Faculty member, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto; author of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients
Lots of things can cost you that promotion you're hoping for – poor attention to detail, difficulty meeting deadlines and poor listening skills are just a few examples. But add to that list a more subtle and surprisingly pervasive problem: failing to project confidence.
In the perfect world, your thinking would speak for itself and being tentative in how you express your views would not come with a big cost. But the reality is that in today's workplace, conveying confidence in your opinions matters.
Research at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley from 2009 found that in workplace teams, confidence often gets perceived as competence. Indeed, the researchers found that how competent and skilled you are is a surprisingly weak predictor of your reputation among colleagues.
I recently worked as faculty adviser to 35 first-year MBA students at the Rotman School of Management who were spending the summer interning in a variety of roles. In talking to these accomplished, smart students, I was struck by how often they struggled with confidence in presenting their views.
Here are four approaches that can help build confidence and improve presence.
Focus on the times you succeeded
To present with confidence, you first have to feel competent. If you lack confidence in the quality of your work, jot down a list of times that you helped achieve a successful outcome or got positive feedback. If you are fearful of failing, write down three times that you stumbled – and compare that list to the number of times you succeeded, focusing also on how you bounced back.
One student overcame intense competition to land a summer job with a high-profile technology firm, due to exceptional academic performance and great work experience. Despite that, she found her mood swinging wildly based on passing comments from her boss or the people she worked with – way up if they said something positive, way down if a comment was neutral or remotely negative.
That made her even more tentative. One technique that helped her address this was visualizing successful performance, similar to how Olympic athletes create a mental picture of success on the track or in the pool. Building a mental scenario in which she saw herself projecting confidence helped boost his performance even in the face of some challenging conversations.
Be aware of body language
In a widely viewed TED Talk, Harvard Business School's Amy Cuddy talked about how standing tall and extending your arms fully before going into a meeting or presentation can improve your flow of energy and confidence. So standing tall is one way to feel more confident and to convey confidence as a result.
Smiling and eye contact also matter. When I met with a student who struggled with confidence, he sat back in his chair with his arms crossed and kept glancing away. I asked him to lean forward, put his arms on the table, make eye contact and smile. Just by making these small changes, he came across as much more relaxed and confident – and he said that he felt more confident as well. Get into the habit of making natural eye contact and smiling and you'll present as more confident.
Use deep breathing to relax
None of us operate at our best when under pressure. Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, has talked about the importance of relaxing, making the analogy to baseball players and golfers, where the tighter they hold their bat or golf club, the less effective they are.
Of course, telling yourself to relax is one thing, doing it another. When you are in high-stakes situations, whether they be formal presentations or important one-on-one meetings, your stress reflex kicks in. That's why before going into important meetings, it makes sense to spend 60 seconds using a simple deep-breathing technique called controlled breathing to help you relax. Do an internet search for controlled breathing to learn more.
Monitor your voice
When we're nervous, some of us talk too fast or talk too much. Some people talk too quietly. Others have the bad habit of "uptalk," in which they end sentences going up, as if they were asking a question. (Think about the contrast between ending a recommendation saying "I know this will work!" as opposed to "I know this will work?".)
All of these can undermine the way you're perceived. If you have an issue with your tone of voice, use the same approach employed by top-tier golfers. Pick one thing to work on and create a mental model of what you want to sound like. Then practice with a friend, simulating a conversation with your boss or a colleague. Have your friend record you on a phone, watch the video and repeat this until you're happy with how you are presenting. Once you've nailed this in practice, apply what you learned at work.
The good news is that projecting confidence is a skill that can be developed. Take this one step at a time, picking one of these strategies to work on, then another and then perhaps a third. Before long you may be pleasantly surprised as colleagues comment on the confidence with which you make your case.
Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.