Think back to a time that you successfully completed a project in which you put in a lot of time and energy. This could be a situation involving a much-desired promotion, recognition, financial gains, or anything else meaningful to you. If you like, take a moment to note what are your thoughts and emotions as you think back to that moment of success.
Now think back to a situation in which you experienced failure. This could be a situation in which you let yourself or your team down. This might feel harder to think about, but if you are willing, take a moment to notice what immediate thoughts come up and what are you feeling now as you think about your moment of failure.
Was there any difference in how you experienced and attributed your success and failure?
Resilience Training: A Common Pattern In How Women Speak About Their Success
In the resilience trainings that I facilitate, I noticed a consistent pattern in how women responded to situations involving success and failure. They attributed their success to external factors, as noted by a participating financial adviser, “I was lucky to have a great team working with me.” Just to be clear, she was leading the team and attributed her success to her team. The same participant took full responsibility for her failure and was extremely critical of her self for not being able to reach her goals. These are typically middle and senior executives in organizations involved with technology and financial services.
This was a pattern I repeatedly saw in other women, including myself. When I meditated on my success and failure I was shocked at the asymmetry in my treatment of success and failure. I couldn’t come up with a successful event that evoked any kind of emotion in me. Of course, this was not because I have not achieved anything to be proud of. What this revealed to me was how little I thought of my own accomplishments. Yet, I experienced very strong emotions in my chest and critical thoughts when I reflected on my failures.
“Women attribute their success to working hard, luck, and help from other people. Men will attribute that – whatever success they have, that same success – to their own core skills.”
– Sheryl Sandberg
Gender Differences in Attributions of Success & Failure: What Does Research Say?
I looked up research to see if these observations were isolated events or anyone had systematically studied how men and women attributed their success and failure. Lo and behold, there is a lot of research documenting the gender differences in how we attribute our success and failure.
Attributions refer to our perceptions of causes for our success and failure, which can include our ability, effort, positive circumstances, or ease of task at hand. To summarize, this stream of research alludes to the fact that women don’t attribute their success to their ability but are three times more likely than men to attribute their failure to their lack of ability. You can read The Confidence Gap for a comprehensive summary of pertinent research on the gender gap as it pertains to confidence.
“In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.”
Consequences of How We Attribute Our Success & Failure
How we experience and perceive our success and failure impacts our self-concepts, self-esteem, confidence, and how we show up in the world. The process of self-attribution is relevant to women’s unequal career progression in management (Patrice Rosenthal et al). If women don’t see the connection between their abilities and success but attribute their success to external factors like luck and their teams, they may lack the confidence to ask for promotions or negotiate for better salaries or reach out to clients in a confident manner.
“Women applied for a promotion only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men applied when they met 50 percent.”
As children, if girls see their initial challenges with subjects like science and math because of their lack of ability, they may avoid going into those fields all together. “An array of important factors line up to help boys feel that any success they achieve in technology is a function of their ability whereas any failure is a product of bad luck or lack of trying. For girls, success at technology is attributed less to their ability and more to effort or luck. Failure, on the other hand, must be due to their low level of ability. The pattern of attribution is protective for boys and damaging to girls.” (J.Cooper)
On the flip side, being self-critical in a healthy way can promote the motivation to grow and improve. Women who include others in their success are displaying humility, compassion, and a clearer seeing of the interconnectedness of all the different people and pieces needed to succeed. This is a healthy mindset that supports collaboration and collective growth. Being over confident about one’s abilities can make the person arrogant and oblivious to opportunities to learn and grow. Higher levels of testosterone, a hormone associated with confidence in men, are related to risk-taking behaviors, aggression, and inability to collaborate (Katty Kay and Claire Shipman).
What Can We Do About The Extreme Attributions?
1) Awareness of your explanatory style
Regardless of gender, we have a natural mode for perceiving and explaining our success and failure. It is important to be aware of our biased perceptions. This is made possible by noticing our thoughts and emotions when we experience success and failures, big and small. It is important to direct attention to our inner world, with kindness and curiosity, in order to learn about our thinking patterns. Martin Seligman’s uses the term explanatory style to depict how we make sense of our success and failure. Our explanatory styles determine our levels of optimism, which impacts our long term success. The first important skill to overcome the confidence gap is awareness of our explanatory styles.
2) Exploring our default mode without clinging or resisting
It is not always easy to look inwards, especially when we are looking at self talk and emotions related to failure. Mindfulness training can help us learn to be with our emotions with inner calm and non reactivity. With mindfulness practice, we can recognize emotions as physiological responses to triggers rather than who we are. We can learn to become a witness of our emotions instead of letting the emotion overwhelm us.
On the other hand, we have a tendency to grasp or hold on to what feels pleasant or comfortable. It may be easy to get attached to feelings of confidence because of our success. By cultivating the ability to witness our thoughts and emotions without resisting or clinging, we gain clarity to underlying patterns that govern our thinking and our blind spots.
3) Lead from the middle
Dualistic thinking is pervasive in human experience. Once we recognize that we are self-critical, we may over-compensate by going to the other end and becoming over-confident or vice versa. What we are looking for is a skillful way of dealing with our default tendencies without going to any extreme. For example, if you tend to be self-critical, the gift in that may be that you are open to learning and growing, which you don’t want to lose as you learn to recognize and own your contribution to success.
On the other hand, if you are over-confident, you don’t want to give up the healthy aspects of confidence that allow you to recognize your contribution. But also want to stay open to recognizing the efforts of everyone that helped you be successful and see the opportunities to continue to learn and grow. By letting go of the extreme behaviors you are creating the space for creativity and new perspectives that balance and integrate extreme behaviors for optimal behaviors that are beneficial for everyone involved. I call this skill, leading from the middle.
Are you aware of how you explain your success and failure?
Please contact me if you are interested in learning more how training in mindfulness, emotional-intelligence, and resilience can help you or your organization.
A friend pointed out this song, “Get back to the middle.” Listen to the words and enjoy!
This is the slide deck for a workshop at UMass Women Into Leadership Annual Workshop: