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).
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