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Self-Confidence in Theory and Practice

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Self-confidence is trust in yourself, your abilities, and your judgment. One set of experiments comparing the accuracy of men and women on a test showed that “confident people, regardless of their gender, tended to be more accurate.” The factors influencing self-confidence include:

  • What you are already good at. If you are given the freedom to choose between one task or another, you are more likely to choose the task where you have the greatest confidence that you will succeed—a tendency born out by multiple experiments.
  • What makes you feel good. The Terror Management Theory suggests people need the self-confidence to view the world as a positive, less-threatening place. You take on tasks that reinforce your self-esteem and protect you from feeling useless. 
  • What other people think of you. The Sociometer Theory suggests that your self-confidence ebbs and flows in direct relation to how you think other people perceive and value you. Among the groups that may have the greatest influence on you are your communities, team members, family, and friends.

What all these theories agree upon is that self-confidence affects not only how well we do but what we choose to do in the first place. When you are considering your leadership abilities, for example, it doesn’t matter much if your self-confidence stems from self-protection or the judgment of others or some other factor. If your confidence in your leadership ability is low, you will probably fail at and avoid leadership opportunities, thereby confirming your low self-confidence. 

Self-Confidence in the Workplace

One of the hallmarks of stress is a drop in self-confidence when defined as your ability to change what is causing the stress and trust in your own judgment. When a project, relationship, or team starts to go wrong, you may feel a loss of control and assume you are the wrong person to bring it back on track.

When a project, relationship, or team goes right, however, your self-confidence receives a boost and you are more likely to take actions and make decisions that increase the possibility of success. Here, again, confidence in your ability to make the “right” decision or take the “right” action increases your chances of doing so successfully now and in the future.

Advocates for increasing self-confidence in the workplace recommend boosting knowledge and skills through training or education, practicing tasks or roles where you lack self-confidence, and eliminating negative thoughts and language (for example, “I can’t do that”), focusing instead on how you might achieve a change. Practical steps include:

  • Identifying alternatives. If you become stuck on one method of problem-solving, you will eventually run into a problem that resists that solution. Be wary of becoming so confident in your ability that you cease to encourage or listen to outside advice.
  • Suspending judgment. If you judge a task as too hard or intractable before you undertake it, you will hamper yourself from trying. You may need to write down what you see as your weaknesses and strengths, so as to get a better handle on how training and education might help you and where your self-assessment is at odds with reality.
  • Evaluating objectively. Every experience, whether successful or not, has lessons to teach. If you view your actions and your decisions as learning experiences—rather than as judgments on your abilities and intelligence—you will gain in self-confidence with each task or situation you confront. Changing your level of your self-confidence is easier if you course correct based on past experience.

You should also track your successes, keeping a brag book that you can refer to for a boost in self-confidence and rely on when it comes to discussing raises or searching for a new job. 

Self-Confidence versus Over-Confidence

One of the drawbacks of acting as if you have confidence is the tendency to overact. Self-confidence can easily morph into arrogance if it closes you off to opportunities to grow and participate. It can also lead to risk-taking that does more to boost self-confidence than to solve a problem or reach a goal. 

A study of 656 undergraduate students found a correlation between confidence and a willingness to accept information about their ability. While refusing negative feedback bolstered the students’ self-confidence in the short term, the lack of good information negatively affected their decision-making ability and lowered self-confidence in the long term. 

To prevent over-confidence and unnecessary risk-taking:

    • Know your subject before you speak.
    • Plan ahead and assess risk before you suggest actions or solutions.
    • Welcome discussion of your contribution.
    • Build strong relationships before you need them.
    • Learn from failure and feedback.

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