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41. Increase Your Confidence at Work

It was good to hear from so many of you following the last couple of tips. Clearly 'being wrong' and 'procrastination' are common preoccupations. This week's tip is about another popular topic: confidence. Many people who come to see me want help in rebuilding their confidence, or say they say that they've always lacked confidence and now they're heading for a more senior position where it will be important to have some. This tip looks at what we mean by confidence, how much of it is healthy to have, and how you can build it. Too many people overvalue what they are not, and undervalue what they are. Malcolm S. Forbes It's great to feel confident. You function better, everything looks more possible, you make a better impression. I think sometimes, though, that confidence can be overrated. You may remember the series 'Faking It' on Channel Four a few years back, where people were taken out of their usual environments and occupations and were coached in a completely new skill for a month. A lavatory attendant on a ferry learnt how to sail a yacht. An ex-marine became a drag queen, a classical violinist became an MC at a dance club. At the end of their, often traumatic, training each participant had to perform with other, genuine, professionals, and a panel of judges had to see if they could spot the fake. The ability these people had to learn and perform was extraordinary, and most of them, though completely outside their comfort zone and exceedingly terrified, managed to convince the judges that they were the real thing. The only one who spectacularly failed to do so was a young man who was learning to become a racing driver. His problem? Too much confidence. He thought no-one could teach him anything about driving that he didn't already know. Lack of confidence can always be worked with. Too much confidence cannot. When you're too confident you don't progress because you don't have the humility that is needed for optimal learning. Sometimes too much confidence can be dangerous. If you do a high risk job, for example running an intensive care unit, co-ordinating the landing and take-off of hundreds of planes a day, or spying on terrorists, you need a healthy sense of your own limitations. A sense of vulnerability also helps us to empathise with others who lack confidence, and makes us more human. So what we all need is an appropriate level of confidence; one that enhances our performance, and the trust that other people have in us, while leaving us open to knowing and admitting our deficiencies and understanding the vulnerabilities of others. It takes confidence, ironically, to admit our deficiencies. 'Self-confidence gives you the freedom to make mistakes and cope with failure without feeing that your world has come to an end or that you are a worthless person.' Unknown Is it a lack of confidence or a lack of competence? Sophie Rowan, in her accessible and practical book Happy at Work, lists a number of common problems at work, of which a lack of confidence is high up on the list. She helpfully asks the question 'Is your lack of confidence based on a real or perceived inability to do your job well?' In my experience the vast majority of people who lack confidence are actually very competent at what they do. The problem is that they feel incompetent and so they think they are incompetent. The reality is that the relationship between feeling unconfident and being incompetent is very tenuous indeed, and quite possibly inverse. So, if one was to list the rules of how to feel and perpetuate a lack of confidence, the first rule would be: 1. Assume that your lack of confidence means that you are incompetent Lack of confidence is a feeling, and that feeling is going to be some variation on fear. Evolution gave us fear in order to protect us, and the way it does that is not only by telling us when to be afraid, but also by telling us that if we feel afraid we must in danger. Unfortunately this is dysfunctional in most situations in modern society, where the sabre-toothed tiger is not a regular threat. The second rule would be: 2. Set yourself unrealistic standards To feel a lack of confidence you have to have, by definition, a standard that you don't think you currently meet. I am here + my standard is over there = lack of confidence. Favourite ways of reducing confidence are: - Expecting to be able to learn a new job in the first week - Insisting that everything you do has to be perfect - Comparing yourself with people who've been doing the job much longer than you - Taking a long break from work and expecting to pick up exactly where you left off - Becoming ill, or reducing your hours, and then expecting yourself to perform at the same level 3. Allow your lack of confidence to make you freeze Another dysfunctional aspect of fear in modern society is that it can be immobilizing. Because you feel lacking in confidence, and you assume it is because you are no good at what you're doing, it is only a short step to assuming that there's nothing you can do about it. You're not good enough and that's all there is to it. 4. Employ the prejudice model As with any prejudice, you focus on occasions when you perform less than perfectly and ignore all the ones that have gone well. You also play down compliments by saying, for example, 'They're just being nice', 'It was so-and-so who did it really', 'Anyone could have done it,' 'I was just lucky.' 5. Translate a lack of feedback from others into deficiencies in you. Some people need more feedback than others, and some people rarely give feedback. That is just how it is. Try this: 1. Think of an area of work where you lack confidence. Eg. Writing reports 2. What are the thoughts and beliefs that you have about it? Eg I'm no good at writing reports. 3. Pick the thought that evokes the worst feelings in you. What is that feeling? Eg Anxiety or dread when you have to write one. 4. List the evidence supporting the thought. Eg I find it difficult to write and it takes me ages to finish a report. Then list the evidence against. Eg I have had some good feedback. Also consider asking someone you trust for feedback. 5. Write another thought that reflects this balance of evidence. Eg. Given time, I can write a good report. 6. Imagine for a moment that your levels of competence and confidence are both at exactly the right place for you right now. What difference does that make to how you feel? 7. What three practical things could you do to increase your competence and/or confidence in this area? Eg Get advice or training from someone who does it well, read around the subject, go on a course, get feedback from someone you trust, practice the skill instead of avoiding it. Have a confidence-filled week!