Today, we’re going to talk about not just how to be more confident, but more importantly how to put confidence in context and crucially how to respond when someone tells you that to succeed, you “just need to be more confident in yourself!”
Confidence is an issue for virtually every coaching client I have and most people at the events where I speak, but perhaps not in ways you’d imagine. Surprisingly, it’s not that everyone lacks confidence, it’s often that we don’t respond well to confidence in certain groups. Additionally, blaming a lack of confidence allows companies to overlook certain people because they don’t exhibit confidence in the ways we expect. You know; the person who talks up at all the meetings, volunteers to lead presentations, the person who bullishly takes credit, even for other people’s work!
If we continue to only define confidence in the ‘go-get ‘em’ traits, we all lose out. Those behaviours, while initially inspirational can be ultimately destructive. Instead, rethinking how we define confidence has changed the game for so many of my clients, who go on to negotiate big jobs, taken on projects that would have scared them and stand up for themselves and people they respect with more skill, than they would have thought possible.
And if you read to the end, you’ll find out why when it comes to being more confident, it might be time for you to go through a ‘re-brand’.
So let’s get to it.
1: Agree confidence takes on many guises.
When I wrote ‘Love your C-Word: Winning the Workplace Battle Between Confidence and Competence’. I discovered a wide body of research that shows introverts, people from more communal cultures and, in particular, women of colour are as ambitious and driven as the people who have traditionally defined what confidence looks like - that is when it’s displayed by extroverted able-bodied white men from better-off backgrounds.
However, when people from other groups demonstrate confidence, that is knowing their value; they’re too often called ‘aggressive’, ‘angry’ or ‘fiery’ amongst other judgmental labels. In my work with organisations, I have yet to hear a senior white man called ‘feisty’, my personal favourite. No, his confidence is interpreted as ‘passion’ or ‘presence’ or even ‘commitment to the cause’. ‘Fiesty’ is what you call small troublesome animals; the kind that make a lot of noise and have a lot of energy, but no real power.
The first step to becoming more confident yourself is to acknowledge that confidence comes in many shapes and sizes and it may not look like what we have come to expect; which I’ll be discussing with other examples.
2: Recognise the differences between confidence and competence.
The second way to develop more confidence is by recognising it’s not a blanket term. It’s better to compartmentalise in what exact skill people lack confidence. People often say ‘I need more confidence’, but if we unpeel where exactly they feel they're failing, it’s often something really specific like talking up in meetings or leading presentations. Let’s be honest, you don’t lack confidence in every single interaction you have across the workplace, just some settings. Unpeel that onion further and you can get more specific. It isn’t small meetings of 2 or 3 people or even in team meetings with peers, it’s often with a certain group of stakeholders or a specific or type of audience. This unpeeling is vital, as it helps you see what your lack of confidence actually is - it’s most often a lack of exposure to that group.
Knowing what experiences exactly you are missing is great, as that’s the only way you can find ways to plug that gap. As you can see, there’s a big difference between feeling like you’re ‘not a confident person’ and the reality of being someone ‘who could use more experience presenting to groups of 10 or or more external clients at one time’. The second description is far easier for you to pinpoint what exactly you need to do, which is the first step to seeking the exposure you need.
3: Redefine confidence for yourself.
When I interviewed 3 dozen senior leaders for Love Your C-Word, it became clear that we have a narrow definition of what we expect confidence to look like. When I asked how people knew others were confident, people often talk about fairly stereotypical behaviours; It’s often the talking over others, the putting yourself ahead of others, negotiating for yourself first. It’s time for a re-brand, as society and certainly those leaders, thought that type of confidence is destructive and not at all attractive to most people.
A big part of confidence, but one we too overlook, is much more about our trust in the system to do right by us, to be fair and equal. Given we live in an imperfect world, where some people get ahead much faster than others, it shouldn’t be surprising if certain groups of people don’t appear to have as much confidence. The truth is that if they don’t have a lot of evidence that people like them get to the top, they may not be lacking in confidence - but more ‘adaptively realistic’ about their chances of success. Instead, the definition of confidence and the behaviours we expect to see should widen.
For example, the first woman who asks to work flexibly on her team is often making a risky move, as she’s likely to be judged by others. She’s being confident. Similarly, the person newly in a wheelchair who requests his favourite restaurant provides a ramp over their entrance stairs is not being difficult, he’s being confident. The Black man who advocates for greater racial pay transparency shouldn’t just be grateful for his role, he’s being confident. What I find is that when people can redefine confidence for themselves, they can own ‘confidence’ better. We need to widen our definitions to better match their own: like a willingness to have risky conversations, by putting their team’s advancement above their own ego, and by showing a sense of authenticity by being willing to talk about mistakes.
These are the kinds of things that the audiences I speak with can get behind, because they are the definitions they more widely identify with! Confidence shouldn’t feel like a problem you need to fix, instead it’s about the questions we ask and how we interpret the responses. If this sounds like something you’d like for your audience, book a call with me here: http://tiny.cc/gpgjhz
Thank for joining my mission to re-define confidence as we know it. I’ll look forward to seeing our collective results.
Dr Suzanne Doyle-Morris.
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