7 Ways to Exude Confidence to Advance Your Career
Although we have come a long way from the days of hunting and gathering, Valerie Alexander, corporate trainer and author of How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace (Despite Having “Female Brains”), says that our natural instincts are rooted in traditional gender roles. These roles originated when humans began living in tribes: Males developed survival instincts related to combat and hunting—risk taking, competition and quick decision making, whereas females developed instincts focused on protecting offspring and the habitat—seeking consensus, making risk-averse decisions and taking measured action to prevent fires rather than putting them out once they’ve sprung up. According to Alexander, as men developed systems of commerce, they naturally rewarded those traits that ensured success in hunting and combat.
In the corporate environment, Alexander contends, women often find themselves “swimming against the current,” trying to move forward in a workplace designed to reward men’s natural instincts. According to Bain & Company, women’s aspirations of and confidence in achieving executive status decrease dramatically after their first year of employment, in part because their contributions are not recognized or supported. They also lack role models—in 2016, only 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a female at the helm.
Alexander, who has climbed the ladder in male-dominated fields including corporate law, investment banking and film production, said that by adapting their behaviors in the following ways, women can better exhibit their talents in a workplace designed to reward instinctively male traits.
1. Know that you know your stuff. With a natural instinct to gather all the facts before making a decision, women tend to focus on what they don’t yet know, according to Alexander. But focusing on what they do know can build confidence and keep the imposter syndrome at bay. Instead of waiting to decide until they are 100 percent certain, women need to remember that they usually know enough to make an informed decision.
“Know that you know your stuff, and if you know 80 percent of your stuff, you know your stuff. At that point, just decide,” Alexander said. Rather than thinking—or even worse, announcing—that you don’t know what you’re doing, she suggested thinking of yourself as the go-to person at all times.
2. Present your ideas without asking permission. Once they’ve made a decision and go to present their ideas, women often feel the need to expound on all the facts to gain credibility or build consensus.
“We need to be comfortable asserting that our ideas are the best and present them without asking permission,” Alexander said. “Just say, ‘We need to …’ and present your solution. If no one asks for additional support, don’t give it. When everyone else has faith in you, believe that they’re right.”
3. Be assertive but calm. There are unfortunate stereotypes about women in power, such as being angry and forceful, that Alexander said women need to be aware of and overcome.
“You don’t have to be ‘nice,’ but strive to stay calm and professional,” she said. She added that women may psyche themselves out by preparing for the worst and then reacting to the scenario in their heads rather than what’s actually happening. By remaining calm, even in the most challenging situations, you are more likely to get your point across to the other party.
4. Highlight the solution, not your mistake. When you make a mistake, you may replay the situation in your mind on an endless loop, convinced that everyone is dwelling on your failure. But, Alexander said, they’re not.
When you find you’ve done something wrong, she recommended simply fixing it and moving on. Don’t run around saying “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry,” but resolve the issue as quickly as possible and then announce, “There was a problem, but here’s how I solved it.”
Self-deprecation can also derail women, as it may be seen as endearing in other circumstances, but it disempowers women in the workplace, Alexander said.
5. “Hang a lantern” on unconscious bias. As an investment banker, Alexander was often the only woman in the room. Meetings would begin, and the male leader would realize that someone needed to take notes. More often than not, he would turn to her. Instead of simply complying, she would say, “My client needs me to remain engaged in the meeting. Is someone’s assistant available to take notes?”
She was not mean or rude. She did not accuse anyone of gender bias or even make a big show of the conversation. She simply said, “No, I’m here to do a job; please find someone else to take notes.” This is what she called “hanging a lantern on unconscious bias.”
Alexander said that maintaining a steady, professional tone is key—you don’t want anyone to misinterpret your comment, but you also don’t want tasks to always fall to you simply because you’re a woman.
6. Find sponsors to go to bat for you. To successfully “swim against the current,” women need champions in their corner who know they do great work and can help them advance. When you’re working with influencers, find opportunities to casually mention that you enjoy working with them, you’re learning a lot and you would love their support as you grow in your career.
“Sponsorship is more important than mentorship,” Alexander said. “Make your superiors realize that everyone needs help advancing in the workplace and that you’re looking forward to having their support.”
7. Confidence is competence. Alexander has found that in the workplace, confidence and competence are often perceived as the same. Women who are highly competent may struggle to exhibit their knowledge confidently because they don’t want to offend or intimidate others.
“If you are highly competent and you behave with no confidence, you will be perceived as incompetent,” she said.
One way to exhibit confidence goes back to presenting your ideas without asking permission, Alexander said. Instead of opening with “Does everyone agree?” or “I might be wrong,” use statements like “Here are my thoughts,” “The solution is …” or “I’ve thoroughly researched this topic, and I believe ….” Don’t give them permission to dismiss you before you even start.
Women may need to work harder to exhibit their confidence, but with these tips, you can change the perception your colleagues have of you and increase the confidence you have in yourself.