teach – to help everyone grow more quickly in new situations.
When I was given feedback to be more confident, my manager helped me turn it into actionable feedback myself. I started leading with the decision I'd recommend, while explaining the reasons why. I had a clear opinion backed with evidence, but created space for my thinking to be challenged and made better by others. This helped me make product decisions and lead teams more effectively, leading to positive results and increasing the self-confidence I had in myself.
What we can do
Instead of telling colleagues to be more confident, give feedback that builds specific capabilities. If you’re tempted to give someone advice around confidence, what is the underlying skill you’d like them to develop? This could be decision-making, managing risks, communicating effectively, or something else. If you receive feedback to “be more confident” yourself or on behalf of a direct report, feel empowered to challenge it – ask for feedback that is actionable and not gendered. Encourage inclusive leadership, inside and outside of product management, so that every individual can go after audacious goals and be successful, and we can build great products collaboratively.
Kin + Carta are hiring an Associate Product Manager! Find out more and apply here.
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