When the doubts creep in

The Life: No one is immune to feeling insecure in the workplace, but overcoming self-doubt is not always easy.
Overcoming self-doubt starts with honestly assessing one's abilities and shortcomings. istockphoto.com
Overcoming self-doubt starts with honestly assessing one's abilities and shortcomings. istockphoto.com

Very few people succeed in business without a degree of confidence, but no one is immune to bouts of insecurity.

Everyone, from young people in their first job to seasoned leaders in the upper ranks of organisations, have moments - or days, months and even years - when they are unsure of their ability to tackle challenges. No one is immune to these bouts of insecurity at work, but they don't have to hold people back, wrote Amy Gallo in a Harvard Business Review article this year.

"Insecurity plagues consciously or subconsciously every human being I've met," says Tony Schwartz, the president and chief executive of The Energy Project and author ofBe Excellent at Anything.

Overcoming this self-doubt starts with honestly assessing one's abilities and shortcomings, then getting comfortable enough to capitalise on - and correct - them, says Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor of leadership and organisational behaviour and co-director of the executive programme for women leaders at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Here are some other tips on how to rid feelings of insecurity without boosting a false sense of confidence.


Piano teachers had it right when they said: practice does make perfect. "The best way to build confidence in a given area is to invest energy in it and work hard at it," says Mr Schwartz. Many people give up when they think they're not good at a particular job or task, assuming the exertion is fruitless.

But Mr Schwartz argues that practice will almost always trump natural aptitude. If someone is unsure about their ability to do something, such as speaking in front of large audience or negotiating with a tough customer, they should start by trying out the skills in a safe setting. "Practice can be very useful, and is highly recommended because in addition to building confidence, it also tends to improve quality," says Ms Gruenfeld. "Actually deliver the big presentation more than once before the due date. Do a dry run before opening a new store," she suggests.

Ask for help

Confident people aren't only willing to practice, they're also willing to acknowledge that they don't - and can't - know everything. "It's better to know when you need help, than not," says Ms Gruenfeld. "A certain degree of confidence - specifically, confidence in your ability to learn - is required to be willing to admit that you need guidance or support."

On the flip side, though, experts suggest not to let modesty hold people back. People often get too wrapped up in what others will think to focus on what they have to offer, says Katie Orenstein, the founder and director of The OpEd Project, a non-profit organisation that empowers women to influence public policy by submitting opinion pieces to newspapers. "When you realise your value to others, confidence is no longer about self-promotion," she says. "In fact, confidence is no longer the right word. It's about purpose."

Seek feedback

While people don't want to completely rely on others' opinions to boost their ego, validation can also be very effective in building confidence. Ms Gruenfeld suggests asking someone who cares about your professional development as well as the quality of your performance to tell you what they think. Be sure to pick people whose feedback will be entirely truthful; Ms Gruenfeld says that when performance appraisals are only positive, people stop trusting them.

Take risks

Playing to your strengths is a smart tactic but not if it means you hesitate to take on new challenges. Many people don't know what they are capable of until they are truly tested. "Try things you don't think you can do," says Ms Gruenfeld. "Failure can be very useful for building confidence."

Of course, this is often easier said than done. "It feels bad to not be good at something. There's a leap of faith with getting better at anything," says Mr Schwartz. But don't assume you should feel good all the time. In fact, stressing yourself is the only way to grow. Enlisting help from others can make this easier. Ms Gruenfeld recommends asking supervisors to let you experiment with initiatives or new skills when the stakes are relatively low and then to provide support as you tackle those challenges.

*Amy Gallo, Harvard Business School / Reuters

Published: August 19, 2011 04:00 AM


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