Let’s talk about professional confidence

mm Russ Finkelstein

In one of my first jobs, I was repeatedly told that I was an awful writer, and so I came to believe it.

Being told I couldn’t write well was a big blow to me, because, as a kid, most of my time had been spent reading books, and I remain an avid reader. I love good writing and it’s very important to me. However, I accepted that judgement because it came from my manager.  

Still, I compensated in my career by focusing on things that I knew I could do well, like managing and developing staff, conceptualizing and implementing new programs, and building partnerships. Now, many years later, I am sharing my thoughts about careers in written form on a weekly basis. But I do so warily, because “being a good writer” has been at the top of the list of things I couldn’t do, ever since I got that feedback all those years ago.

Some people might say I am over-sensitive to criticism, or that I worry too much. But most of us will spend years of our careers suffering with a lack of confidence in some area or another, either because we got some negative feedback, once, or because we’ve simply convinced ourselves that certain skills in working life are beyond us.

Working with people through real moments of professional vulnerability is one of my favorite aspects of coaching others, in particular when someone is suffering a crisis of confidence. I know this place well, because I have certainly been there and revisit there still.

I’ve learned a lot about professional confidence, and how important it is for a person to achieve their goals. And yet, it’s not something most people are evaluated on during most review processes. Your manager might review what they have as key metrics and ask you if you hit the goals you set for yourself for this year and what to aim for next year. A good manager might tackle any patterns in behavior that they see holding you back. Often this is where a formal evaluation of your professional confidence ends.

I want you to feel professionally confident, so here’s what I’ve learned the hard way:

All people have crises of confidence.

I’ve advised people of all ages and titles from across sectors, and the overwhelming majority of folks suffer from self-doubt. Even those of whom we see as having accomplished the most have serious moments of professional doubt, asking themselves whether they’re up to a job, if people are talking about them not being up to the task, and when they might get “found out” as an impostor. You are special in a million ways, but feeling under-confident at work is not one of them. Sorry.

It is hard to talk about your confidence being in crisis.

When you accept a position after an interview process, you are often giving your employer the most confident version of yourself. From that moment on, it is almost taken for granted that you will be self-assured, and you may feel that displaying a lack of confidence undermines opportunities that you will get, in the future. Furthermore, the backstory of your professional self-doubt can be rooted in prior personal and professional relationships, and even a well-intentioned or well-trained manager may lack the skill to help.

It is possible to talk about confidence with your manager.

I’m not saying you should do this, necessarily. However, talking it through can really help. You may have been given a task beyond your self-perceived depth, or you may be feeling under-confident because the cumulative totality of your work is too much, or you might be feeling that the actions of your manager have impacted your confidence, somehow. Each of those situations requires a different approach to talking with your manager, but the key things to remember are to back yourself, and, ironically, to have some confidence raising the confidence issue. If you decide to talk with your manager, do prepare for the conversation by writing down some of your thoughts, and rehearse having the talk in in a calm, matter-of-fact way with someone you trust. Often conducting such a conversation outside the office can help. If you don’t feel right doing it, that’s okay, too. But you’d be surprised at how often I’ve heard it has helped people I’ve been coaching.

Founders suffer with confidence issues too.

Not everyone has a manager, of course. But even if you started an organization, that doesn’t mean you’ll be supremely confident about it every day. Indeed, most of us who do set out to build our own things spend much of our time worrying that we might not be up to the task! (While having to spend most of their time looking without worry.) I urge people to remember that failure is often character building, but more importantly, to remember that breaking huge tasks down into manageable chunks is the best way of avoiding a feeling of being overwhelmed. And then, I suggest finding supportive friends and collaborators with whom you can process your confidence questions. And above all remember: Just because you failed at something, doesn’t mean you are a failure. Those are different things.

Most people have peaks and valleys of confidence: what is your trigger?

People’s confidence undoubtedly moves through phases, but some of us need more recent success to feel good about ourselves. You may have colleagues that you think are moving ahead of you on the career track. Are you measuring yourself against them? This is a bad thing which platforms like Facebook exacerbate. Everyone presents positive images of themselves online, and in person, too. But underneath, they might be struggling just as much as you are. Or are you responding to things that are happening internally? For example, if you haven’t been invited to participate in a meeting while your peers were, or if you’ve not been asked your opinion on something, how much does that get you down? Are you seeing a lack of respect or inclusion that exists because of the nature of the place, or is it happening because you failed to advocate for your accomplishments?

You have to keep it together when you notice your confidence has dipped.

My strong advice is to try to be more mindful and aware, to try to notice your confidence dipping, more often. Then it’s easier to try to unpack the reasons behind the dips. It might be helpful to keep a journal. On some days, things may go badly, but your confidence doesn’t take a knock. On another day, you might suffer what would otherwise be a minor setback, but it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. I urge people to write down their thoughts in moments like this, and try to then identify the underlying beliefs. Usually, the underlying beliefs are that you’re not good enough, that you’re weak, that you’re a failure, or an impostor. Then, think about the evidence for and against those beliefs. You’ll be surprised how often you can talk yourself out of believing there’s no hope for you, professionally, just because of a minor professional setback, such as missing a goal or target. It’s particularly helpful if you can see the pattern to these confidence dips: that the negative beliefs have often been triggered by a minor setback in other similar moments. And then, you can think about what to do, and think, instead. It’s how you build resilience.

It helps to call a friend.

It’s one thing to process these feelings on your own, but it’s quite another to lean on a supportive friend. Let’s say you’ve delivered thousands of successful coaching sessions, but then, one is a real disaster. The person rolls their eyes, and they leave, feeling like there was no value from the experience. Does that mean the thousands of other prior sessions weren’t successful? I ask, because this happened to me a decade ago, and I was convinced that I’d lost the knack for what I did, almost straight away. Fortunately, I realized that I was over-reacting, and reached out to a friend. When you suffer a setback and you’re questioning yourself like that, reach out to someone you trust, someone who has “standing”, with you, and say what has happened. Ask them to set you straight. Hopefully, they’ll point out to you that this is simply a momentary glitch, and it doesn’t reflect who you are in most professional settings. They’ll help to put things into perspective. That can be immeasurably helpful at moments like that.

You are your own harshest critic.

Some of the highest achievers are relentlessly self-critical and it’s often to a fault. If you don’t have people available to help you during the tough moments here’s a tip that can help.

Take yourself out of the equation. Put a close friend in the same situation as you are in. Would you judge them harshly, or offer them support, appreciate that they took a risk, and share with them their strengths? We all need to do a better job of being generous to ourselves.

Others are probably too busy to dwell on you.

A root cause of much of our self-confidence issues involved narratives we create in our head about others looking down on us. Try to remember that most people are so self-involved that they don’t have the energy to actively undermine you. Ask yourself: How often have you really dwelled on a colleague’s under-performance? The answer is: Probably not very often or for very long. Also, if you have a good manager they usually can see through people who are inventing negative narratives.

We are all very different so don’t measure yourself against other people.

The professional world has never been more diverse, or rewarded diverse work styles and behaviors. Some of us are very outgoing and dress in sharp attire that looks like it came out of the Wolf of Wall Street. Others of us cultivate the appearance of gothic vampires and can still knock out a killer digital campaign. My point is that it’s not a good idea to question yourself in comparison to other people. You may have a colleague, for example, who is convinced that they are never wrong about anything, and who wears suspenders to the office. That doesn’t mean they’re more confident than you. In fact, you might be unsurprised to hear that it often means quite the opposite.

We still have stock cues for when we think someone is confident.

Sadly, a lot of this stuff is gender-specific. For example, I talk in a deep baritone voice, and it’s reasonably monotonous. So: People tend to think they can trust me, as a result. Be mindful of whether you have any cues that set off other people’s alarm bells, and also, about whether you might be questioning whether you can trust someone at work, just because they don’t happen to fit our stereotypes of someone who is professionally trustworthy.

Over-confidence is just as bad as under-confidence.

Some fields, and they tend to be those who embrace the least diversity in their workforces, are rife with over-confident employees. Take, for example, the financial sector, which has been responsible for inflicting terrific harm as a result of people’s inability to confront their own doubts, honestly. “There isn’t a sub-prime mortgage bubble here, people. We just need to pump it up even more! There has never been a stockmarket crash before. I mean, it’s not like these things come around every seven years!” Sound familiar? Well, interviewers look for signs of over-confidence more often than they used to. If you have a tendency to seem over-confident, it’s important to find the fine line between being confident and coming across as a bit of an ass.

Outwardly confident people don’t earn more. Outwardly competent people do.

The truth is that most managers aren’t seeking to hire really talented people. Talented people are the worst. They throw tantrums and require far more management than folks who’ll just plod on, steadily, and get the job done, regardless. Even if you consider yourself supremely talented, it’s important, as you build a career, to try to focus your talent and energy into achieving measurable impact, because that’s what hiring managers really look for when they’re recruiting into a big job. They might be interested to hear about the passion and energy you brought to a project, but what they really want to know is: “Can I trust this person not to mess it up?” And they’ll want to see the evidence. Do you have yours lined up?

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >