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How to Improve Your Self-Confidence at Work in 2017

Dec 23, 2016

Dear Annie: Your recent column about how to go from an “ideas person” to “management material” really struck a nerve with me because, like that other reader, I was just passed over for a promotion too, for a somewhat different reason. My boss told me I don’t speak up enough, especially in team meetings where someone disagrees with me or starts picking apart an idea I’ve recommended. He said I need to “work on my self-confidence.” It’s true that I tend to back down if someone challenges me, because I don’t want the meeting to deteriorate into an argument. But I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to be more confident. The question is, how? Any suggestions? —Wendy the Wallflower

Dear W.W.: Actually, yes. First, keep in mind that your reluctance to risk conflict with colleagues by sticking up for yourself is a particular hurdle for women, and that’s partly for good reason: Decades of research have shown that strong, assertive women are often perceived as less “likable," and hence less likely to get ahead, than their male peers.

Even so, “there are plenty of people, and not just women, who lack the self-confidence to be comfortable speaking up in meetings,” observes Andy Molinsky. A professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis University’s International Business School, Molinsky wrote a book forthcoming in January that you might want to check out.

Called Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence, it’s packed with real-life stories, based on Molinsky’s 15 years of research, about all kinds of people—from executives to actors to goat farmers—who conquered various anxieties that were holding them back. By analyzing exactly how they did it, Molinsky came up with a step-by-step system that he says will work for anyone who’s trying to get beyond his or her own comfort zone.

The starting point is what Molinsky calls the three Cs: clarity, conviction, and customization. Clarity has to do with the fact that your own perception of a situation may need some adjusting. For instance, hesitating to defend your ideas “often arises from not wanting to ‘turn the meeting into an argument,’ as you say, or be seen as a troublemaker,” Molinsky notes. “But is that really accurate? If you ask around, you’ll probably find that people you work with would respect you even more if you were more assertive. They may actually expect people to speak up and defend their ideas.” Obviously, your boss does.

The next step, conviction, is about the reasons why you want to be more self-confident—not just to get promoted, but to express your thoughts and describe your work in ways that will make the best use of your smarts and help the organization. Old habits are notoriously tough to break, and a foray out of one’s comfort zone isn’t quick or easy, so Molinsky suggests giving yourself lots of what psychologists call positive reinforcement: “Keep reminding yourself that building your self-confidence is worth doing, and why.”

One of Molinsky’s most fascinating findings, in Reach, has to do with the third step, customization. It turns out that people who seem effortlessly skillful at tasks many of us dread—public speaking, for instance, or delivering bad news to a team—usually started out disliking (and avoiding) these things just as much as the rest of us. The difference is, they've learned to make it look easy by customizing whatever the task is, so that they do it their own way.

You can, too. One approach that works: “Before a meeting where you think you may have to stand up for yourself, think of specific words and phrases you could use,” Molinsky suggests. “You could say, for example, ‘You’re making a good point, but here’s what we may be overlooking…’ The key is to practice asserting yourself in ways that don’t seem to you (emphasis his) likely to turn the meeting into an argument.”

This will take some practice. Molinsky recommends you try it out before the next big team meeting with a mentor or other trusted coworker. You can also give your ideas a test drive with small groups of colleagues in what he calls “pre-meetings".

If you find yourself slipping back to your wallflower ways, be patient and keep trying. “Sometimes it really helps to remember that it’s not just you," Molinsky notes. "Everyone struggles with having to move beyond his or her comfort zone at some time or other." The effort, he adds, “usually creates a kind of positive spiral, where one small success leads to another, and then another. People are often surprised to find that making even a major change is not as hard as they thought it would be.” Here’s hoping that’s true for you, too.

Happy New Year!

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