Career Management:
Improving Your Confidence

See also: Creating and Exploring Career Possibilities

Confidence is believing in yourself, your skills and your abilities, to the right degree. It is not the same as arrogance, which is effectively overconfidence. When you have the right amount of belief in yourself, you inspire trust in others. It is therefore a vital skill in career terms, because it allows you to progress, but also to encourage and inspire others.

Confidence is the third of the career management skills areas identified by Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis in their book The Squiggly Career. Our page on Building Confidence gives some general advice about how you can develop more self-confidence. This page talks about how lack of confidence may be holding you back in your career, and how particular fears can prevent you from progressing. It makes suggestions for changing your beliefs and developing your skills, to help you develop more confidence in yourself and your ability.

Understanding Confidence

What is Confidence?

We said that confidence was believing in yourself and your abilities. In their book The Squiggly Career, Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis divide it into three areas:

  • Recognising your successes;
  • Trusting your abilities; and
  • Resilience, or ability to bounce back from setbacks.

Confidence gives you the ability to succeed despite setbacks and failures. It allows you to learn from your mistakes without trying to hide them. It is also a crucial part of being able to take on challenging projects and jobs in the first place.

It is therefore a vital skill in today’s workplace, where change and challenge are more or less the only constants.

Very few people are naturally confident. Confidence is a skill like any other—and it needs work. People who come across as being very confident have generally put a lot of effort into their confidence, in the same kind of way that people work on their charisma.

Confidence is not the same as arrogance

Many people associate confidence with arrogance. However, the two are NOT the same.

  • Confident people are self-aware. They have faith in their abilities because they know and understand themselves, their strengths and their weaknesses.

  • Arrogant people have an exaggerated idea of their own abilities. They are overconfident, and much less aware of themselves, their strengths and weaknesses or their effect on others.

Confidence is, in fact, much more akin to both assertiveness and humility. It is rooted a clear-sighted knowledge of yourself and your abilities (self-awareness), and an understanding that you are not better or more worthy than others, but equally valuable.

Developing Confidence

There are many ways that you can develop your confidence generally. Our page on Building Confidence has several suggestions that you may want to use.

Other ways include taking action to make yourself look or sound confident. Sometimes you have to fake it to make it, and it is surprising how easy it is to convince yourself as well as other people. These include:

  • Practising confident, open and assertive body language (and for more about looking and sounding confident, see our pages on body language, face and voice, and other non-verbal communication).

  • Using language to express your confidence. For example, use the active rather than the passive voice (you can find out more about this in our page on Active and Passive Voice) and avoid words like might, should, perhaps, just, kind of and maybe.

  • Taking a deep breath. This grounds you in your body and helps you to pause before speaking. This, in turn, gives you gravitas, and therefore the impression of confidence. There is more about the effect of your voice and breathing on your speech in our page on Effective Speaking.

The Power of Building Support

It is worth taking time to build a strong support system around you.

This will help your confidence because you will always have someone to provide support when you need it.

The key is to have a small number of people (up to five or so) to whom you give support, and a similar number who provide you with support. You should also aim to have different types of people in your support network. Try to avoid your support being entirely family and friends, and try to include at least one person who will understand your situation because they have been there, or somewhere similar.

There are also some specific actions that you can take to address particular issues that are holding you back at work.

What’s Holding You Back?

Tupper and Ellis suggest that the key issue about confidence in career terms is to identify what’s holding you back: what they describe as your confidence gremlins.

We all have these: the little voice in your head that tells you that you are not worthy, not good enough, not capable enough, or not ready. This little voice is often linked to your beliefs or values, which therefore bear examining to see if they are completely rational.

There is more about managing the voices in your head (also known as your internal dialogue or self-dialogue) in our page on Managing Your Internal Dialogue.

Tupper and Ellis are clear that we all have confidence gremlins.

You may share the same gremlin as someone else, but the way that you experience it will be unique.

They suggest a four-stage process for understanding and then ‘caging’ your gremlins.

  1. Discover your gremlins

    You may already know what is holding you back from developing your full potential—at least on the surface. It might, for example, be a fear of presenting. However, what is it about presenting that really frightens you?

    It might be that actually, it is a fear of standing in front of other people and being exposed. You are afraid that they will find that you lack knowledge in a particular area, or that you won’t be able to answer their questions despite being an ‘expert’.

    This isn’t really about presenting. It’s about your view of yourself—and also your beliefs.

    You need to dig a bit deeper to understand your gremlin fully. Get into as much depth as possible, because this will help you to take the right action to ‘cage’ it.

    The key is to keep asking yourself ‘Why is that?’ each time you think you have stated your gremlin.

  2. Understand how your gremlins hold you back

    Gremlins only matter if and when they stop you from doing things you want.

    You therefore need to understand what they stop you from doing. Going back to the fear of presenting, perhaps you don’t need to present.

    However, perhaps you are not applying for jobs for which you are perfectly suited—except that you might need to present sometimes, or you will have to do a presentation in the interview. This is now holding you back.

    Knowing how your gremlins hold you back can give you the motivation to address them.

  3. Identify what triggers your gremlins

    What brings your gremlins out to play?

    In the presentation example, perhaps you are quite happy to present to a small group of people you know. Your gremlin might only be triggered by a big group, or a group of senior people—or possibly quite the opposite.

    You might also find that your gremlin is more triggered when you have lots of time to prepare (perhaps because you feel you should be more confident under those circumstances), or if you have a situation sprung on you.

    Here, the more you know about why your gremlins are triggered, the more you can address the underlying causes of your lack of confidence.

    You can also start to push the boundaries of situations when your gremlin is triggered, for example by presenting to bigger and bigger groups until you are confident.

  4. Test your gremlins and take action against them

    Gremlins are based on beliefs and assumptions—and therefore not necessarily grounded in fact. We may, in fact, be perfectly competent at whatever we perceive as a problem.

    In other words, our competence is significantly greater than our confidence. We are being needlessly held back.

    It is therefore a good idea to test your gremlins to see if they are really grounded in reality. You can do this, for example, by getting feedback from trusted colleagues or a manager. You can also try doing things that push your confidence boundaries. You also need to reflect on those actions, including how they made you feel, and the effect they had on you and others.

    The key is to challenge the beliefs and assumptions that are holding you back, rather than the gremlin itself.

    Keep taking action to fight your gremlin. Push against your assumptions and get feedback on the results. You may be surprised.

Case study: Caging the gremlin

Jenny had been asked to represent her manager John and give a presentation at work. John was going to be giving the same presentation at a different venue, and he and Jenny had developed the slides together, so she felt fairly confident that she knew enough about the subject to present competently.

That confidence lasted until she had finished giving the presentation and opened the meeting to questions. The very first question was on something that she knew nothing about.

She had a brief moment of panic. How would she respond? She didn’t know enough to do this!

Inspiration struck as she caught the eye of another colleague in the audience, Martin.

I don’t know that,” she said, “But this is Martin’s area of expertise. Martin, would you like to say something about this?

Sure,” said Martin, and answered the question. Others started to contribute, and Jenny realised that her role was now simply to facilitate the conversation. They didn’t need her to be an expert because the room was full of experts. It was a revelation.

Celebrate Success

Once you have started to address your confidence gremlins, you can start to move forwards with more confidence. Tupper and Ellis suggest that it is important to take time to celebrate your successes—and not just those involved in caging gremlins, but more generally.

This makes sense. Our page on Celebrating Success explains that we build greater achievements on success. We also have a general need to see how far we have come, and we can only do this by recognising our own successes.

It is therefore worth developing good habits in celebrating success. For example, you might keep a diary in which you note at least one success each week (or even day). It is worth remembering successes at home as well as at work. Managing to get to the gym twice a week is a success if that was your goal. If your goal was twice, and you’ve been three times, that’s a massive win! Getting your toddler out of the house on time is also a success. Small wins matter—especially in building your confidence.