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Coaching for confidence


DangerHelen Williams and Professor Stephen Palmer say they still hear references to the boys' club when coaching female clients, but is lack of self-confidence really what's holding women back?

Deborah Meaden, UK multi-millionaire and entrepreneur, Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, Charlotte Crosswell, former Head of NASDAQ International and Hillary Clinton are just some examples of highly successful female business leaders and entrepreneurs.

Research suggests, however, that organisations have a way to go to truly maximise on the value of women in the work place: the 2007 International Labour Office figure reveals that only 28.3% of board level positions are currently held by women, placing gender diversity firmly on the agenda for talent management in 2008.

Photo of Helen Williams"When all else is equal the extent of our success can come down to one thing: do we believe we can do it?"

Helen Williams, chartered occupational psychologist, SHL People Solutions

Numerous studies have looked at why this difference still exists, and all are in agreement that it is less to do with differences in 'human capital' – qualifications and experiences – and much more to do with what has been branded 'social capital' – gaining access to key social and political networks in an organisation (we still hear references to the boys' club when working with female coaching clients) and dealing with unhelpful gender stereotypes.

There is one underlying trait that arguably impacts on both human and social capital: self-confidence. The impact of self-confidence on an individual's success rates has been noted in leadership literature for decades1. When all else is equal – opportunities, qualifications, experience, track record – the extent of our success can come down to one thing: do we believe we can do it? If the answer is yes, then success may be ours for the taking. Research shows those managers and leaders who report higher levels of self-confidence are more proactive in taking opportunities for personal development and are more likely to gain the support of followers, the results of which feed through directly to the bottom line.

So how do women fare when it comes to confidence – well, low self-confidence is by no means gender exclusive. Research does suggest though that women are more likely to report these experiences 2 which may be due to an actual difference in confidence levels, or perhaps a difference in willingness to be open about it.

Photo of Professor Stephen Palmer"The impact of self-confidence on an individual's success rates has been noted in leadership literature for decades."

Professor Stephen Palmer, director of the Centre for Coaching

Our own practitioner case study, presented at the BPS National Coaching Psychology Conference aimed to understand the role psychometric feedback and coaching could play in enhancing self-confidence for three high achieving women. Use of the SHL occupational personality questionnaire and motivation questionnaire afforded the individual's increased awareness of natural tendencies and drivers, whilst cognitive behavioural coaching allowed rapid identification of helpful and less helpful thinking patterns fuelling their levels of self-confidence3.

In each of our cases tracked over time the coaching clients reported significantly greater levels of self-confidence. They are now able to think more flexibly, for example being more self-accepting, acknowledging their past achievements and holding more realistic self-demands4, and as a result are more focused on delivering business results through themselves and others.

So what can organisations do to foster this positive mindset amongst its leaders? Integration of coaching into leadership development and talent management programmes can help facilitate higher levels of confidence and cultural change programmes can help to create the right climate for valuing gender diversity in the organisation and its leadership population5. This is win: win – the individual is ready to achieve more than they previously believed possible; the organisation maximises return on investment on talent interventions and is also likely to benefit from higher levels of engagement and well-being.

About the authors:

Helen Williams is a chartered occupational psychologist specialising in management development and leadership at SHL People Solutions. Professor Stephen Palmer is director of the Centre for Coaching and an experienced business and coaching psychologist.
For more information on their organisations go to or


1 Dolan, S.L. (2007). 'Stress, self-esteem, health and work'. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

2 Harvey, J.C. & Katz, C. (1984). 'If I’m so successful, why do I feel like a fake? The Impostor Phenomenon'. New York: St Martin’s Press.

3Wilding, C., & Palmer, S. (2006). 'Zero to Hero: From Cringing to Confident in 100 steps'. London: Hodder Arnold.

4 Palmer, S. & Cooper, C. (2007). 'How to Deal with Stress'. London: Kogan Page.

5 Peltier, B. (2001). 'The Psychology of Executive Coaching: Theory and Application'. Oxon: Routledge.


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