It was a Tuesday afternoon at work, and I was sitting in a small, dimly lit conference room and across the table from the company’s head of management training. Fidgeting with my pen and swiveling back and forth in my chair somewhat anxiously, I was ready to spill my emotions.
What was typically a casual one-on-one meeting soon turned into a soul-searching session. It was a time in my career when I needed some much-needed direction and perspective. I was bumming out over my recent performance and began to lay out an honest (and harsh) self-assessment.
“I feel stuck,” I told him. “I’m not feeling particularly awesome at my job. And I’m not progressing as quickly as I want to be. Something is holding me back, but I’m not sure what.”
At times during one’s career, it’s common to feel stuck in a rut. But in this case, I felt as if I was swallowed by a sink hole with no way out.
So we got to talking. Through some sorcery-like method of uncovering the issues beneath the issues (in other words, by asking really good questions), we began to see a pattern.
What was holding me back wasn’t my lack of skill or talent or knowledge. It was my lack of confidence.
The confidence to speak up regularly. To make difficult decisions and have difficult conversations. To put my ideas out there and ask for honest feedback. To tell people what I believed was right because I was so afraid of being wrong.
As the conversation led us down a rabbit hole, I soon realized this condition had become deeply chronic. I used my introverted nature as an excuse for my depleted supply of confidence mojo. That only extroverts possess this magical skill of being daring and outspoken.
“A lack of self-confidence is a career-growth killer.”
“This is just the way I am. Oh well,” my inner Eeyore thought.
Over time I developed a self-destructing complex about my intelligence, regularly comparing myself to others. I never quite felt my ideas were good enough, and so I kept them to myself. Avoiding public failure became a regular objective.
I’d picture my boss making a tic mark on the wall every time I did something stupid or that didn’t work. “There’s another one for Jessica—that makes 35!”
Imposter syndrome had taken over. That feeling of being discovered a fraud. That you’re not as smart or capable as you appear to be on the surface.
It practically stalled my career.
Have a little faith in me
When you’re aiming for a promotion, or looking to make a significant impact at work, or to develop and improve your skills as a leader, a lack of self-confidence is a career-growth killer.
While this affects many people in the workplace, there is startling evidence that women suffer the most. A study by Hewlett-Packard found that women applied for a promotion only when they met 100% of the qualifications, whereas men applied when they met 50%.
I always tried to be 100% and it was exhausting.
“Without [a] leader first believing in himself or herself, true leadership will exist only in title.”
–Peter Barron Stark
Knowing that confidence is a necessary ingredient to leadership, what can one do to strengthen it? It’s impossible to become the most authentically confident person in the room overnight (unless you’re the only person in the room, I suppose).
It’s what was said next that led me to the answer.
“Who do you think benefits from you not speaking up? No one. In fact, you are selfish for keeping those ideas to yourself. That hurts the company, who has hired you for your ideas and perspectives, because you’re not surfacing something that could make a positive impact on the business. Even bad ideas can lead to great ones, but not if they don’t first see the light of day.”
Our management coach was right. I was selfish. I didn’t realize it until this moment, but I was putting more importance on what people thought of me than putting my fears aside to do what was right for the team.
“Who do you think benefits from you not speaking up? No one.”
My obsession with perfection became the enemy of good and the quality of my ideas suddenly defined me.
No idea left behind
While being called “selfish” stung initially, it’s one of the best pieces of career advice I ever received. Nowadays when the fear creeps in, and I begin to question the validity of my ideas or opinions or perspectives, I use this simple trick to change my tune: I tell my inner self that it’s selfish not to let them free.
Once I started to use this mental technique, I suddenly (and naturally) began to rebuild my confidence at work. The more I thought of this rule, the more comfortable I became with taking risks and not caring about having all the answers.
My fear of being an imposter began to vanish.
“Confidence is a necessary ingredient to leadership.”
In fact, there was one situation where if I had not stuck to my guns on what I thought was the right thing to do, we would have lost out on over $150,000 in revenue.
“If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself.”
There are a few universal truths in life that create positive change in our behavior. One of them is knowing that as you think, so shall you become. It’s equally important to strengthen those confidence muscles in addition to the ones that build competence, and practice is a great way to do that.
Next time you struggle with self confidence at work, try these tips:
- If you have an idea or concern that could impact the business, team, or another employee, tell your inner voice that it’s selfish to keep it yourself.
- To involve yourself more in conversation, start by asking more questions. Being inquisitive is a valuable skill and it’s great practice for speaking up in a room full of people.
- If speaking in a public setting is rather uncomfortable for you, start writing down your thoughts and sharing them afterward with at least 1 person (sometimes I communicate better over email as it gives me more time to collect and form my conclusions).
- For an idea you’re unsure about, say something like, “This might be a bad idea, but I’m throwing it out there anyway in case it leads to something good.” But don’t automatically or frequently de-value your ideas, either.
- Talk to your manager. If this is an area you want to improve, it doesn’t hurt to discuss it with someone and develop a communication plan that works for you (as did I).
“Keeping your ideas to yourself is selfish.”
People like Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Mary Barra, and Jack Ma didn’t get to where they are because they obsessed over what people thought of them. They were confident in their mission and their beliefs, and they laid it all out for the world to reject (and then eventually love).
Great companies and great people aim for greatness, not perfection.
To this day, I still struggle with having to be 100% (you have no idea how long I worked on this darn post). But I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t think that no idea should be left behind and that even a bad idea can lead to a great one.
Whatever it is you believe in, don’t hold back. Because that’s just plain selfish.
This post was inspired by Claire Karjalainen, who asked “my biggest piece of career advice” in a recent interview; and by the person who gave me the feedback referenced in this article, Dr. Andrew Quinn. Thanks to both!