brain-ct-scan-tpool-stock4b-crop1
Photograph by T-Pool-Stock 4B/Getty Images

How women can gain confidence at work (and elsewhere)

Aug 13, 2015

What do you spend the most time doing in a typical day? Does your job give you the chance to do what you’re best at, or do you find you spend the most effort and energy on things you’re not good at or don’t like (or both)?

The answers to those questions may well determine how much self-confidence you have, especially if you’re female, says executive coach Michelle McQuaid. “Most employers want people to work on fixing their ‘weaknesses,’ instead of focusing on their strengths,” she notes. “But that’s exactly the wrong approach, especially for women, because it makes the cingulate gyrus go into overdrive.”

The what, now? Recent research shows that the cingulate gyrus, a small part of the brain near the amygdala, is larger in most women than in most men. That matters, because “scientists call it the brain’s ‘worrywart,’” notes McQuaid. “The cingulate gyrus causes us to overthink things. It’s the main reason why women are so often more apt than men to avoid risks, ruminate on our mistakes instead of moving on, and question the possible consequences of our actions.” Along with men’s higher levels of testosterone, the cingulate gyrus—more than, say, a failure to “lean in”—may be the biggest reason many women lack the confidence they need to get ahead in their careers.

Luckily, human brains of both sexes have one great feature: They’re highly trainable. McQuaid points to studies by neuroscientists at M.I.T. and elsewhere that suggest the surest way to get past an overactive cingulate gyrus and build confidence is to spend some time each day doing things we’re good at. This doesn’t even need to take much time, says McQuaid, since the available research shows “it takes about 11 minutes a day to start forming new neural pathways.”

That may have to be 11 minutes of your own time, at least initially. Only 52% of women (and 46% of men) say their jobs give them the chance to use their strengths every day, according to a study McQuaid and her team did a few months ago of a random sample of about 1,000 U.S. employees. But among women who reported spending the most time doing things they’re good at, 76% said they are “making a difference and what they do is appreciated,” and 69% said they’re “flourishing.” They also reported much higher levels of confidence than women who weren’t using their strengths.

“Of course, knowing what your strengths are is crucial,” McQuaid notes, adding that she pinpointed her own by taking a (free) online quiz. At the time, in 2006, she had spent 10 years working her way up to a global brand manager position at PwC. “I discovered that one of my biggest strengths was curiosity, which I wasn’t using at all, because I knew the job cold,” she recalls.

So McQuaid started spending 11 minutes a day, usually first thing in the morning, giving her curiosity a workout by learning “the latest thinking on how to be a better ‘people person’-type manager,” she recalls. “Then I started emailing my boss the three most interesting things I’d learned every week.” He in turn forwarded those emails to other people, which led to PwC moving McQuaid into a new job in training and talent development, where she was much happier—and where she gained the confidence to go out on her own as a coach.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. FORTUNE may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.

Quotes delayed at least 15 minutes. Market data provided by Interactive Data. ETF and Mutual Fund data provided by Morningstar, Inc. Dow Jones Terms & Conditions: http://www.djindexes.com/mdsidx/html/tandc/indexestandcs.html. S&P Index data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Terms & Conditions. Powered and implemented by Interactive Data Managed Solutions