The truth is, under-confidence, as unorthodox as it sounds, can have real benefits. And I’m going to tell you exactly what they are and why you shouldn’t feel ashamed about being under confident.
It’s actually a huge superpower, and astonishingly could end up making your career more than you ever thought possible.
The unconfident are often the hardest workers, as they don’t assume they have all the right answers. And you know what? Neither do the very confident! Which means under-confidence can be a secret weapon against those already so sure of themselves that they’re the most likely to make mistakes.
1. The first way under-confidence can benefit your career is that it makes you among the most likely to see potential problems and know you need to foresee alternative options. Derek Watson is the second most senior person at the University of St. Andrews, the COO, if you like. When I interviewed him for my third book ‘The Con Job’ he made a great point about how he often gets advice from more junior people when he doesn’t understand something. These are people who don’t come across as ultra confident, but they’re people he’ll advocate for - which is a big win for anyone. He explained: They’re the ones I can approach when I need the detail on something I don’t quite understand. I'll ask: ‘I’m getting some figures that don’t make sense to me. Can we have a quick chat?’ Alternatively, I might say: ‘A mistake was made that I can’t get my head around. Can you help me understand how this could have happened? These people, while often in the lower rungs, are like gold dust to me. They know their stuff so bloom when I ask their opinion. They can spot if a process wasn’t followed or an error was made much better than I can. It can be intimidating as what I’m asking may be ‘above their paygrade’, as I’ve been told. But they want to make a difference; often because they’ll be the ones who either take the blame or clean up the mess if something goes wrong.
If you are the type of person who Derek is talking about, try to find time with senior people to tell them about interesting and new things you’re noticing, people like Derek are so far from the detail that it can be refreshing to hear someone who has their ear to the ground. If you aren’t sure how something will go down, ask their opinion about something you’ve noticed and how they’d handle it if they were in your shoes. As Derek’s comment illustrates, taking this approach means you could become someone that others seek out when they want to know ‘the real deal’ on something.
2. The second way underconfidence can build your career is by turning you into a great listener. If you can master the art of truly listening, that is not simply waiting for the other person’s lips to stop moving before you bring in your own witty anecdote, you can actually go pretty far. For one woman I interviewed for my book Barbara Ann King, that gift of listening went as far as setting up a very successful team within a major UK bank.
As a former MD within Private Banking at Barclays, listening to her clients was how King knew to set up the dedicated Female Client Group team. She noticed an increasing number of clients were asking ‘Why do I never get to speak with a woman about my investments?’ King knew that by the time clients are complaining, you’ve missed a trick. However, listening to how clients talk about these qualities is not something she thinks many industries do particularly well. She focuses on one of the most useful, but least exciting ways to describe a competent team member. In our interview she told me: ‘When you talk to clients, they will tell you they want the “safe pair of hands” managing their money. That makes sense as it’s their money we’re talking about! They’ll quickly see through a presentation that “wows” if it can’t deliver.’
It was those listening skills that made King set up the Female client group team. King got the buy-in from the CEO to create the team that went on to perform 300% better on new client acquisition than other divisions with the same business. Pretty impressive stuff and a move that still sets her career apart across the industry, even all these years later.
So this tip is to get better at simply asking questions, listening without interrupting or assuming you know where the conversation is headed. It’s actually pretty hard, but what you’ll learn can set your career apart.
3. Seek out new training:
The third way underconfidence can benefit your career is that it makes you more likely to seek out continuous self-improvement and show greater empathy. There’s an HR joke from the people who have often hired me, that the type of people most likely to need soft skills training or indeed could benefit the most from coaching, are often the least likely to seek it out. Remember, the confident don’t think they need any help - which no one buys. Instead, by seeking out ways you can grow your competency level, you’ll only be illustrating to others that you know no one’s perfect, and that we can all get better at what we do. And that’s the kind of person most employers would be wise to promote.
So that’s how you can make the most of your under confidence, and turn it into real benefits when your colleagues, and particularly senior people like the ones I mentioned here, start to realise how great you really are.
If you want to develop your career faster, my third book 'The Con Job' is written for you. I’ve discovered many people are far more confident than we give them credit for. They are entirely competent yet haven’t had enough exposure to give them the confidence they need.
In a society where we rate CONFIDENCE so highly, these competent people sometimes struggle to thrive, and are overtaken by their over-confident but less competent colleagues).
The environment where you work, can have a MASSIVE impact on your confidence.
Today, we’re going to look at how to build confidence at work by looking at your surroundings in 3 different ways. This WILL advance your career by getting you to think about how each setting affects your confidence differently every day. And if you stay to the end, you’ll hear how a new multi-million pound state of the art building I visited got it so wrong in one simple aspect of their layout, and how an easy £10 fix could have remedied the whole thing.
As a speaker and someone who’s done over 2500 hours of executive coaching with my clients, I have talked with thousands of professional women. Interestingly, the environment in which these women work comes up time and time again and the most successful ones get the way it affects them, like I know you will.
So today we’re going to talk about 3 different environments in which you may work, and our expectations in manoeuvring through those settings in different ways. These places, will surprisingly, all shed light on how much confidence you may feel in your current role.
You may be like many of my clients in that you originally think a lack of confidence is a personal failing, but it isn’t - yet ‘lacking confidence’ is often blamed for someone not getting ahead - but in doing so, we often ignore the context of where they work. Instead of leaders blaming someone for being under-confident or not ambitious enough, leaders should be asking:
‘what is it in our system, our company culture and as we’re addressing here, even our physical environment that means that person feels like an outsider, a fraud, an imposter - someone who may not progress here?’
1. So let’s start with the widest of the physical environments you are expected to traverse to get ahead - and that includes any meetings you need to attend outside of your office. For example, many of my clients work long hours either in their own or in client’s offices. If this is you, does your employer offer free taxi service for people to use after hours, or hotel stays if you are expected to work late?
What are your employer’s expectations around this and how does that affect your confidence?
For example, do you need to travel at the weekend in order to be in the far-flung office bright and early on Monday morning or attend conferences that straddle weekends? This is a big one, particularly for parents, carers or those with disabilities, for example. However, the importance of accessibility goes beyond the basics of having wheelchair access for a client’s office or a loop for the hearing impaired.
It’s also down to the expectations employees are judged by. This came out when I interviewed Toby Mildon for ‘The Con Job’. Toby is a D&I professional, and author of ‘Inclusive Growth’. He’s also a quadriplegic. In our interview he talked me through how ‘travelling for meetings’ is a physical expectation of most jobs he’s had, but can be pretty exhausting. He said to me: ‘If two people go on a train journey, the person who has a physical disability is going to find every aspect much harder. They have to get through turnstiles, get a ramp on board, make sure the accessible toilets are nearby and indeed working ‒ all before they even get to the station.
All of this puts an additional mental load on them. There is just so much more to think about at every stage, not to mention more strangers to rely upon.’ So in terms of your own confidence at work, particularly if you travel for your job, the tip here is to have discussions with your colleagues and employers, not just about your desk, your office, or even your building but all the other places you are expected to visit. This is important for all of us.
Ask a question like ‘What are the assumptions about things like safety, transport, accessibility, weekend working, travel time, even childcare provision that we’re making when we send people to work in these other locations? These can be great opportunities, so don’t get me wrong, but write down a list of all the ways you think your boss would answer this question, and if you can live with those answers.
Before then talking to your boss, check out your assumptions with other colleagues who have also travelled for work to see how accurate your assumptions actually are. Get their advice on how they made travelling for work, actually work for them.
Their answers may surprise you, or give you the inspiration/ammunition you need when talking to your boss, which will build your confidence at work, before you go into that conversation.
2. So moving onto a setting a bit closer to home, and that’s the office buildings and the surrounding environment. This might even be the campus on which you work, and how well it’s set up for people like you. I recall working with Janet a client from a few years ago, who was confident in herself, but not confident in her employer- which is a big distinction people don’t talk enough about. In a coaching session, she shared what she initially saw as a small annoyance, but is a reality for employees, and in my experience, particularly problematic for working women.
Janet told me ‘I’m expected to work late, and don’t actually mind it as it enables me to get my kids off to school in the morning. What bothers me is that it’s always dark when I leave, and when I asked my boss why the car park wasn’t lit, he said it was expensive and wasn’t a priority as none of the guys I worked with had ever asked.’
For Janet, this was more annoying after her boss then installed a vintage videogame machine in the office, another big expense. His rationale was that he wanted to make the office homely and inviting, but for her boss, homely and inviting didn’t extend to a lit car park. When we faced this challenge (but before the video game machine), I advised her to tell her boss how a lit car park would keep everyone safer, and might even attract more women to the company, something they ostensibly cared about.
She spoke with her boss, and the conversation was illuminating. His response showed what a low priority safety was for him, and it signalled to her that he’d probably never listen to her as much as others, which meant her confidence would never flourish there. And that’s a surprising point worth remembering, these conversations don’t always have to go your way to be really valuable.
In fact, her boss’s reaction or lack thereof, became part of the impetus for her to go. Janet left about six months later, and while it wasn’t the main reason she left, this environmental issue played a part. Janet’s story is quite common, and it would be great for others in the community to know that they’re not alone.
3. The third tip around your environment is to look at what the layout of the building itself and maybe even your office specifically, says about who succeeds here. We all know stories of uncommunicative senior people that are not helped by having their offices on the loftiest floors or how open plan offices can be distracting for introverts but there are often other hints around an office as to the expectations of who will succeed.
A few years ago, I got a tour of some swanky new offices of a European client’s before anyone had moved in. On the tour, they talked about how they had future proofed the building for security, connectivity and all other possible eventualities. We took in the views from the new CEO’s office but in doing so noticed that on the door of the CEO’s private toilet was the ubiquitous men’s toilet sign.
Clearly, the designers had thought to future-proof the building, but in making this small choice, they had sent the subconscious message that they were future proofing against the expectation they’d ever have a female CEO! Now obviously, a £10 door sign change would have been all it took, perhaps one removing gender completely, but their choice sent a message as to who they expected to literally and figuratively, be sitting on that lofty throne, and who they didn’t expect to see there.
An easy tip for leaders when you are looking at taking new office space is to ask an objective outsider to take a look at the space, the environment and ask ‘Who do you think would do well here?’. Ultimately, look at your existing office environment. What does it tell you? Is it a setting in which you can see yourself progressing?
Thanks for reading, and you can go check out my Youtube videos for more!
I’m going to give you 3 of the best ways you can have confidence by embracing your self-doubt. Read until the end to understand what the one or possibly two personalities whom you share a bed with (if you are like me) are telling you about the value of self-doubt in the middle of the night.
As a speaker and someone who has done over 2500 hours of executive coaching with my clients, I have talked with thousands of professional women, most of whom have asked me how to have more confidence. Turns out though - we’re looking at it all wrong. Instead of wanting more confidence, we should be embracing our self-doubt, because if you manage it right, it can pay dividends towards looking and feeling more confident. Keep reading - it will all make perfect sense!
Our biggest mistake is thinking that successful people somehow magically just have more confidence, but often they’re just successful in getting others to THINK they have more confidence. They are experts in using their self-doubt to their advantage, and becoming more competent in the areas in which they are lacking.
So instead of striving for more confidence, here’s how you can use your self-doubt to your advantage.
Self-doubt is productive for three key reasons.
1. First, it keeps you trying harder. In theory, having a lot of confidence sounds great, but it most often stops that drive to improve. In fact, confidence and competence are inversely related, which means the more confidence you have, the less likely you are actually work on improving your competence. That should be a big worry for organisations, particularly those who primarily tell people they need to ‘have more confidence’ as if that’s the magic key. That’s no magic key, it’s actually a risk.
This became clear when I interviewed Kainaz Gazder, She is a Vice President at P&G, a company she’s been with for over 23 years. She’s now based inSingapore but got her first lessons about workplace confidence when she was a trainee in India, her country of origin.
She first interpreted confidence based on what you say about yourself. Second, it was about what you actually knew.
Gazder joked with me: “Most people spend a lot more time focused on that first element to the detriment of the second! When I first started working, all my fellow MBA graduates had grandiose plans for their future. Compared to them I felt I knew nothing and had no master plan. My only option was to build credibility through my work, and then talk about that. For Gazder, building her skills, her competence, and not just how they talked about them, was vital. This is important to her as Gazder has subsequently hired dozens of people and she says: ‘When I’m hiring, I’m not looking at how well people present their own plans – that first element of confidence. That’s actually the easy part of confidence! The far better question is ‘Do they know their stuff?’ That comes from the recommendations they make and their ability to answer tough questions.’
So the tip here is to think about how YOU are representing yourself and answering questions. Whether it’s in meetings, or questions from your boss.
Frame your answers as something evidence-based and born out of your experience, not solely on how you feel about a topic. Your competence in the topic will shine through, and people will value your experience way more than simply your feelings or opinions on a topic.
2. The second reason you should embrace self-doubt is that it prevents you from taking risky liberties as if you were entitled to them.
Confidence can quickly turn ugly, and give people a sense they’re beyond reproach or above the law - which again, should be a concern for businesses both from a reputational, not to mention financial damage, perspective.
As I discuss in my new book, our headline news is littered with stories of people whose confidence meant they lied and took liberties they shouldn’t have, all because they were confident. Everyone from Elizabeth Holmes who defrauded high profile investors for her DNA testing business, Theranos, that was based on no real science at all, all the way to the uber confident Harvey Weinstein whose sexual abuse of women he met is so legendary it spawned the entire #MeToo movement. I’d dare say that if they, and countless others who make some very high profile mistakes had had a bit more self-doubt, they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in now.
So the practical tip in this one is think back to a decision where second guessing yourself actually led to a better result than it would have done, if you’d confidently blazed ahead assuming you were in the right.
We all have moments like these, don’t be afraid of self-doubt, instead be afraid of the people who say they’d do everything all the same again. Sure, making mistakes can make you better, but you have to be self-aware enough to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes again - and that self-awareness is only helped if you have a bit of self-doubt!
3. The final way to embrace self-doubt is by using it as the amazing self-awareness tool that it is.
This is where a journal comes in, and the fastest way to re-frame the challenges of the day.
If your self-doubt is causing you anxiety, start a gratitude journal ‒ list out three things that happened that day for which you are grateful and one thing you can do tomorrow to address a worry, perhaps have a tough conversation with a colleague, call that creditor, or in my case, call that client, who I worry has been ignoring me when the truth is they have other priorities too and almost never avoiding me that way I assumed they were.
This pre-bed positive reframing helps reduce anxiety and actually improves sleep - because if you’re anything like me, you’ve had 3am sleepless nights.
Remember, nothing in your life looks good at 3am. It’s best to get back to sleep as quickly as possible to avoid a rumination fest, that I find is only exacerbated when the person next to you is happily snoring, completely unaware of your self-flagellating tendencies - and that is cleaner that it sounds, after I’ve said it!
Remember, that person lying next to you, and in my case the cavapoo who actually sleeps between us, are great reminders that there are far better things to do at 3am than thinking about how the whole world is going to the dogs.
The journal entries will not just help your sleep, it will improve your self-awareness. Once you’re more aware of the specifics that are keeping you up at night, you can address them - usually by becoming more competent in them… which if you don’t already know... will lead you to having more confidence.
There is a belief particularly amongst those who often feel like outsiders and are not part of the status quo at work, that it’s your self-doubt is holding you back. In actual fact, there is a fundamental problem with the way we view confidence in our society, and it’s having a detrimental effect on anyone who is not part of the ‘status quo’.
If you’ve ever been kept awake at 3am by your self-doubt - tweet about this blog: https://ctt.ac/cPzaU . Trust me - you are not the only one!
I’ve got 3 brilliant tips to build your confidence… by focusing instead on your COMPETENCE.
Stick with me… I promise it’s a lot easier than ‘Faking it til you make it’. If you read to the end and I’m going to share with you a book that I love that I’d recommend to anyone looking to build their competence, stretch their boundaries and maybe even change the way they interact with the kids they love.
As a consultant and executive coach, I have talked with thousands of professional women in the last 15 years. I have crowdsourced the best tips on how to improve self confidence. My third book is all about the battle between confidence vs competence, and after interviewing nearly 40 senior leaders from Law and banking to STEM and FMCG fields ( I like my acronyms!), I can tell you… you MUST look at your competence in order to improve confidence. So, let’s get to it!
Here are my top THREE TIPS on how to build your confidence.
1.Focus on what you’re good at.
None of us are perfect, but there will be skills and competencies on which you’ve received compliments. Start there if you are at a total loss when thinking about what your skills actually are. Then identify what it will take to get even better.
One of my STEM clients, who was working in pharmaceuticals had initially been dismayed and pessimistic when given a big project where she had to manage the multi-million pound purchase and installation of a massive microscope so big the company had to build a different building to house it! Her boss, who was a natural optimist, knew he needed a skeptical pair of eyes on this potential project, so the feedback she’d routinely been given, about her eye for detail, her eyes wide open approach, even her skepticism was a real set of competencies valued by this boss who would have ploughed in, potentially without even kicking the tires of his latest ‘great idea’.
However, when we looked at why Renee had been given that role, she came to see that the big boss, someone actually more than a few rungs above her, often complimented her ‘doubting style’ as it had always kept her team safe, and led to well thought through decisions for the company.
In this case, it turns out Renee’s skills or competencies born out by her natural pessimism, her ability to ask the difficult questions and keep tricky projects on track, were all huge assets. This was a hugely costly project, and one with real risk, both for the company’s investors, but also reputationally as they’d be getting ahead of the market on an underused technology. Her boss had noticed all of these competencies in Renee in the years before, but chose to reward her in a way she thought she didn’t initially want - but remember, not all great gifts come all wrapped up with a pretty bow! The more she thought about this, and the great vote of confidence in her, that Renee’s boss had shown by tasking her with this multi-year project, the more her confidence actually grew. Then she was asked to more senior meetings, asked to work more with suppliers, plus scope out likely costs of buying this equipment and renting it to other early adaptors, and was given a promotion that year - something she’d been waiting for a long time.
2. Bulk up your growth mindset. Part of how Renee’s success in building up her confidence was from bulking up her growth mindset. Clearly, she had never managed such a large and very visible project before, but based on her skills she’d demonstrated for years, she knew she could manage it if she approached it as a learning journey, and something she would no doubt make a few mistakes with, but could manage, even if that meant a bit of trial and error at times. Her boss gave her groundcover, which was vital, but you too may have also already been in this position yourself.
Think about a skill of yours that was initially very difficult, but in which you improved over time through dedication and hardwork. That growth mindset will increase your competence, and in turn boost your confidence.
3. So my book recommendation is a shout out for Carol Dweck’s book ‘Growth Mindset’ because as Renee found, your competencies are completely malleable if you take this approach! Realising this is where confidence actually comes from. By comparison, if you think of your intelligence and even confidence as something you can’t do much about, you’ll be stuck where you are now. While my own books focus on getting ahead in your career, this book helped shape the way I think about all the children in my life. It’s a great reminder as to why telling a child you love, that they are a ‘hard worker’ is ultimately so much better for them than telling them they’re ‘so smart’.
If you are building your career my book was written for you. I’ve discovered many people are far more confident than we give them credit for. They are entirely competent, but haven’t had enough exposure to a particular challenge to give them the confidence they need in that challenge, BUT in a society where we rate CONFIDENCE so highly, these competent people are struggling to thrive, and are being overtaken by their over-confident, (but often less skilled colleagues).
Thanks for reading, I really hope this will help you build your confidence in your workplace.
Suzanne Doyle-Morris, Author, Speaker & Gender Balance Expert for 25+ years.
Hear what I told BBC Radio about what to do about the worsening gender pay gap data