Everyone has at least a few activities they do that make them feel confident. And everyone also has those other things that lead to butterflies, anxiety, or all-out panic. If you look across your life, you have also probably seen yourself transition from fear to confidence on at least one thing that you do. Maybe you got more confident at making new friends, or learned that you’re actually pretty good at a new hobby.
A lack of confidence in your work can cause all kinds of problems, though. You may procrastinate on tasks, because you’re worried you won’t get them done right. Even if you get started, you may be reluctant to let anyone else see your work, because you worry about how they will evaluate it. You might avoid sharing your opinion on key topics, because you don’t think that it will contribute to the conversation—or perhaps that nobody will listen.
Sometimes a lack of confidence is actually a benefit in disguise. If you really don’t know what you’re doing in some situations, it’s good to act cautiously and to pay a lot of attention to the situation. But, many people feel a lack of confidence well past the point that they should believe that they are knowledgeable, skilled, and can contribute positively to the work that needs to be done. If you find yourself feeling this way, there are several things you can do to pump up your confidence level:
Do the cost-benefit analysis
The anxiety you feel that comes with a lack of confidence is a reflection that your motivational system is in its avoidance mode. That is, you’re acting as though you’re experiencing a threat of some kind. Anxiety and stress are emotions that are your signals that this avoidance mode is active.
So, you need to think about what you believe the threats actually are. Can your performance actually lead to a bad outcome? What is really the worst-case scenario? Often, the risks of trying something at work are low. Most people are tolerant of mistakes and even of throwing out a bad idea. After all, the people who have the best ideas are typically the ones who have the most ideas. That means the most creative people you know have a lot of bad ideas.
Sometimes, you can gain confidence just from realizing explicitly that there isn’t really anything all that bad that can go wrong. If you’re not sure that you are aware of all the things that could be a problem, then talk with your supervisor or a mentor to double-check. Just knowing you can’t screw things up too badly may be enough to help you to move forward with more confidence.
If doing that cost-benefit analysis doesn’t help you to feel better about your abilities, the next thing you need to do is to train yourself that you can actually get things done. The first way to get that started is to find some tasks where you know you can succeed. This is the strategy that a lot of game designers use when they want to get you hooked on a new video game. The first levels are absurdly easy. They get you used to the environment, but they also give you the confidence to try things. The game gets progressively harder from there.
Similarly, work with a supervisor or mentor to structure a few tasks in an area where you don’t have confidence where you both feel like you are likely to do well. Then, dig in. Pay attention to those successes. And—like a video game designer—give yourself new challenges so that you ramp up the complexity of what you’re working on. Your confidence should follow.
Face your fear
As you start working on tasks that give you some anxiety, it is important to face your fears directly. A lot of work on treatments for anxiety shows that you can reduce anxiety by engaging in stressful activities. Over time, your motivational system learns that there is nothing to fear in the situation, and the anxiety goes down.
In order for this strategy to work, though, you have to really face the fear. You can’t engage in any superstitious rituals or lean on any mental crutches to get through the event. For example, if you have to increase your confidence giving a talk in front of a group, just go out and give the talk. Don’t cross your fingers, or use your lucky Powerpoint template. Otherwise, your motivational system learns that this ritual was the reason you succeeded. You don’t reduce the anxiety, you just add another step into the process you go through to manage that anxiety.
After you face that fear a few times, you should begin to feel more confidence that you can handle the task.
Practice at game intensity
Of course, there are some high-stakes situations at work. Giving a presentation to a big client is stressful, because if the presentation doesn’t go well, you might not get the work. Taking on a supervisory role has a lot of responsibility with it as well. Now, the careers of your supervisees are also in your hands.
If you’re not feeling confident in a real high-stakes situation, then you may need to ramp up the pressure when you’re practicing for a real performance. Work on choking under pressure suggests that this high-intensity practice helps you to get used to the influence of stress on your performance, which ultimately helps you to do better.
For example, if you have a big client presentation coming up, practice it a few times to the wall of your office or cubicle first. (Those are some small wins. Your walls won’t give you a hard time.) Then, before you head off to the client, give it again for your supervisor and one or two other important people from the organization. Ask them to act like a hostile audience. The trial by fire won’t be fun, but it will help you to excel when you actually have to get the job done.