So I’m not going to tell you HOW to fake confidence… I’m going to tell you why the concept of faking confidence is what my Texan uncle might call ‘Hogwash’, and the easy (and probably unexpected) things to do instead.
Faking confidence won’t work for long, and if you read to the end, I’ll share how an ‘off the cuff’ comment I received after presenting to a Board for the first time totally changed my perspective on how much confidence any of us actually need.
The percentage of people who have to ‘fake confidence’ or suppress a part of themselves or ‘be someone they’re not’ at work is ridiculously high.
As I cover with live audiences, the further away you are from what the status quo of what leadership at your organisation looks like, the more likely you are to feel this way, which ultimately affects your confidence. The truth is no one can actually see how you feel, just what you project. As someone who speaks to really big audiences, I’ve often felt hugely nervous or under-confident, but had people comment on my apparent confidence later.
And the irony is that faked confidence isn’t actually very useful or even attractive to anyone else. In fact, ‘faking it’ often leads to ‘Imposter Syndrome’ - that sense of living in fear of being ‘found out’ for how much you don’t actually know, something most of us experience.
By the end of this blog, you’ll have 3 better ways of thinking about ‘faking confidence’ which have worked for dozens of my clients over the years, like the executive who found he actually made the most headway when he sometimes played dumb on issues, not when he donned an uber-confident Superman shirt.
So let’s start with what does work in getting people on board:
1. The sweet spot of getting other people engaged isn’t outright confidence, and in my book, research shows it’s actually more like a recipe. Now, I do like a recipe analogy as I do like my food. But this recipe is a big base of competency, with a dash of modesty and even a sprinkle of insecurity. Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers find we respond better to insecurity in women than we do in men, but for both genders competency has got to be the main ingredient on which the whole cake in baked - not confidence. So don’t fake it.
2. The second thing to do if you are tempted to fake confidence is to remember that faking it actually makes you unlikeable. One of the issues I cover in my new book (coming soon...) is the difference in confidence between millennials and their older colleagues. That unearthed research which found teenagers who rated themselves as popular turned out to be kidding themselves when their classmates were asked. Things got even worse a few years later, as the same ‘popular’ teenagers, who now in their early 20’s were much more likely to viewed as vain, arrogant and self-centred compared to those who hadn’t focused on popularity in their teenage years. Again, the judgements were particularly harsh for women - but vain male peers didn’t do much better in the eyes of others either. I interviewed nearly 40 senior leaders from across the world for my new book, and looking back as to how I chose many of the interviewees, all would be people you’d likely consider confident but they wore it very lightly, and were often the first to self-deprecate and point out how much they didn’t know. I’m probably not that different from you, in that these are the types of people we are all drawn to - not the overconfident braggarts amongst us!
3. The last thing to do if you are tempted to fake it, is to remember you don’t need to fake it at all - you just need to draw on earlier memories of when you’ve been very confident before. It may not be the same challenge, but you have a best version of yourselves that you can call upon. Do you know those ‘What would Jesus Do?’ bracelets people were loving a few years ago, designed to inspire you to make better choices? I often ask my clients to remember the most confident they’ve ever felt and then make their own imaginary bracelet they’ll wear in those moments that asks: ‘What would confident Wendy or confident David do?’ It often gets them laughing, but also reminds them, they’ve been confident many times before. Sure, it may be different challenges, but they know what it feels like so can draw upon how they felt
As a bit of fun, when did you last need your ‘What would a confident version of you do’ bracelet?’ for me, it’s every time I go up in front of audiences that get increasingly larger.
So now I’m going to share one of the first Board level presentations I ever did and how it changed my tune on all this confidence stuff. The first time I presented to the Board of a law firm, I was hugely nervous and at the end when I asked one of the Board members how he felt it went, he said almost dismissively ‘Oh, great, it was just what we needed, but I know you must do these every day.’ He actually looked a bit perplexed as to why I was asking for the feedback. I mean, didn’t all of my senior level presentations go equally well!? I went on to do a lot more work with that firm, but even more importantly, it showed me they couldn’t see my lack of confidence. However, what was important, was my competence - the way I had an answer to every potential objection, the way I shared what worked for other clients and the way I was able to manage all the personalities in the room. That’s competence, and it so much more important than confidence - because you can’t easily fake competence. Confidence seems sexy but it’s quickly found out if your competence doesn’t match.
I hope you’ll join me in ripping up the rule book for confidence as we know it!
And I look forward to seeing the impact that we make.
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