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Maria Shriver

Tara Mohr’s Mission To Empower Women To Play Big

Image: Tara Mohr
Tara Mohr Margot Duane

Throughout 2014, there has been a growing chorus that what’s really holding women back is their own lack of confidence. But according to leadership coach Tara Mohr, it’s not confidence that women need to find, but rather a healthier, more productive way to relate to their inner critic.

For Mohr, that inner critic -- the lurking voice that whispers doubts and plants fears of being laughed at -- is connected to women’s historical dependency on the good opinion of others for their survival.

Her new book, “Playing Big: Find Your Voice, You Mission, Your Message,” lays out the strategies to help women manage that self-doubt, move away from perfectionism and over-planning, and embrace the fear that comes with opportunity. Based on her acclaimed women’s leadership program by the same name, “Playing Big” is a call to women from all walks of life to stop hedging and start leaping towards their biggest aspirations.

Here, Mohr discusses the double-bind women face in the workplace and explains why women playing big will be a game changer.

In the book, you talk about a television producer once wanting to introduce you as someone saying women have no one to blame but themselves. What was your take-away from that in terms of how the conversation around working women gets shaped?

Well, it really was my up close and personal experience of seeing how any time we start talking about the internal barriers that women can have to playing big, we confuse that with the idea that it’s their fault, that it’s something completely within women’s control, that we just choose it, and that therefore we can choose differently. I think we’ve really missed the link between external and internal barriers.

I think we need to have a lot more compassion for ourselves about those internal barriers, and to also understand that when we’re talking about them, we’re not blaming women.

To the extent that women do have a unique set of internal barriers to their playing big, it comes from our history, from there being a dearth of female leaders that we see in action, of being socialized to people-please and to put others first. So I think we need to have a lot more compassion for ourselves about those internal barriers, and to also understand that when we’re talking about them, we’re not blaming women, we’re wisely seeing the whole picture of how women need to come out of a past in which they were so marginalized.

Some women look at the confidence conversation and feel it puts the focus on the wrong place, that it only adds to the list of things they are being told they should be doing differently. Can you talk about that?

I think that the phenomenon that people are pointing to -- noticing that women often don’t see themselves as ready to take on a next bigger role, and all these issues of self-doubt -- I think it’s right to shine the spotlight there, and to start to say something’s going on here, and we’re seeing too many capable women not stepping up for reasons of self-doubt.

Self-doubt is the problem but confidence is not the antidote; the antidote is relating in a new way to our own self-doubt...hearing it, being aware of it, but not taking direction from it.

The problem, or one of the problems, I think, is that then we have framed the solution as: let’s become more confident. That’s where I would disagree. I think that self-doubt is the problem but confidence is not the antidote; the antidote is relating in a new way to our own self-doubt, and that new way has to do with hearing it, being aware of it, but not taking direction from it.

Some of the second-guessing women do is out of self-protection. So, a woman may be tentative because she knows she has to strike a more careful balance in asserting herself at work than a man. Can you talk about that?

I think we’re hardwired, all of us -- men and women -- with a very strong instinct for physical safety. In our contemporary lives, where our physical safety isn’t threatened very often, that shows up when our emotional safety feels threatened: when we feel at risk of failure, or at risk of criticism, or when we feel we might have an experience in the world that would take us out of of our emotional comfort zone. There’s such an instinct in us to always stay in the emotional comfort zone and to never risk failure or criticism or rejection, in our work and our personal lives. and that instinct manifests through self-doubt.

The inner critic will show up whenever we’re on the edge of playing bigger, and whenever we’re taking a new risk and stretching ourselves. And so we just need tools to deal with it.

But if the inner voice were just to say, “Hey, stay in your comfort zone, that will be safer,” you’d probably say, “Well, no, I really do want to go for that stretch job,” you’d argue back with it, and you’d move right past it. So, the voice has to use a more sophisticated argument, so to speak, in your consciousness. So, instead it will say, “You’re not ready. You’re about to make a fool of yourself,” and things that are more paralyzing and scary and wounding for us. The inner critic will show up whenever we’re on the edge of playing bigger, and whenever we’re taking a new risk and stretching ourselves. And so we just need tools to deal with it.

I think we’re actually spreading a very dangerous idea by telling women that confidence is the answer, because then they start to feel like they’re missing a critical ingredient and they have to go find confidence, and none of us can choose to find confidence.

I think we’re actually spreading a very dangerous idea by telling women that confidence is the answer, because then they start to feel like they’re missing a critical ingredient and they have to go find confidence, and none of us can choose to find confidence. It doesn’t work that way, but what we can do, that’s much more manageable, is put in a place a daily practice where when you hear your inner critic, you say, “That’s my inner critic talking. I can tell because it’s extreme, and it’s harsh, and it’s thinking in black and white terms, and I’m not going to take direction from that voice.”

Another side of this is the double-standard women face. A woman can enter a negotiation feeling extremely confident about the that work she’s actually done, but it's the act of negotiating the raise for that work that creates self-doubt.

Right. When women go into a negotiation there is the double-bind, which is the tension between how to express yourself in strong ways, assertively, and say what you need to say about your work, but then to not come off as too aggressive, not likable, and all of those things. The study that Kieran Snyder did showed that women are often criticized in personal terms for being too abrasive, and too aggressive, so there is this tightrope that we’re forced to walk because of the double-bind in our culture, and that’s the real external barrier.

Because the double-bind exists, women can often over-estimate how much they need to be tentative and kind of diminishing of themselves in their work, much more than they in fact need to be.

But because the double-bind exists, women can often over-estimate how much they need to be tentative and kind of diminishing of themselves in their work, much more than they in fact need to be. A lot of times, we can push ourselves a lot further than we think we can in terms of playing big.

You include a quote from Twyla Tharp, the award-winning choreographer, who says that her number one fear is: “People will laugh at me.” Many will relate to that, but where does that fear of what people will think come from?

Well, again I think there’s a layer that’s universal to all humans, and then there’s a layer where women have a particular form of it. I think for all of us, the fear of shame and embarrassment is so core, but then for women there’s some unique resonances around praise and criticism. One is that for so much of our history what other people thought of us really did determine how we survived; we couldn’t use our physical power or legal protections or financial means to ensure our safety, so doing whatever was acceptable to the group, or to the more powerful others around us, was a necessary survival strategy. I think we all kind of live with the psychological inheritance of that.

For so much of our history what other people thought of us really did determine how we survived...so doing whatever was acceptable to the group, or to the more powerful others around us, was a necessary survival strategy.

I started thinking about this because I noticed when I was teaching women about what I call un-hooking from criticism and becoming less afraid of it, that their voices would tremble like their lives were at risk. And I went away thinking: Why does this feel so much scarier to them than other topics that we cover? And I think it really is that history. It’s only newly safe -- and only for some women in the world -- to do things that are controversial and disapproved of, and be OK.

You also point out that women who were stars in school often run into roadblocks in their careers, partly because school cultivates habits of pleasing and preparation. Can you talk about how that?

The definition of being a good student is being well-prepared: going home and doing your homework to prepare for what you might be asked the next day in class or for what’s going to be on the test. Then we get into our careers, and a lot of times the most important moments in our careers are not ones that we can prepare for. It’s when the client asks you the unexpected question in the pitch meeting, or when you end up unexpectedly in a conversation with an executive at your company and you need to decide how to use that moment. Because of the way a good student is defined, we don’t really see improvisation as an important skill and part of doing a good job. So then instead of seeing the improvisational moments as part of the job and something we want to practice and get good at, we kind of treat them as anomalies where we didn’t get the chance to do what we were supposed to do or what we would want to do.

The whole model in school was: You will succeed by listening to what this authority figure wants, interpreting it, and then doing it. When we get into our careers, we need to do some of that, but we also need to be thinking about how we can influence the authority figures in our midst.

On people-pleasing, I think back on my own education, and how every year, starting with kindergarten, it was just understood that you listened to the teacher and the teacher would explain where you were supposed to write your name, and where you were supposed to keep your notebook. Each year you’d adapt to a whole new set of requirements from a new authority figure, and in older grades, you would be adapting seven or eight times a day as you switched between different teachers. The whole model in school was: You will succeed by listening to what this authority figure wants, interpreting it, and then doing it. When we get into our careers, we need to do some of that, but we also need to be thinking about how we can influence the authority figures in our midst so that we’re known for our ideas and our unique point of view. So then it’s, how do we stand in our own authority and eventually become the authority figure? How do we challenge authority figures diplomatically and effectively?

In the book, you say employers rely on women for their work ethic but not yet for their brilliance. Many women relate to feeling indispensable but invisible.

Yes. They’re leveraging our work ethic but they’re not yet leveraging our brilliance. And that’s the good student mode: the worker-bee, solid contributor, who puts in the extra time, but that’s very different from being a game-changer, being known for your ideas, and leading.

You say when women play bigger, they change the world for the better and bring what’s missing. What’s missing in your view?

I think that we’re missing a lot of wisdom about how human beings really operate and what helps human beings and human life to thrive. So, when we look at our medical care system, we see how we’ve lost the focus on relationship or the attention to the environment that patients are in; and when we look at business we see the unsustainable ways that we’re having people work, the lack of meaning in so many people’s work, and the corruption that’s present in so much of our corporate life. What’s kind of rampant through our systems is a real lack of emotional intelligence and focus on what truly helps human beings thrive. As a collective, we’ve been very successful in building institutions and using our IQ to build better tools and technology for ourselves, but we haven’t been as strong at minding the store on the emotional intelligence side. I think that’s a really big part of what women are now bringing forward and they’re doing it in really diverse ways across so many different industries

This interview has been edited.

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