To listen to a 30-year-old man I recently counselled, you would think careers were kind of like dim sum – everything is on offer and you choose the most enticing morsels from a trolley laden with options.
Career options he "would consider" or "wouldn't mind" ranged from being the head of an international organization to starting his own large company. When probed about his skills and qualifications for these possibilities, he said he was a great manager, a big-picture thinker, and an excellent sales person. He also described himself as having great integrity and emotional intelligence.
Unfortunately, he could not come up with a single example of how he had demonstrated these attributes; indeed, neither his work experience nor his education remotely qualified him for anything more than an entry-level clerical job. Nonetheless, he was unabashed when I said his ambitions were totally unrealistic.
In contrast, consider another young person I recently talked with. She sounded tentative when asked about her aspirations and what she was good at. But despite her equivocal account, she was articulate about her skills and described many accomplishments to substantiate her desires. My take: She would go far. Her lack of complacency would spur a desire to prove herself.
Sometimes a bit of self-doubt helps – and self-confidence is not all it is cracked up to be. Many people suffer from the curse of self-confidence, whether by overestimating their abilities, or refusing to brook suggestions they are less than perfect, or bragging to cover up insecurities.
This curse can have serious career consequences. Some of these people misread signals, seeing approval from others where none exists. For example, a few weeks ago a woman I know waxed lyrical about how much her boss loved her. The next day she was dismissed for poor performance. She was completely gobsmacked, even though her boss had repeatedly criticized her work.
Braggarts also turn off their workplace colleagues. When people suffer from an inflated sense of their worth, they assume everyone is interested in and admires them. People who are full of themselves have a way of talking that makes others feel their only function is to mirror the self-promoter's greatness, as if they aren't even part of the conversation.
Of course, how people talk does not necessarily reflect how they really feel about themselves. Sometimes apparent self-satisfaction is simply a mask for shyness and social awkwardness. Or it can be a defence against seeming vulnerable.
This is what I encountered in meeting with a woman who I thought came to me for career advice. When I asked how I could help her, she spent 20 minutes reciting all of her achievements since the early 1990s, barely pausing for a breath or checking to see if I was interested. My interpretation: She was afraid of looking needy if she asked for help or guidance.
Whatever its underpinnings, an apparent excess of self-confidence is particularly career-crippling in young people. The 30-year-old man who thought he could do anything had been described by a mutual acquaintance as being "charming." Like him, many people present well and easily sell themselves to new bosses; their social ease and impression-management skills are confused with emotional intelligence and competence.
But disappointment often results when they are unable to live up to their apparent promise. They either don't have the skills and backbone to deliver when things get tough, or they bail, claiming the boss is mean or the work is boring. They can't deal with not being "special" and needing to work hard to prove themselves. (Blame self-esteem-promoting parents and trophy-lavishing educators who thought the worst thing that could ever happen to a kid was to think he or she wasn't special.)
Here's where a little self-doubt comes in handy: It fuels a desire to succeed. But there is a delicate balance. Too much self-doubt and the game is over before it even begins. You set goals below your abilities, lest you fail at something more challenging. The result is never having opportunity to savour the pleasure – and gain the confidence – that comes from important accomplishments.
Of course, there are times when any expression of self-doubt will backfire. No one is going to hire or promote someone who says she isn't sure she is capable of doing the job. If you tend to underestimate your skills, the principle of "fake it 'til you make it" works.
Self-doubters can sometimes irritate co-workers with their need for constant reassurance. But they can also elicit a desire from colleagues to provide help. In contrast, fellow staffers pray for someone to burst the bubble of the obnoxiously overly confident.
If you have the misfortune to work with someone with bloated self-esteem, understand that eventually he or she will be caught out (and there is nothing wrong with a bit of schadenfreude).
Or take a lesson from a friend of mine. If she senses people are promising too much, or talking about something they know nothing about, she probes for supporting details. She doesn't let them off the hook until they scale down their claims or admit they don't have all the information. It's death by a thousand questions – and quickly punctures an overinflated ego.
How to take it down a notch
Tips for those who come across as overly confident
If you present yourself to others as overly confident, but that isn't how you really feel, try these strategies:
Mind your speech
Some people have a way of speaking that makes them sound more certain than they actually feel. You can sound more tentative and unsure by speaking more quietly, using qualifiers such as "maybe," and interjecting words and phrases such as "umm" and "let me think about that for a moment."
No one is perfect. Don't pretend you know what you are doing if you don't. No one will think less of you if you ask for help or admit that you aren't sure of the best way to solve a problem.
Understand your impact
Shy people are awkward when it comes to small talk, so they tend to get to the point quickly, without any social exchange. The result is that they sometimes appear arrogant. Before launching directly into content and details, soften how you come across by putting the other person at ease; ask a question or exchange a pleasantry to get things going more smoothly.
Can the 'I'
People quickly tire of listening to an endless recitation of accomplishments – "I did this" and "I did that." Edit how much you share about what you have achieved. And share the limelight by using "we" – few things are accomplished without the help of others.
Barbara Moses, PhD, is a speaker, organizational career management consultant and the author of Dish. Website: bmoses.com
Wednesday at noon (ET), she will answer your questions in an online chat about how to deal with difficult co-workers, arrogant employees and impossible bosses, as well as any other career questions you may have.