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Got Confidence?

| January 16, 2024

by Laura Patterson

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Laura Patterson, Leadership Coach and Consultant at MOR Associates.  She previously was CIO at the University of Michigan. Laura may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

Last week’s Tuesday Reading by Julie Szaj, Assistant Director in Organizational Change Management at Washington University in St Louis, was a personal account of her battle with imposterism. Julie shared that she often feels like an imposter or a fraud, and she recognized two contributing factors: perfectionism and feeling like she needs to be an expert. For many, a third common factor contributing to the imposter phenomenon is a lack of confidence. Confidence. The belief in yourself. The belief that you can succeed. The belief that you are capable. The willingness to take a risk because you know you are good enough.

Confidence is the factor that comes into play when we consider what we are capable of. It influences our thinking about who we are as a leader and our judgment about what we can do. Confidence is the link between thought and action. It enables you to step out of your comfort zone and take on the next opportunity. If you need more confidence, what can you do? Either you have it, or you don’t. Right? Wrong. Confidence is not a personality trait. You are not born with a confident temperament. Confidence is a learned capability. You can become the confident leader you want to be with the right mindset and practices.

A surprising aspect of confident leadership is that imposter syndrome is not uncommon. We all experience it, especially when we start a new job or role, take on a new project, or are with high-stakes clients or senior leaders. In 2020, a systematic review of 62 studies on imposterism evaluated the prevalence of the imposter phenomenon, showing prevalence rates as high as 56% to 82% in graduate students, college students, nurses, medical students, and other professions. Much of the research on imposterism has been in healthcare, and I wonder what the data from research on IT leaders in an academic environment would show.

Research shows that many people, especially women, struggle with confidence early in their careers. Recent surveys indicate that women are less likely to promote themselves than men. This often puts women at a disadvantage, as they are less likely to be hired or offered competitive pay.

Low confidence can be natural when you’re new to a job or lack adequate experience in a high-stakes situation. Low confidence can be a result of several factors. It might spring from early childhood messages, a lack of representation in your organization, previous experiences, or other causes.

The critical thing to remember is that low confidence is not an inherent flaw and doesn’t have to define you. Confidence can be learned and practiced. It begins with self-awareness, changing your mindset, and learning to bring your whole self to work. It’s hard to grasp, but the actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later. As the feelings of confidence increase, the confidence actions will increase. It’s a cycle. Thought increases action; then action increases thought.

It’s long been established that our beliefs – true or otherwise – direct our actions and shape our lives. The good news is that new research into neural plasticity reveals that we can rewire our brains in ways that affect our thoughts and behavior at any age. That means that no matter how timid or doubt-laden you’ve been, building self-confidence is mainly by choice. The more you practice confident behavior, the more you experience more feelings of confidence. That may explain why you initially feel like an imposter when you step out of your comfort zone. You try to behave or act confidently, but your emotions and inner voice cause self-doubt.

Is it a lack of competence or experience that causes your self-doubt? Find ways to increase your competence if it is a lack of skill, volunteer for an assignment. Take an online class on the skill you want to develop. Attend a leadership development program.

If you are competent in your role and what’s holding you back is a lack of confidence, think about this. Confidence is not based on your actual ability to succeed at a task but on your belief in your ability to succeed. You may feel like an imposter when you step out and take action. But with experience and success, confidence will grow, and imposter syndrome will decrease in time. Practice breeds confidence. 

You can build a more confident presence by understanding your emotions and doing the “work on self” we discuss in the MOR programs to elevate your presence. That’s why we do 360s and encourage you to gather feedback. Our critical inner voice most often doesn’t help us. Honest feedback from others does. Instead of assuming you did a lousy job at something, ask and inquire. Self-awareness and self-management are the steps to building confidence. Here are some suggestions to consider. 

Practice Self-Awareness to Connect with Yourself

  • Practice Introspection; reflect every day
  • Review your 360 and other inputs
  • Assess your strengths and weaknesses
  • Identify what holds you back
  • Examine your mindset toward new opportunities
  • Recognize negative self-talk 
  • Establish emotional intelligence practices to increase self-awareness

Practice Self-Management by Building New Habits

  • Keep a confidence journal of what worked and what didn’t
  • Practice a growth mindset
  • Take a new risk each week
  • Celebrate success AND failure
  • Develop a “confidence” mantra
  • Change your speech, eliminate apologetic phrases 
  • Eliminate negative self-talk
  • Prepare for important presentations and practice
  • Seek honest feedback

Confidence is a skill that can be developed by building a growth mindset, maturing your emotional intelligence, and stepping out of your comfort zone. Take action today. What goal will you set, and what action will you take to become the confident leader you want to be?

Last week we explored the question of experiences of impostorism and identifying as a member of an underrepresented group:

Not Under-

The two dimensions of these results are noteworthy to explore independently.  First, those who responded are divided relatively equally between identifying as a member of an underrepresented group at work or not.  This identity can take many different forms in the work setting. As leaders, it is important for us to understand how identities may impact approaches to the workplace. Considering the second dimension, whether or not readers had experienced impostorism, regardless of the response to the first question, it was relatively consistent that just over three out of every four of us have experienced feelings of impostorism.  We hope the steps to increased self-awareness and self-management proposed in this article are helpful considerations to those of us experiencing impostorism.