It’s a new year and professionals of all stripes are looking to hit the ground running at work and go for it. The challenge: many lack, or feel that they lack, the confidence to really make an impact. But, what is confidence? What does professional confidence “look” like. And, once you understand what “it is,” how can you exude your own professional confidence in work settings?
If you’re like most people, your immediate response to this might go something like this: “I know it when I see it.” And, the truth is, that’s generally true. We can all quite quickly conjure up an image, or multiple images, of individuals who exude confidence. In two posts we’ll take a look, first, at what professional confidence looks like and then offer some expert tips on how to build confidence at work.
What Professional Confidence Looks Like
Confidence, says Stephen Hart, CEO of Cardswitcher, the UK’s first payment processing comparison website, says that “confidence is basically a belief in yourself—in your abilities, your personality and your capacity for success.” There are, he says, several different types of confidence: “from body confidence, related to how you look, to skills confidence, related to the faith you have in your ability to carry out a task.” Confidence can manifest itself in different ways, as well, he says. While the ways vary from person to person, “it is usually shown by eye contact, open body language and smiling.”
In defining what professional confidence looks like it can be helpful to think, first, about what it does not look (or sound) like. Confidence does not look like:
- Failing to make steady eye contact
- Poor posture
- Slow gait
- Uncertainty when making statements, for instance ending your sentence on an upward note suggesting a question rather than an assertion
Conversely, confident people exude enthusiasm, they’re energetic, they’re positive, they exhibit a “can do” attitude. Think Seinfeld’s Kramer, not George Costanza. But, both of these characters bring up a very critical point about confidence. It is not synonymous with competency!
Confidence Doesn’t Mean Competence
In Seinfeld, the Kramer character was often boastful and certainly positively favorable toward himself. George Costanza, on the other hand, was less self-assertive and less self-confident. Those behavioral traits neither support actual competencies on Kramer’s part or the lack thereof on Costanza’s. Where this issue tends to play itself out in the workplace is between sometimes overly confident men (who may lack the competencies they proclaim) and less overtly confident women (who may not have enough belief in their actual competencies).
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is chief talent scientist at Manpower Group and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University. He’s the author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and How to Fix It). Chamorro-Premuzic stresses the importance of not mistaking confidence for competence. “Competence is how good you are at something. Confidence is how good you think you are at something,” he says. “Competence is an ability; confidence is the belief in that ability.” In fact, he points out: “While most people look at a confident person and assume that the person is also competent, there is, in fact, no relationship between confidence and competence.”
Even, he says, when presumptions about someone’s level of competence based on the fact that they exude confidence is wrong, doors and opportunities may still open for them. “When we come across as confident to others, they will often assume that we are competent, at least until we prove them wrong,” says Chamorro-Premuzic.
The key takeaway for business professionals: you need to match your competencies to your ability to exude confidence. Working at conveying confidence, without the explicit competencies to back up your bravado will ultimately lead to failure and has the potential to damage your personal brand.
Women Often at a Disadvantage
The trick, says Chamorro-Premuzic, is not just to build confidence, which can actually harm how women are perceived, but for women to display confidence, competence and caring together.
Women face somewhat of a conundrum in the workplace, says Chamorro-Premuzic. “We are, it seems, less likely to tolerate high confidence in women than we are in men,” he says. “This bias creates a lose-lose situation for women. Since women are seen as less confident than men and since we see confidence as pivotal to leadership, we demand extra displays of confidence in women to consider them worthy of leadership positions. However, when a woman does seem as confident as, or more confident than, men, we are put off by her because high confidence does not fit our gender stereotypes.”
Again, confidence needs to reflect true competence. But women need to be more attuned to their true competences and less likely to downplay, negate or deny areas in which they excel.
Confidence, of course, is generally a work in progress.
Professional Confidence is a Constant Evolution
Importantly, points out Lisa Philyaw, MS, a confidence life coach, confidence doesn’t mean never having to feel bad. That, she says, isn’t confidence. It’s fear. “True confidence comes from being willing to experience feeling bad, and moving forward anyway.” Confidence, says Philyaw, “is not something external. It is not something you achieve once you’ve done something a certain number of times, or reached a certain threshold.” Instead, she says, “confidence is a feeling that stems from our beliefs about how much we trust ourselves.” This means, she says, that the old recommendation to “fake it ‘til you make it” isn’t the way to gain confidence. Why? “Because confidence doesn’t come from our actions. It comes from our thoughts about those actions,” she says.
The next piece will take a look at some specific strategies and tactics designed to help you build confidence at work.
Read part 2:
How to Build Confidence at Work: 6 Practical Tactics