Confidence games

Four tips for pairing competence with confidence


Camille Khodadad

Camille Khodadad is a partner at Hall Prangle & Schoonveld. The head of the employment law group and member of the commercial litigation group, she is a frequent speaker on current trends in employment law and issues pertaining to women in the workplace.

Women need it. It is as important as competence. It turns thoughts into action. What is it? Confidence.

Confidence plays a significant role in what jobs we apply for, how clients and colleagues perceive us and whether we go after that choice assignment. Despite being such a key ingredient to success, it is often not a topic discussed in law school or when considering our professional advancement.

Confidence is comprised of our internal conscious and unconscious beliefs about our ability to succeed. Those beliefs are important because they turn thoughts into action. People who are confident tend to push themselves outside of their comfort zone and take risks because they believe in their capabilities. People who lack confidence tend to approach opportunities with caution even though they are competent, often times leading to inaction and missed career opportunities.

When coupled with competence, possessing genuine confidence goes a long way in all areas of our professional lives.

However, several recent studies suggest that despite the fact that women are just as competent as men, they tend to be less confident in the workplace. This lack of confidence is one of many factors that can, and will, hinder a woman’s progress in an organization.

It can lead to women being hesitant to ask for a raise, reluctant to apply for jobs unless they feel they are 100 percent qualified or overly cautious in seeking opportunities that will advance their careers.

This is not to suggest that women are at fault for their lack of advancement; other factors that prevent women from advancing include explicit and implicit biases about women’s abilities, institutionalized discrimination, etc.

Several theories attempt to explain why women may exhibit less confidence than men. Some suggest that in early childhood, women are rewarded for following the rules, not taking risks and “being perfect.” The problem with this type of socialization is that taking risks and making mistakes are critical for building confidence. The desire to be perfect leads to missed opportunities, which can have a compounding effect over the course of a career.

Others posit that because we live in a patriarchal world, women have on some level internalized their perceived inferior status which may be exacerbated by the way that women are portrayed in the workplace, media and/or society.

Still others believe that because women have had actual experience with discrimination on the job, they may not seek out opportunities because their experiences have taught them that such behavior is not beneficial and, in some cases, detrimental.

Regardless of the reason, the good news is that confidence can be developed.

Improving confidence requires not only that we change our internal beliefs (the “self-talk”) about our abilities but also that we turn those beliefs into action. In his book “Peak,” psychologist K. Anders Ericsson discusses how we can improve our skills with “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice involves going outside of our comfort zone and current skill set to practice more challenging skills, often using an instructor to assist us. By stepping outside of that comfort zone and taking action, we acquire new skills while simultaneously building confidence in our abilities.

Using the principal of deliberate practice as a general guide, here are some suggestions for building confidence:

  • Think of someone who you view as confident. What characteristics make that person confident? Make a list of those characteristics and identify which ones you need to develop.
  • Pick a goal outside of your comfort zone (speaking up in a meeting, approaching a senior partner about working on a complicated assignment, acting as trial counsel in a matter).
  • Using the characteristics that you identified in the first bullet-point, act to achieve your goal. Taking action alone can build confidence, regardless of the outcome.
  • Get comfortable with failure. Failure is an inherent part of confidence building. Accept it, learn from it and do not let it derail you.

Now let’s get started. Take one month and challenge yourself each day to do something outside of your comfort zone. Share the process with your support group. We can all benefit from reminding ourselves of our worth and value, and the important role that confidence plays in shattering the glass ceiling.