How to Build Confidence at Work

By Ann Howell

A few days ago, I sat across the table from a client — let’s call her Olivia — as she shared a very common work experience. In a recent team meeting, Olivia and her colleagues had been brainstorming some strategic decisions. Olivia, however, didn’t fully agree with the outcome and had a different perspective than that of her colleagues. She left the meeting disheartened.

When I asked what happened when she voiced her concerns, she murmured, “I actually didn’t say anything.”

Olivia explained that she had wanted to share her opinion but second-guessed herself and kept quiet. She worried that her opinion might come across as too contrarian and that it might derail the conversation. She also felt like her views weren’t that important.

Here’s the twist: Olivia wasn’t a new employee. She had five solid years of work experience to rely on.

Why was she worried about sharing her views?

As we continued talking, we realized Olivia felt this way in other situations as well. I heard examples of when she avoided the spotlight in large meetings, downplayed her successes, and qualified her views with statements such as, “I may be wrong, but this is what I think…”

Olivia’s pattern of avoiding the spotlight wasn’t an expertise issue; it was a confidence issue. By staying silent, Olivia was missing chances to solve problems, influence important decisions, and build up her credibility.

Why do we shy away from speaking up with confidence?

Olivia is not alone in her struggle. Many of us experience insecurity at work, even when we have a lot of value to add.

Research shows that many people, especially women, struggle with confidence early in their careers. In fact, a series of recent surveys indicate that women are less likely to promote themselves compared to men. This often puts women at a disadvantage, as they are less likely to be hired or offered competitive pay.

Low confidence can be natural when you’re new to a job or lack adequate experience in a high-stakes situation. But in other cases, like Olivia’s, low confidence can be a result of several factors. It might spring from early childhood messages, a lack of representation in your company or in the media, your personality, previous experiences, or other causes.

The important thing to remember is that low confidence is not an inherent flaw, and it doesn’t have to define you. Confidence can be learned and practiced. It begins with becoming more self-aware, changing your mindset, and learning to bring your full self to work — or wherever you go.

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Based on my experience as a leadership coach and a talent consultant, I present a two-step approach to help you build confidence. In the first step, you’ll explore the unique perspective you bring to the world to understand how you can add value in a way that no one else can. In the second step, you’ll find some easy activities that will help you practice feeling and acting more confident, so it can become your default setting in the future.

Step 1: Connect with Yourself

What Olivia — and most of us — don’t realize is that there’s no one way to be. What may seem “normal” or obvious for you may actually be something new for another person.

Let me give you an example. Early in my career, I was part of a team that was struggling to communicate well. We all had strong opinions about how to get things done and that often worked against us. Then, a junior colleague, who had a background in theater, talked to us about an improv technique called “Yes, and ….”

The idea behind this approach is to build on an existing idea, instead of negating it. When someone makes a suggestion instead of saying “Yes, but I think XYZ … ,” you can expand upon what they are saying by responding with, “Yes, and I also think XYZ ….” This approach helped us build consensus over time, get the results we were looking for, and made us better colleagues. Had that colleague not shared his theater experience, we probably would have continued to struggle as a team.

We’re all unique. We all have something valuable to share. You just need to believe that. The first step to doing that is to pause and think about all the things that make you who you are. What is it that makes you special?

During our session, Olivia completed an exercise I call Find the Unique You. She thought about the background, experiences, and traits that shaped her unique point of view.

Olivia is a 26-year-old PR strategist. She grew up in an urban household and was raised by a single mom. She is bilingual and has had the opportunity to travel extensively — including to international destinations. She loves basketball and street art. She enjoys exploring new technologies, spends time on social media, and hopes to make the world a better place.

That’s some really cool stuff, right?

During the team meeting mentioned earlier, Olivia and her colleagues were actually discussing ways to connect with a younger, tech-savvy audience. For that discussion, she was actually one of the most qualified people in the room.

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Work through the prompts in the Find the Unique You exercise below so that you can reflect on your own wonderfully messy and beautiful life experiences, and start to appreciate the value you bring. Your uniqueness makes your voice worth hearing.

Step 2: Focus on Building Confident Behaviors

Step 1 got you warmed up and thinking about who you are and what makes you stand out. That’s a great start, but building confidence also requires changing your behaviors.

Olivia’s team planned to meet again in a few weeks to follow up on the previous discussion. Olivia wanted to speak up and needed to prepare her new approach. To get her ready, we talked about a few principles for practicing confidence.

Start small.

Confidence is not about being brash, argumentative, aggressive, or apologetic. It’s also not about you changing into an entirely new person. Instead, it’s about asserting yourself in a way that feels comfortable to you.

Olivia, for instance, had good relationships with her colleagues and was comfortable with one-on-ones and small groups. She wanted to build confidence around speaking up in larger team meetings. She had a habit of switching off her video during calls or keeping quiet. After our discussion, Olivia started switching on her camera during calls to get more comfortable with being seen, logging on a few minutes ahead of the meeting to exchange some pleasantries with her team, smiling and nodding, and using the chat feature to share her spontaneous thoughts.

This new approach was a gradual shift to connect more with all her colleagues. These small gestures helped her get to know her colleagues better, built trust, and gave her the confidence to express herself without feeling scared.

Be deliberate about practicing.

For Olivia, part of speaking up more confidently was learning to remove qualifiers from her sentences to sound more confident and polished.

She spent several weeks observing the qualifiers she normally used. She had a habit of saying things like, “I don’t know if this makes any sense … ” and “I’m not really sure if this is correct ….”

Slowly, she began to stop using these qualifiers and replaced them by re-stating the idea she was commenting on. At first, she felt awkward. It took Olivia a few weeks to really smooth it out and transition to using more direct statements like, “I would like to add on to that thought … ” and “I’ve been thinking about a new strategy to ….”

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Start by practicing in low-stakes environments that feel safe. You could practice confident body language (like standing up straight and maintaining eye contact) in front of a mirror by yourself or try to express your opinions more strongly with a group of friends. Olivia, for instance, had a peer at work who helped by giving her a signal every time she used a qualifier during a meeting.

After a few weeks of deliberate practice, Olivia was ready for her upcoming meeting. She confidently shared her perspective and ideas. Contrary to her apprehension, Olivia’s colleagues appreciated her thoughtful insights and considered them while making the final decision.

Be patient. 

Know that it takes time and practice to learn a new, confident mindset and behaviors, but once you commit to making changes, you can get better. Also, remember that you’re going to have to tweak your approach as you practice and figure out what works for you. Over time your new behaviors will become more natural, and you’ll do them without thinking.

Don’t try to change overnight. Be thoughtful about how and when you make changes in your behavior at work. Colleagues can get concerned (or sometimes snarky) if they see you trying a new approach — they’ve already put you in a certain box and now you are changing.

Need more help?

Here are some simple activities that I use with clients like Olivia to help them practice confident behaviors. Think of this as a cheat sheet for finding your voice and speaking up.

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