by Amy Gallo
Very few people succeed in business without a degree of confidence. Yet everyone, from young people in their first real jobs to seasoned leaders in the upper ranks of organizations, have moments — or days, months, or even years — when they are unsure of their ability to tackle challenges. No one is immune to these bouts of insecurity at work, but they don’t have to hold you back.
What the Experts Say
“Confidence equals security equals positive emotion equals better performance,” says Tony Schwartz, the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live. And yet he concedes that “insecurity plagues consciously or subconsciously every human being I’ve met.” Overcoming this self-doubt starts with honestly assessing your abilities (and your shortcomings) and then getting comfortable enough to capitalize on (and correct) them, adds Deborah H. Gruenfeld, the Moghadam Family Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior and Co-Director of the Executive Program for Women Leaders at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Here’s how to do that and get into the virtuous cycle that Schwartz describes.
Your piano teacher was right: practice does make perfect. “The best way to build confidence in a given area is to invest energy in it and work hard at it,” says Schwartz. Many people give up when they think they’re not good at a particular job or task, assuming the exertion is fruitless. But Schwartz argues that deliberate practice will almost always trump natural aptitude. If you are unsure about your ability to do something — speak in front of large audience, negotiate with a tough customer — start by trying out the skills in a safe setting. “Practice can be very useful, and is highly recommended because in addition to building confidence, it also tends to improve quality. Actually deliver the big presentation more than once before the due date. Do a dry run before opening a new store,” says Gruenfeld. Even people who are confident in their abilities can become more so with better preparation.
Get out of your own way
Confident people aren’t only willing to practice, they’re also willing to acknowledge that they don’t — and can’t — know everything. “It’s better to know when you need help, than not,” says Gruenfeld. “A certain degree of confidence — specifically, confidence in your ability to learn — is required to be willing to admit that you need guidance or support.”
On the flip side, don’t let modesty hold you back. People often get too wrapped up in what others will think to focus on what they have to offer, says Katie Orenstein, founder and director of The OpEd Project, a non-profit that empowers women to influence public policy by submitting opinion pieces to newspapers. “When you realize your value to others, confidence is no longer about self-promotion,” she explains. “In fact, confidence is no longer the right word. It’s about purpose.” Instead of agonizing about what others might think of you or your work, concentrate on the unique perspective you bring.
Get feedback when you need it
While you don’t want to completely rely on others’ opinions to boost your ego, validation can also be very effective in building confidence. Gruenfeld suggests asking someone who cares about your development as well as the quality of your performance to tell you what she thinks. Be sure to pick people whose feedback will be entirely truthful; Gruenfeld notes that when performance appraisals are only positive, we stop trusting them. And then use any genuinely positive commentary you get as a talisman.
Also remember that some people need more support than others, so don’t be shy about asking for it. “The White House Project finds, for example, that many women need to be told they should run for office before deciding to do so. Men do not show this pattern of needing others’ validation or encouragement,” says Gruenfeld. It’s okay if you need praise.
Playing to your strengths is a smart tactic but not if it means you hesitate to take on new challenges. Many people don’t know what they are capable of until they are truly tested “Try things you don’t think you can do. Failure can be very useful for building confidence,” says Gruenfeld. Of course, this is often easier said than done. “It feels bad to not be good at something. There’s a leap of faith with getting better at anything,” says Schwartz. But don’t assume you should feel good all the time. In fact, stressing yourself is the only way to grow. Enlisting help from others can make this easier. Gruenfeld recommends asking supervisors to let you experiment with new initiatives or skills when the stakes are relatively low and then to support you as you tackle those challenges.
Principles to Remember
- Be honest with yourself about what you know and what you still need to learn
- Practice doing the things you are unsure about
- Embrace new opportunities to prove you can do difficult things
- Focus excessively on whether you or not you have the ability – think instead about the value you provide
- Hesitate to ask for external validation if you need it
- Worry about what others think — focus on yourself, not a theoretical and judgmental audience
Case Study #1: Get the knowledge and get out of your own way
In 2010, Mark Angelo, was asked by the CEO of Hospital for Special Surgery in New York to create and implement a program to improve quality and efficiency. Mark was relatively new to the organization. He had worked as a business fellow for the previous year but had recently taken on the role of director of operations and service lines. Even though he had background in operations strategy from his days as a management consultant, he was not familiar with the Lean/Six Sigma principles he’d need to use for this project and didn’t feel equipped to build the program from scratch. He was particularly concerned he wouldn’t be able to gain the necessary support from the hospital’s physicians and nurses. What would they think of a young administrator with no hospital experience telling them how to improve quality and increase efficiency?
For five months, Mark struggled to get the project on track and his confidence suffered. He knew that his apprehension was in part due to his lack of knowledge of Six Sigma. He read a number of books and articles on the subject, talked to consulting firms that specialized in it, and spoke with hospitals that had been successful in developing and implementing similar programs. This helped but he realized he still didn’t know if he would be able to get the necessary people on board. “I was anxious and stressed because I had no idea how I was going to transform the organization. I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. It was going to take a collective effort that included our management team and all of our staff,” he said.
He talked with the CEO who had supported him since the beginning. He also looked to his family for emotional support. Through these conversations he realized that his anxiety stemmed from a desire to be liked by his colleagues and therefore to avoid conflict. “After many discussions with my CEO and observing how he handled these situations, I learned that it is better to strive to be well-respected than well-liked,” he said.
This was a turning point for Mark. Instead of worrying so much about what others thought of him, he focused on doing what was best for the patient and the institution. In December, he presented the vision for the program to the entire medical staff. While he was nervous about how it would be received, he knew this was a critical moment. “I was able to get up in front of one our toughest constituencies and present the vision that we had been developing over the past few months,” he says. His presentation was met with applause. “In the end, my confidence grew by leaps and bounds and we were able to design a program that has since taken off with great success across the hospital. I was able to overcome my mental blocks and knowledge deficits to build a program that will truly help transform how we approach performance improvement and patient care,” he says.
Case Study #2: Know the value you bring
Julie Zhuo knew she had things to say but she wasn’t sure how to get heard. As a product design manager at Facebook, she had developed valuable expertise in the products she worked on. Yet, she lacked the confidence to share her ideas. She was used to being one of very few women in the room. That had been the case when she was studying computer science at Stanford and it was still true now that she was at Facebook. She knew this meant she needed to make a concerted effort to speak up. But being the minority voice wasn’t the only reason she felt unsure of herself. She says that she also suffered from “imposter syndrome,” feeling as if she hadn’t earned a right to her ideas; she had somehow ended up where she was accidently, not through hard work.
Julie was intrigued when someone in HR told her about a workshop offered at Stanford by the Op-Ed Project. After attending and getting positive feedback about her ideas, Julie tried something she had never thought to do before: write an op-ed.
Last November, she published a piece in the New York Times about the danger of anonymity in online discussions. “It was a matter of someone saying you can do it,” she explains. “It had never occurred to me that I could be published. But it actually wasn’t hard at all.” The reaction she got in the workshop and afterward back at Facebook boosted her confidence. “Since then, she’s gotten a lot of support from colleagues, which has emboldened her to speak her mind. “Of course it’s still a work in progress, but now I’m a much more confident speaker and writer,” she says.