Fear, failure and frauds: is there an impostor in the library?

As the guest speaker at the 2014 VALA annual general meeting, I explored what it takes to succeed as a leader in the changing environment that libraries are facing. I looked at leadership qualities such as self-confidence, risk taking, resilience and creativity. I asked attendees to face their fears and embrace their failures. I asked the vexed question, ‘is there an impostor in the library’?

I did not write a paper to accompany my talk but you can listen to the audio on the VALA website. I have included the slides below.

 

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Librarians: closing the confidence gap

Are librarians being held back in their careers by a lack of self confidence? How can LIS educators, professional associations and library leaders help close the confidence gap?

I recently ran some professional development workshops with groups of librarians. As one of the workshop exercises, I asked participants to identify a fear they would like to overcome in preparing to lead the library of the future. The workshop participants wrote their fear on a post-it note, discussed it in pairs, came up with some practical ways they might overcome their fear, and then stuck the post-it note on a wall for other participants to see. One participant dubbed this the ‘communal wall of terror’. Some of their fears centered on a perceived lack of technical skills. Strikingly though, most of their fears related to a lack of confidence around interpersonal communication, public speaking/presentations, leadership and decision-making.

A few examples of their expression of a lack of confidence were:

“Initiating contact with people I don’t know very well.”

“Do I have the ability to succeed?”

“People not taking me seriously.”

“Voicing my opinion.”

2014-02-07 17.11.22One participant said they didn’t like speaking in public. They feared that the audience would judge them because they are overweight. This was a very personal and brave statement to make. It really got me thinking about the role confidence plays in helping or hindering librarians in their careers. I had been reflecting on this when I stumbled across an article in The Atlantic, The Confidence Gap. The message of this article is that confidence matters as much as competence for success at work. The authors argue that there is a confidence gap between the genders which results in women being less successful than men, despite being equally or more competent. The authors describe confidence as a ‘virtuous circle’.

Confidence is a belief in one’s ability to succeed, a belief that stimulates action. In turn, taking action bolsters one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed. So confidence accumulates—through hard work, through success, and even through failure.”

Taking this definition, confidence means you are more likely to take actions that lead to success, for example negotiating salary increases, applying for promotions or increased responsibilities, voicing an opinion, and taking risks.

I have been thinking that if the fifty or so librarians in the workshops I ran suffer from a lack of confidence then it probably represents a more wide spread professional issue. Librarianship is a female dominated profession, and one that often attracts introverts. These two features quite possibly tip the scales towards lower self confidence. If there is a confidence issue amongst librarians, and this is is holding them back from taking actions that might lead to more successful career, how can this confidence gap be bridged?

The good news, according to the authors of The Confidence Gap, is that confidence can be acquired.

While acquiring confidence is a complex and personal journey, there are some clear ways that it can be fostered. There is an opportunity here for LIS educators, professional associations and library leaders to focus on closing the confidence gap. What better gift could we give the next generation of librarians than self belief and the courage to act?

Self-efficacy is “the belief in one’s capabilities to achieve something”, and is a useful starting point for thinking about how to support confidence growth. There are four sources of self-efficacy, according to this article:

  • Mastery experiences – things you have succeeded at in the past
  • Vicarious experiences – seeing people who are similar to you succeed
  • Social persuasion – hearing from others that you’re capable
  • Emotional status – staying positive, and managing stress

Library leaders, LIS educators and professional associations could consider ways to encourage these four sources of self-efficacy.

As a library leader or LIS educator, how can you create mastery experiences for your employees and students by setting stretch projects to build their confidence? How can you encourage social persuasion by giving constructive and positive feedback on performance? How can you support risk taking, learning from mistakes, perseverance and building resilience? How can you help your employees and students set and achieve realistic but challenging goals?

As a LIS educator or professional association, how can you design vicarious experiences for your students or members through mentoring support and networking opportunities? Are there other ways you can expose your students or members to successful peers that can role model action and success?

Of course, librarians also have to take individual responsibility for closing the confidence gap themselves. As a librarian, how can you take charge of tapping into your sources of self-efficacy to build your confidence? A few areas you could focus on are building on your past successes, surrounding yourself with successful peers and mentors, seeking constructive feedback and putting your hand up for stretch projects and challenging opportunities. Critically, you can also focus on managing your emotional status by being positive and motivated, managing stress and taking responsibility for your own success, or as the authors of The Confidence Gap say “stop thinking so much and just act”.