Confidence is the ability to hear your ideas and trust in them. It’s the skill of believing in and listening to yourself.
Confidence is not a state. It’s not a feeling. And it’s definitely not a trait. It’s a skill, one that must be built through repeated acts of everyday courage.
Many women haven’t fully developed the skill of confidence, especially in the workplace.
The confidence gap between men and women at work has been well documented. Research from the Institute of Leadership and Management in the United Kingdom shows that half of female managers report self-doubt about their job performance. Findings from Linda Babcock at Carnegie Mellon indicate that women are four times less likely to ask for a raise and also more likely to underestimate their own abilities at work.
One problem is that many women don’t feel like they can be confident until they are perfect (or close to it). Perfectionism is mainly a female issue and one can pervade your entire life. It’s also a major confidence killer. Perfectionism makes you risk-averse, filled with doubt, and it also keeps you from taking actions that build your skill of confidence.
In fact, research from Hewlett Packard found that men applied for a promotion when they fit just 60% of the job qualifications, while women waited until they met 100% of the requirements.
Here’s the thing…confidence is key in getting ahead at work. A researcher at UC Berkeley, Cameron Anderson, found that being confident leads to high status (social status or job status), being admired, and being listened to.
It sounds crazy, but confidence actually matters more than competence. According to Anderson, in reference to highly confident people, “Whether they are good or not is kind of irrelevant.” If you want to improve your performance at work, you must work on building the skill of confidence.
Research also gives us a clue of how we can most effectively build the skill of confidence.
Zachary Estes, a researcher at the University of Bocconi in Italy, had men and women complete a series of difficult puzzles. The women’s scores were much lower–and one reason was that most of them didn’t even attempt many of the puzzles.
In the next experiment, Estes told each participant that they had to try to answer every single puzzle. The result? The average score of the women increased dramatically, now matching the score of the men.
And, in another study, when people were told that they had done well on their last test, both men and women scored even better the next time.
This research makes something clear. Low confidence breeds hesitation and inaction, but if you force yourself to actually take action, you’ll do better than you even thought–which actually builds confidence and makes you perform even better.
The secret to confidence lies in action. Even when you don’t feel like answering all of the questions because you don’t know the answers, just like the woman in Estes’ study, it’s important to push yourself.
Because once you do–once you get out of your head and your own way–you’ll find that you are more confident and capable than you could ever imagine.
Here are seven things you can do to display and build more confidence at work.
1: Tap into the Progress Principle
The Progress Principle was created by Harvard Business School researcher Teresa Amabile. She studied 12,000 workday accounts to determine that the most important thing that leads to a positive work life is celebrating the “little wins.” When you keep track of your progress and celebrate the progress you make at work every single day, you are happier, more productive, and more engaged in your work.
You can apply this principle to your own life by keeping track of your work. Whether you use a notepad or a Word document, keep track of what you accomplish each day (or every few days). Seeing your own progress boosts your confidence, helps you to realize what you have accomplished, and also helps you to see that you are a valuable member of your team.
And then, when you are going to ask for a raise, you can look back at the list as a reminder of WHY you are incredibly valuable and you will be ready to talk about all of the ways that you have contributed to your organization.
2: Manage Your Visibility
A lot of the work that most of us do is invisible work that goes unnoticed. All of the preparation, planning, and behind the scenes work is important, but it’s never the work that’s going to lead to any advancement in your career.
The #1 thing you can do to display more confidence at work is to be more visible. The most visible place at work is in meetings. If you want to appear more confident, you must speak up in meetings. Do not stay quiet. Also, do not take notes. People subconsciously will think of you as the secretary. If you must write down things, jot down just a few bullet points.
You need to plan how you can contribute in meetings. If you are typically quiet in meetings, start by making statements of agreement or volunteering for projects. Then, you need to use the 5 Second Rule to push yourself to speak up and share your ideas.
3: Be a Strategic Contributor
When you choose which projects to work on, you should actively seek to align your workload and your priorities with your boss’ strategic objectives. Put yourself in your boss’ shoes: what is the most valuable thing that you could do for him/her? While it may be more fun for you to work on projects that are not as important, when you become a proactive strategic contributor, you become an invaluable asset to your team.
When you approach your work from a place of seeing to add as much value as possible, the work that you produce will be even more appreciated. Feeling appreciated and like you are an important addition to your team is important in building confidence.
4: Solve Problems
In addition to aligning your workload with your boss’, you should also go out of your way to take on new projects/problems without being asked. If you see something that needs to be done…do it. Here’s where you need to push yourself: you should still act on a problem even if you don’t know exactly how to solve it. As I mentioned earlier, women tend to be perfectionistic and are more likely to solve problems that they can find an answer to.
Start to push yourself to take on any problem you see–and do your best to solve it. Taking action helps boost confidence, and like we learned about the puzzle experiments, you will probably be better at solving the problems than you think. And even if you fail, it’s okay. If you do, just refer to step #5…
5: Send A Failure Post Mortem
Once you start taking on new problems, you should compile a failure/innovation report.
You can do it each month or each time you finish working on a project. At Etsy, people are encouraged to document their mistakes and how the mistakes happened–in public emails! A “post-mortem” (means “post-death”) is a practice that’s used at Etsy. If something goes wrong, the entire team has a post-mortem and tries to “find out what went wrong and make it better, not to blame.” The company has found this practice encourages innovation and risk-taking because people don’t feel afraid to make a mistake.
Other top tech companies, like Google and Facebook, also embrace failure, understanding that failure and innovation go hand in hand. In own your report, share the new things you’ve taken on, what you learned, what’s working, and what’s not. So what if you fail–at least you tried. Taking risks is shown to boost confidence and this practice proves to your boss that you are a proactive contributor who isn’t afraid to try something new.
6. Say No
Saying no is difficult. It takes courage. Many of us, especially women, want to please everyone in our lives, and it’s no easier to say no to a colleague or your boss as it is to say no to a friend or family member. At work, you need to get clear on your priorities (hint: see #3). And then, when someone asks you to do something that you don’t have time for or that would hurt your work on your most important projects, here is how to say no without feeling guilty.
First: understand that you are not saying NO to the person. You are saying it to the task. You are also saying YES to prioritizing your own time. If a colleague asks you, acknowledge the request and thank the person for thinking of you, explain why you don’t have the time due to your other projects, and then offer a lifeline by helping them brainstorm another person or offer guidance if they need help.
If your boss is the one to ask for a request, use it as a strategic, high visibility moment. Listen to the request and then say that you are aiming to help them with strategic priorities and ask what is most important for you to focus on: this new project or your current work.
Remember: if you don’t prioritize your time and learn to say no, someone else will be the one to dictate your priorities, which is not the key to making progress at work.
7. Set Boundaries
It’s not just important to “say no” to projects that don’t align with your strategic goals. It’s also important to “say no” to being available all the time. If you don’t take care of yourself, it’s impossible to show up as your most confident self. Research shows that today’s pressure to always be accessible has left more than half of workers feeling burned out and in desperate need of a reset button. In the United States alone, 200 million days are lost from work each year due to mental health issues, which is costing employers over $100 billion.
Researchers believe that one reason women are not promoted at the same levels men are is because of burnout. Women face high expectations in the home and at work (especially be having to be “always on” even after work hours).
One solution to avoiding burnout is to take “me time” every day. I do this by taking what I call 30 before 7:30–30 minutes, in my home, every morning, in which I plan out my top 2-3 priorities for the day and when I will stop working that day. Planning my “quitting time” has helped me to avoid burnout and never feel guilty when I am not working.
Being “always on” is impossible. Make sure to prioritize things like sleep, getting time outdoors, exercising, not sitting all day, and spending time with friends. You can’t be your most confident self, ever, if you’re feeling burnt out.
So, pick just one of these 7 tips and start to use it today. You can reach me using the hashtag #5SecondRule and on social media.