Self-confidence as a barrier to success is something that has personal resonance to me because it has been cited as a reason I have failed to get jobs I have interviewed for in the past. I consider myself to be confident and I have a relatively high level of self-esteem, so why is this something interviewers pull me up on? Evidently there is a discrepancy between how I feel internally and what is being perceived externally.
Confidence is in the eye of the beholder
Firstly I must consider how we perceive confidence in others. I asked some close friends and family members if they thought I came across as confident. The answers I got were largely what I expected; that because I am an introverted and a ‘quiet’ person I do not always display my internal processes including that of confidence. I have had plenty of experiences in my life that have secured my belief that being an introvert is frequently confused with not being confident.
Interestingly, one of the responses I had was that I appeared very confident because I am ‘laid-back’. When I questioned them further they went on to say that they felt the most confident people don’t have to control everything around them and that my relaxed attitude was, to them, a sign of self-confidence.
Conclusion: confidence is in the eye of the beholder.
What is confidence?
Well, judging by the above, it doesn’t appear to be relevant to actually know what confidence is so much as what people think it looks like. That being said I am a believer in ‘knowledge is power’ so let’s look at some definitions:
- Self-confidence - belief in one’s personal judgment, ability, power, etc. It is a positive belief that in the future one can generally accomplish what one wishes to do.
- Self-esteem - overall subjective emotional evaluation of one’s own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self.
- Self-efficacy - belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task (Albert Bandura)
It is clear that (which ever definition you look at) it plays a major role in how one approaches goals, tasks, challenges and life in general. So I can see why employers would be conscious of ensuring they hire someone with self-confidence.
The last definition includes the idea that confidence is situational. Having studies situational leadership, (and seen the positive impact that being flexible when approaching specific situations can have) I think this point is significant. I stated that I considered myself to be a confident person and my overall evaluation of myself remains the same, but I must consider that there may be particular situations where I am less confident.
I’m reminded of a passage from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
"I certainly have not the talent which some people possess," said Darcy, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done."
"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution."
Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers." (32.24-26)
Mr Darcy confesses to having less self-confidence when performing to strangers. Could this be my problem? I tend to get on alright with strangers and meeting new people but I can get anxious in new places or unknown situations so perhaps this is the crux of my person issue.
Elizabeth’s also confesses to having less self-confidence when performing to strangers but she believes that this is due to a lack of practice rather than ability. I could take her advice and practice which is certainly a good idea, however I am more drawn to Darcy’s idea that I can employ my time better.
How do people measure confidence?
All of the definitions listed above can be classified as concepts or abstract ideas which is instantly going to make understanding, measuring and emulating difficult. To add to this complexity, if confidence is situational then it stands to reason that there can be no meaningful measure of global confidence. So how are people measuring it and making a judgement?
There is no definitive answer since everyone is going to make an assessment based on different criteria and most people won’t be consciously looking for anything in particular they will just have a feeling or some ‘gist’ of you. That being said I have found some common themes on which people judge confidence which you can use to appear more confident.
How to appear more confident?
The good news is that confidence is much easier to ‘fake’ than competence. If, like me, you are confident but not good at showing it in the way people are looking for then you aren’t really ‘faking’ it, you’re just displaying this trait in a stereotypical way for the benefit of your audience. However, since this is somewhat ‘unnatural’ and requires a level of acting the part, it does feel very much like being ‘fake’. There may be a moral issue here (especially if you have a personality type that drives you towards being true to yourself) but, if this is what society wants, I am not going to let it stop me from being successful.
Is a lack of enthusiasm really a lack of confidence and is there even a connection between the two? In my opinion no but, if this is a widespread belief, it needs to be considered. The most obvious way to show enthusiastic is to use positive language.
- Positive language: I can process 10 invoices in an hour
- Negative language: I can’t process more than 10 invoices in an hour / I can only process 10 invoices in an hour
Also, a good bit of advice I was given is to use the person’s name. It may not make you appear more confident directly but all humans like being addressed by their name if it is pronounced correctly and said with respect. This can improve the person’s general opinion of you with very little effort on your part.
Language alone does not appear to be enough, however, since even positive statements need to be coupled with the appropriate animation/expression on your face and appropriate definite gestures.
- eye contact is a given
- good posture - back is straight and shoulders are not slumped
- when gesturing for emphasis, use definite gestures because vague, fluid gestures look less powerful and lead the viewer to perceive the ideas behind them are equally vague
- move with purpose - don’t amble or shuffle along aimlessly but avoid appearing to hurry (people who are in control are rarely in a hurry)
Being more confident
Without some confidence we are unlikely to even start a task as there is little point in trying if we’re convinced we can’t do it. This is up-front failure! If you really are lacking in confidence, you need to take some action it correct this or your unlikely to ever reach the level of success you deserve. Since our definitions of confidence suggest that it is variable and fluid, a change in confidence should be very achievable. The 2 techniques that have worked for me in the past are described below:
Albert Bandura describes this process as ‘mastery experience.’ This is the idea that one increases self-confidence from experiences of having mastered particular activities. I find this a complex way of saying that you should learn something but that’s just my opinion.
It doesn’t appear to matter what you learn but logic would suggest you pick something that is relevant to the area you want to build confidence in. If you’re really not sure where to start my advice would be to learn about yourself. I am a fan of Myer-Brigg’s MBTI personality type and there is lots of books out there devoted to it so it’s easy to find material. Genealogy is another subject you might want to consider and it’s very popular at the moment but it does require some dedication unless you have a family member who has done the leg-work for you. Also, if there is a particular condition that you suffer from then it could be beneficial on many levels to educate yourself about that.
Albert Bandura also has an overly complex description for this: ‘social persuasion that one has the capabilities to succeed in given activities’
Regular feedback can help confidence grow provided that that feedback is positive and persuasive. However, you should get feedback from someone you trust since unconstructive feedback can have the opposite effect. While life is strewn with setbacks, frustrations and inequities, the aim of the exercise is to increase confidence. It may be beneficial to explain this to the person(s) up-front so they know the objective of the conversation. You don’t want to place unnecessary risk on that objective by asking someone you cannot trust.
Whoever you choose to approach for feedback, you have to be prepared that it may not always be what you want to hear but that does not mean that it cannot be used to benefit you.
Is confidence always a good thing?
Often low achievers don’t know the areas where they are weakest. Being over confident can lead some people to assume you are unaware of your weaknesses and may, therefore, be a low achiever. This is a big assumption to make but, when you have a limited time in which to get to know a person (such as in an interview,) assumptions are going to be inevitable.
The confidence tightrope
So we don’t want to appear too confident but, confidence is necessary and, in some cases, more important than competence when it comes to being successful. You have to walk the confidence tightrope being careful not to wobble too far into the confident zone or too far into the unconfident zone.
This is a paper written by Albert Bandura who is something of an expert (if not THE expert) on Self-efficacy. You can also find details of other publications on this website.
Emotional Intelligence Mastery by Eric Jordan
I didn’t entirely get on with this book but it is a good introduction to emotional Inelegance (EI). I am told that Daniel Goleman’s writing on the subject is much better but (at the time of writing this) I haven’t gotten round to reading any of his work.
Type Tale by Ottoman Kroeger and Janet M Thuesen
Type Tale is centred on Myer-Brigg’s MBTI personality type and is a very nice introduction to it. (At the time of writing this) I am currently reading this book so I can’t comment on all of its content but what I have read so far is pretty good.
Do What You Are by Paul D Teiger, Barbara Barron and Kelly Teiger
This book uses Myer-Brigg’s MBTI personality type to look at the aspects of personality that can make us a good fit in particular Jobs. There are other books in the series that apply it to different aspects of life such as parenting and finding a partner. I liked this instalment in particular for the way it explains how different personalities approach decision making.
Instant Confidence by Paul McKenna
I read this book a few years ago now and I like the style of writing even if the word ‘instant’ is somewhat misleading. It is designed to be used in conjunction with an Audio CD for hypnotherapy but as to the effectiveness of that I cannot comment since I never tried it.
This is a Preliminary Manual on the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale. It is a method of measuring work engagement which basically means enthusiasm. It requires using a questionnaire which isn’t really appropriate in most situations but an interesting read none the less.