A topic which comes up time and again in workshops is that of confidence, or rather, lack of it.
If you fail to demonstrate your confidence when attempting to influence others, it is likely that you will fail. Why should someone agree with you when they notice the tell-tale signs of your lack of confidence? Perhaps you’re not telling the truth or hiding something. Maybe you don’t believe they should be saying yes to your request.
And, you know these lack of confidence signs too. You can probably spot someone who lacks self-confidence a mile off. However, noticing when you are displaying these clues is much harder, partly because at the time when you lack confidence you will be stressed and thinking about a million other things. Fidgeting, hesitating, over-talking, avoiding eye contact and many other signals can all suggest you lack confidence.
Hiding these clues is extremely difficult. I recall one senior manager asking me if I could train his people not to sweat during negotiations. This is not something I can do — it’s like trying to treat the symptoms rather than the cause. Instead, what is needed is to go deeper and look at how confidence is created, lost and re-built.
In the context of this article, confidence is the self-belief that you can perform well. This can be created by education, repetition, reflection, feedback and delusion (remember how confident you were that driving would be easy before you first sat in the driver’s seat?).
Pretty straightforward until you begin to consider how you might define ‘perform well’. You may set high standards, or others may have higher expectations of you. In any day you complete many tasks to varying levels of performance — and your confidence level will vary for each. Your general level of self-confidence may be high, but on specific tasks it could be zero.
Finally, performing a simple task repetitively may give confidence, but what happens when something unusual occurs? To be really confident, the belief needs to extend beyond the routine. If you are able to perform well, irrespective of the uncertainties (you can handle anything which is thrown at you) then your self-confidence will be robust.
Some tasks, such as getting buy-in from your stakeholders, can be tricky to measure too. The behaviours you use and the results you get can feel good but are difficult to pin down, especially when others are applying judgements too.
This is so easily done — perhaps that is why it lack of self-confidence remains so common. To lose your self-confidence, all you need to do is begin to doubt your belief in being able to perform well.
A major cause of this is your interpretation of external stimuli. The accuracy of your interpretation is rarely important in the immediate response — the self-talk seems to take on a life of its own, devoid of rationality.
This is particularly so when you are immersed in a high-pressure situation. An assertive rebuttal of your point of view can wreak havoc on your confidence. Once the doubt enters your mind, it is likely to show on your face and in your body language, then things begin to worsen as others pick up on the tell-tale signs.
Another cause is when you lose the foundation of your confidence. I see this often when people are changing jobs. Many people use their technical job-specific knowledge as the base of their confidence, and this can be left behind with the old job. Typically, this happens when an individual is asked to lead a new team, perhaps looking after a different product line. Suddenly they find themselves in a position where they don’t know anything about the products they have taken responsibility for.
Loss of confidence can also occur when the surroundings change. This could be related to the physical place where the task is being completed, the people who are involved or both. The sudden lack of familiarity, especially of the unexpected responses, can be very unsettling. For instance, if the task is negotiating with people in the boardroom — no problem. Take that task into the subway and it’s a whole different situation. Predicting and being able to handle anything thrown at you by other managers in a business setting doesn’t compare to the seemingly unpredictable responses of strangers on the train.
Finally, and this is a big one, while all else remains the same, if your personal situation suddenly changes, you may lose confidence because of a heightened sense of personal risk.
For instance, if your partner loses their job and the family income takes a dive, your need to retain your income dramatically increases. Consequently, fear may creep into the normal work because it is much more important that you keep your job/income. Being (constructively) critical of your boss’ decisions takes on a new degree of sensitivity.
Building, Rebuilding and Protecting Confidence
There are so many things which can be said here, so I will keep it to a few ideas which you may not have found elsewhere and which link to what I’ve covered above:
- Define ‘perform well’ for all of your main activities. Gain input and proactively manage the progression from performance to belief. Avoiding delusion would be a pretty good idea too.
- Give yourself a break. It is okay to be fallible — you’re human after all. Often it demonstrates high levels of integrity and authenticity too. Perfectionism is usually only necessary in your own mind. Besides, trying too hard to prove yourself is generally counterproductive.
- Identify the base of your confidence, such as your technical knowledge, your ability to apply problem-solving processes or engaging with people. What is it that gives you confidence in every major part of your role?
- Think ahead about what might challenge your confidence. What might they throw at you? What range of reactions could you get? What could go wrong? Take care not to allow this to descend into paralysis, over-preparation or defeatist self-talk.
- Create a generic way of dealing with the moments when you could lose your self-confidence. In the training world an example of this is, when asked a question they don’t know the answer to, they’ll pitch it straight back to the audience to give themselves a little thinking time. Find a technique which will work for you.
- When you need to be at your confident best, make sure you are taking your base with you. If not, find an alternative. For instance, if you are leaving behind your product knowledge, quickly rebuild your confidence around your process of enquiry. That can be independent of knowledge and can enable you to confidently meet uncertainties with the belief that you will be able to use a process to achieve the outcome you need.
- If you notice lack of confidence, challenge yourself with the question — what have you got to do to become completely confident? Then do it.
Confidence is a fickle thing yet absolutely essential in order to be able to influence effectively. Mostly it lies in your own mind, which offers the potential to take responsibility for it and do something about it. That makes self-confidence a choice.
Colin Gautrey is an author, coach, and trainer who specialises in the practical use of power and influence in large organisations. He has 25 years’ experience helping middle/senior professionals to survive, thrive and enjoy their work.
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