Skip to main content

At work, you need to feel and project your confidence.

Two women walk into a boardroom for a meeting. One sails in with her shoulders back, takes a seat at the centre of the table, and speaks up. Another quickly sinks into a line of chairs against the wall, and spends the meeting silently hunched over her notebook. Who is more confident?

While confidence may be hard to articulate, we know it when we see it. And those whose stock-in-trade is to help build it say the stakes could not be higher.

"More than anything I've ever seen as a therapist, confidence is the No. 1 factor in terms of success. It's important to be smart and capable, but someone confident supersedes all of that," says Toronto-based psychotherapist Kimberly Moffit of KMA Therapy Group.

With a new crop of books, such as Katty Kay and Claire Shipman's The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, prompting renewed discussion of confidence, particularly as it relates to women, we asked experts for advice on how to improve yours.

Beyond physical signals like strong eye contact and open posture, confidence is also recognizable in a person's behaviour. Signs that you lack confidence can include apologizing, not asking for what you want, being overly confessional, and taking on responsibilities that aren't part of your job description, Ms. Moffit says. A lack of confidence can also carry over into relationships, your social life and even parenting.

So how can you cultivate confidence you've never had? Ms. Moffit uses cognitive behavioural therapy to encourage patients to think more positively. To start, she suggests coming up with a list of qualities you would like to project at work and then repeating them to yourself daily until they become ingrained. She also suggests creating a daily affirmation such as 'I am confident and respected leader who people look up to and admire.' It can take a month of repeating these mantras to internalize the message.

You can also turn to your inner circle for a boost when you're feeling insecure, Ms. Moffit says. Ask your closest family and friends to write down what they love about you. "When you're having an insecure moment you can open up an envelope and get boost of confidence from that." Other suggestions include setting goals, volunteering, and hanging out with confident people.

By making a list of things that you want to accomplish, you can gain assurance by knowing your efforts are focused. Volunteering helps build skills and shows that you can take on new projects. The suggestion to network with confident people arises from Ms. Moffit's doctoral research on entrepreneurship. "If women hang around with other successful women, that improves confidence a lot," she says.

Work environments that are a poor fit with an employee's values can also shake our confidence, says Sarah Robinson, a human resources executive turned leadership coach. "What happens is we enter organizations and quickly get caught up in their speed and environment and go along with what that is, rather than who we are," she says. Ideally, you should find a workplace that aligns with your personal values, she says, and also keep your confidence up by developing a strong sense of your own values and competencies independent of your workplace.

MBA schools encourage students to become aware of when they're exhibiting a lack of confidence, for instance constantly volunteering to be the note taker rather than the team leader in group projects, says Professor Beatrix Dart, associate dean of executive degree programs at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Ms. Dart is also executive director of Rotman's Initiative for Women in Business, a program that offers workshops to help women become aware of the roots of their self doubt, develop leadership skills, and overcome other confidence barriers.

Another way to increase confidence is to focus on competence, Prof. Dart says. "Instead of thinking about self-confidence, which is self-oriented, think about competencies, which is more task-oriented." If flagging confidence is rooted in a skills deficit, such as older workers who feels overwhelmed when surrounded by digitally savvy younger co-workers, then they need to take steps to upgrade their knowledge. "If [a skills deficit] is holding you back, then do what do you need to do to be competent," such as taking courses, Ms. Robinson.

Almost as important as having confidence is putting it on display. "You have to feel confident but you also have to project that confidence," Ms. Moffit says. Paying attention to your appearance by getting a great haircut and dressing above your job category are quick fixes that can help you feel more powerful. Taking small steps toward confident behaviour is another route. "Pay attention to your level of engagement. Are you aware of what you do in meetings? Do you sit there? Is there a moment when you could ask a question?" Ms. Robinson says.

Taking action is common advice to improve your confidence, and that's what Confidence Code authors Ms. Kay and Ms. Shipman arrive at: "Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action." Confidence requires action and vice versa, or as they say, "If confidence is a belief in your success, which then stimulates action, you will create more confidence when you take that action."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Interact with The Globe