“Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action” Richard Petty, Ohio State University
After unexpectedly taking six years out of the workforce to raise my two daughters, I suffered from acute anxiety when I later returned to professional life. Despite having kept my skills current by completing a second degree and researching and publishing, A World of Difference, I suffered a paralysing confidence gap when I launched my consultancy in 2012.
To cope with the anxiety, I managed my work schedule carefully so that I had sufficient space to manage my emotions on top of my workload. But I knew that operating in a state of fear was not sustainable. First, anxiety was preventing me from performing at my best. Second, emotional and physical exhaustion was limiting the number of assignments I could take on. Third, my health was suffering. I either had to give up or conquer the fear. After investing four years at university and three years researching and writing, A World of Difference, giving up was not an option. Instead, I researched and experimented with a number of evidence-based solutions for developing self-confidence. Applying those techniques, I was able to overcome the anxiety and self-limiting beliefs that had been holding me back.
In this blog, I share the proven approaches for developing self-confidence that helped me move from ‘rabbit in the headlights’ to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. I hope by sharing these techniques, I can empower others who are suffering from self-doubt to achieve their full potential.
TECHNIQUES FOR DEVELOPING SELF-CONFIDENCE
Individuals with high levels of confidence have both (a) high self-efficacy and (b) low fear of failure. Self-efficacy is one’s belief in their ability to succeed and involves a positive assessment of one’s capabilities. Low fear of failure is linked to a propensity for stepping outside one’s comfort zone. Techniques for developing self-confidence address either self-efficacy, fear of failure, or both.
Challenging Self-Limiting Beliefs
Women, in particular, often have a number of self-limiting beliefs that prevent them from taking steps forward. Girls emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image, relatively low expectations from life and much less confidence in themselves and their abilities than boys, To make progress on confidence, we need to challenge negative self-narratives (e.g. ‘I am not good enough / smart enough / pretty enough) and replace with more compassionate and optimistic self-talk.
There are three steps to challenging your self-limiting beliefs and rewiring your inner narrative:
Identify your self-limiting beliefs. Some of you might be already consciously aware of your inner doubts and fears. Some of you might need to spend some time digging deeper to identify the thoughts that are holding you back from taking action. A good way to pinpoint your self-limiting beliefs is to monitor your emotional triggers. If there are particular situations that make you feel anxious or afraid, take some time to reflect on what beliefs are driving those emotions. Being mindful of your inner narrative over the course of a workday can help you to articulate your self-limiting beliefs. Notice whether and when you downplay your achievements or if you attribute your successes to others or luck. Notice also any comparisons you make of yourself to others. Comparisons are typically biased—we notice the outward successes of others but fail to see their internal struggles, insecurities, and limitations. We focus on our own imperfections and fail to recognise our achievements.
Challenge your self-limiting beliefs. Once you have identified your self-limiting beliefs – whether in the form of self-doubts, downplaying our achievements, or negatively comparing ourselves to others—we must challenge those beliefs by searching for evidence that contradicts them. Find the counter-argument to your self-limiting belief. If you find this hard to do, try distancing yourself from your self-limiting belief by imagining that you are coaching a friend on how to challenge their self-limiting belief. How would you talk them out of that negative self-talk and convince them otherwise? Then apply that advice to your own situation.
Change the narrative. The third step is to replace your self-limiting beliefs with a more rational, reasonable and optimistic narrative.
Own Your Achievements
Studies show that women have a tendency to credit circumstance or other people for their successes. Men seem to do the opposite, crediting their success to their efforts and talents. When you attribute your successes to factors outside yourself, this undermines confidence.
Why do women do this? Some argue that women may fail to own their achievements for fear of contravening feminine roles by being perceived as immodest, competitive or boastful. From a young age, girls learn to play down their achievements as a way of building rapport with other girls.
There are also cultural dimensions to owning your achievements. For members of collectivist cultures across Africa, Asia, and the Middle-East, modesty is an important social value. While visiting Thailand, I was taught ‘the gold stands behind the Buddha’. Members of those cultures are socialised to downplay their individual achievements and to credit their successes to others.
Practice acknowledging your abilities by charting ‘highlight moments’ over your academic, career and personal life. Think about the internal resources and capabilities that supported each achievement and note those in writing. In moments of self-doubt, refer to your chart of achievements.
Contain Your Failures
While women are less likely to own their achievements relative to men, the reverse is true for attributions of failures. Whereas women tend to attribute failure to their lack of intrinsic capability or effort, men tend to blame failure on external circumstances like the difficulty of the task. Moreover, while men tend to contain a failure to that particular instance, women have a tendency to respond to failure in a more global way–doubting all of their abilities and questioning their entire self-worth. This makes failure particularly aversive to women. If any particular instance of failure is perceived as a negative reflection on one’s entire capability or global self-worth, any situation that provides an opportunity for failure can be enormously threatening to a women’s self-concept. Compared with men, women are more likely to avoid situations where there is a possibility of failure in an attempt to protect their self-concept and self-esteem.
Because attribution patterns are habitual, disrupting global and internal attributions of failures requires attention to thought patterns after a failure or setback and intentionally challenging unhelpful attributions. Schedule time for a deliberate and honest assessment of both the external and internal factors that contributed to the failure. Also be sure to balance negative assessments of performance by acknowledging what worked well.
Studies confirm the importance of role models for female confidence and performance. In 2013 scientists asked 149 students from a Swiss university (81 women, 68 men) to give a persuasive political speech against increasing student fees, within the context of a virtual reality program that put them in front of an audience of six men and six women. For some participants, the back wall of the virtual room featured a hanging picture of Hillary Clinton. For others, it showed a portrait of Bill Clinton or Angela Merkel, and for some, the wall remained blank. The researchers timed and videotaped the speech, then asked the students to evaluate their performance. A separate group of people unaware of the experimental conditions watched the speeches and rated them based on fluency and body language. Both the people watching the speeches and those giving them perceived longer speeches as being more positive. When there was no role model in view, men spoke longer than women. The same held true for speaking under the withering gaze of Big Bill. Female role models eliminated the gender gap, though. Women gave longer speeches and evaluated themselves more positively when they were primed with images of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel than when they saw Bill Clinton or weren’t primed at all. The outside observers also rated their speeches higher. The researchers concluded that female role models can inspire women and help them cope with stressful situations that they encounter in their careers, such as public speaking. (Study extract reproduced from Australian Popular Science).
In 2014, Bain released the results of its study on workplace confidence and ambition. The results showed that women embark on careers with high expectations and aspirations for advancement, but this confidence evaporates dramatically as they enter mid-career. Nearly half of all new female employees aspire to top management but, within five years, only 16 percent still hold that ambition; this compares with 34 percent of men who begin their careers with aspirations that they will reach the top and remain so after two or more years of experience. The marked drop in female aspiration is matched by a fall in professional confidence whereas men experience a much smaller fall in confidence over the same period.
Exploring to the causes behind the decline in professional confidence and ambition of women, Bain found a 39% decline between new and experienced women in feeling that they fit in in terms of meeting typical stereotypes of success within the company, vs. 23% decline for men. Survey responses from experienced women indicated that the dearth of women in upper management to serve as role models hampered progress toward gender parity. Female role models inspire women and are a source of resilience for coping with stressful situations that they encounter in their careers.
Another proven technique for developing confidence and improving performance is positive visualisation. According to research using brain imagery, visualisation works because neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. When we visualise an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to “perform” the movement. This creates a new neural pathway — clusters of cells in our brain that work together to create memories or learned behaviors — that primes our body to act in a way consistent to what we imagined. All of this occurs without actually performing the physical activity, yet it achieves a similar result. We are motivated and prepared to pursue our goal.
In positive psychology, positive visualisation involves imagining your best possible self. Imagining your best possible self helps you to clarify your end-goals. With a well-defined idea of what you want to achieve, you are better placed to identify the concrete steps you need to do to make your best possible self a reality.
Because a fear of failure can hold women back, it is important for women to have in place strategies and tools for containing and coping with failure.
Mindset theory, underpinned by the research of Standford University researcher Carol Dweck, offers individuals a cognitive framework for thinking about failure that can be empowering rather than limiting. Dweck’s studies show that the key to success is not ability, per se, but whether an individual believes their abilities are fixed (fixed mindset) or malleable (growth mindset). Individuals with fixed mindsets perceive every performance as a measure of their abilities whereas individuals with a growth mindset perceive performance as a tool for developing their abilities. Fixed mindset individuals avoid situations that might expose their limitations. This prevents those individuals from stepping outside their comfort zone and taking the risks required to develop new skills. Growth mindset individuals, in contrast, see every opportunity as a learning opportunity that can move them closer towards the achievement of their goals.
Dweck’s research has shown that growth mindsets can be developed and that developing a growth mindset has dramatic positive effects on performance. Similar to developing favourable attributions of failure (above), rewiring the brain from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset requires careful attention to one’s internal dialogue and consciously reframing fixed mindset beliefs with more optimistic growth mindset beliefs.
Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy posits that the first and foremost source of self-confidence is through mastery experiences. Success in a task is the best way to develop your belief in your abilities. If you struggle with developing a growth mindset and remain trapped in a fear of failure, a good place to start building your self-confidence is to commit to doing one thing every day that scares you. By intentionally putting yourself out of your comfort zone, you are giving yourself opportunities for small success that cumulatively will boost your resilience. Small fails, too, will increase your resilience. Eventually, stepping outside your comfort zone becomes less threatening and natural.
- Before sending female talent to confidence training for women, consider inclusive leadership
- IWD2018: How to #PressforProgress on gender equality
- Advancing women leadership program
- Group mentoring for emerging female leaders
- McKinsey’s latest report on advancing gender diversity in Asia Pacific
- Mind your micro-biases: Subtle slights that exclude
- Inclusive leadership training
- How to develop psychological safety and a speak-up culture
- Bite-Size Diversity and Inclusion Workshops
- How does employee well-being link to diversity and inclusion?
- Gender bias at work: Competence evaluation bias and the argument for targets
- Gender bias at work: The assertiveness double-bind
- The many guises of gender bias at work: Gendered feedback
- Gender bias at work: The glass cliff
- Unconscious gender bias: Putting more rungs on the ladder
- Unconscious Bias Training
- Unconscious Bias Training for Hiring Managers
- Engaging Men in Gender Equality Workshop
- Having trouble engaging men in gender equality? Try these tips
- Why women don’t always call out casual sexism
- Group mentoring for emerging female leaders
- A-ha activities for unconscious bias training