Laurie Ruettimann posted a question of mine over at her site, Punk Rock HR, the other day. Basically, I asked how to deal with a 2-year stretch of unemployment if I ever get an interview again, but the commenters picked up on my negative tone and lack of confidence, and offered a lot of good and thoughtful feedback mostly directed at that. So my conviction that I am incompetent and bad at my job–despite evidence to the contrary ranging from excellent grades and test scores to always having received good performance reviews–has been on my mind lately.

Through mulling over these issues and a conversation with my therapist this week where we discussed my work issues, I came to one realization that seemed pertinent–it feels like I started losing confidence in my abilities when the relationship between myself and those I answered to changed. One commenter to the Punk Rock HR post stated that he had hired a woman who lacked confidence but did OK until, as he stated:

The doubts came back in her mind because the “customer” she supported changed from a nurturing kind “father” to a dishonest “dick”.

I can kind of see where this employee was coming from. Up until my first true “grown-up” job, I had mostly personal relationships and relationships with authority figures where the contract went: be polite and helpful, do your work, and people will be happy and satisfied. This (more or less) applied to my teachers and professors, supervisors at my summer jobs during college, and my bosses and clients through most of my first “real” engineering job out of school.

Not that most of this doesn’t still apply at work. Do your job, don’t make trouble for others, and you are still ahead of a sadly large number of other employees out there. But eventually, in my first job, I was asked to do some site assessments in which I would have to ask convenience store managers for access to the property but was not supposed to reveal who my client was or why the work was being done. Except the project manager didn’t tell me that in advance–it was just assumed that I would be discreet. So I followed my usual model–figure out how people are feeling, figure out a way to make them feel better–and really for the first major time, it wasn’t right. I told an angry and suspicious store manager who the client was (a convenience store chain) and why they had ordered the site assessments (they were going to buy the convenience stores I was visiting) in an effort to, basically, make him less mad at me.

This turned out not to be a major problem in the end, but my PM sat me down and coached me on not revealing that kind of information. As I look back now, what he was in effect asking me to do was to get myself in the door, but then just LET people be hostile, upset, irritated, or scared, and not try to fix it! This goes completely against the grain of my personality, and it’s no wonder that I still found myself overexplaining, talking myself into a corner, saying the wrong things, and wondering why I couldn’t do this right.

In my next job I found myself having similar difficulties, but the stakes were higher–I worked for a larger firm now, and was involved in several collaborative projects where different pieces of the pie went to different local firms. Because of this, there was something of a tendency for the company representatives to “work together” at the same time as attempting to make the other players look bad in front of the ultimate client… after all, we were all going to have to bid against each other on the next project. There were also the usual office politics, a testy administrative assistant whom I couldn’t seem to appease no matter what I did, and other interactions that were confusing and difficult for me. Still, to some extent, I kept interacting with people by attempting to put them at ease and make them happy, when the best strategy would have been to present data and information without a lot of explanation or rationalization, and certainly without apologizing, which unfortunately I did copiously.

(I’m oversimplifying, and there is no question that I made PLENTY of other mistakes as well, mostly in the area of being disorganized and a procrastinator. It also probably didn’t help that typically, all the other people in a given meeting were male engineers with 15+ years experience, and I was usually the only woman and certainly the only one in my twenties.)

In any case, not surprisingly, this continued not to work very well–and eventually I ended up quitting my most recent job in my field because over the years I had become so overwhelmed by my belief in my own incompetence (technical and otherwise) that on some level I was afraid to attempt or do anything.

But I now realize that at least one piece of that puzzle is that not every communication in the corporate world is intended by all parties to result in mutual happiness or satisfaction. Sometimes someone is just plain trying to make you look bad, take pressure off themselves, or is taking out their personal frustrations on you. Sometimes someone is getting pressure from elsewhere (or maybe they are just used to a more adversarial, challenging style of interaction where confidence is highly valued and where you try to get one up on others… this seems common in engineering in my experience), and that is why they, for example, come at you out of the blue demanding an immediate answer to a question that really requires an “I’ll get back to you later.” But at the time, I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking that time because then I would hang up the phone with the other person still unhappy, and that was an unacceptable outcome for me.

Another commenter to Laurie’s post made a common argument, that women seem to be their “own worst enemy” when it comes to engaging in mutual self-flagellation where career issues are concerned. Personally I think this probably comes from social conditioning and not something biologically innate to women, or whatever. It seems to be advantageous in some way for us to beat ourselves up rather than displaying confidence, and I think the advantage has something to do with it being detrimental to appear overconfident and therefore threatening to men in social situations. The commenter also noted that even nowadays, many girls don’t think they “can do math,” which in my mind is closely related to the “own worst enemy” concept. I’m sure no school in 2010 actually teaches girls that they can’t do math and science, but although things are much better than they used to be, it is true that girls still lack confidence in these areas, or find it easier to get by if they hide their confidence.

This is also not limited to “math”–for me it’s more hands-on, physical labor with a technical component, along the lines of woodworking or car repair. I was putting up a blind over the summer at my grandparents’ house with a screw at one of those sort of odd, frustrating angles, and my dad (whom I love dearly) took the screwdriver out of my hand and did it himself. I’m 33 years old. I’m sure that in no way did he mean “you can’t do this, stop wasting my time”… the thought (though it was probably not explicit) was probably more like “my little girl is struggling with something, I will help her and fix it.”

I will also admit that unfortunately, I am guilty of just hanging back and letting my husband do projects around the house if he grabs the tools before I can. Because this translates to my work to some extent (I have encountered random needs like quickly getting a finicky boat to start, assembling and disassembling equipment, lifting heavy items like manhole covers, climbing fences, etc.–not to mention design projects where it is beneficial to have some hands-on experience with things like plumbing components, and not just the theory you learn in school), I have been trying to grab the tools myself and just do things around the house my share of the time, even if it frustrates my husband to watch me do it because he thinks he could do it better.

The upshot for me is that if men or similarly confident women jump in to do these things to save me trouble and frustration, and I let them, then I am positioning myself lower on the totem pole and I never get comfortable with that kind of work. So then I continue to be and look uncomfortable doing it, and that nice coworker may continue to jump in to do it for me… possibly because he was raised both to be comfortable working with his hands, and to have an action bias, rather than to avoid “just doing” things because he is afraid of doing them wrong (which is more my tendency). The end result is that I contribute to the unspoken belief that women are “just bad” at this type of work, which in my experience continues to hang around under the surface. Everybody typically means well in these situations, but the result could certainly be detrimental both to women’s self-sufficiency and our careers.

Thanks again to Laurie for posting my question (as you can see, the responses really got me thinking), and for her fantastic blog.