‘This is probably rubbish, but… ’ begins your colleague’s uneasy pitch. Sound familiar? In 2021, arrogance is viewed as such a huge faux pas in the workplace (in fact, 72% of employers cite it as their biggest turn-off) that the fear of being perceived as the ‘A’ word means we lean the other way. We use self-deprecating humour instead, regularly putting down our ideas or achievements in the hope of being seen as more likeable. And this rings especially true for women.
‘We have a major problem with confidence and women in the UK,’ says Kate Atkin, confidence coach and author of The Confident Manager. ‘Celebrating our own achievements or accomplishments is something women can find incredibly difficult to do. Research shows that men tend to confidently attribute success to something they’ve done, and assign failure to external circumstances. Women, on the other hand, usually believe success is down to something external, such as luck, and failure is due to something they did. Thanks to shifting attitudes, the tide is turning. But it’s slow, and society still seems to encourage men to say what they’re good at – but when women do, they’re seen as “too big for their boots”.’
And it’s not just in the workplace that we’re struggling to shout about our accomplishments. Think back to the last time you shared any sort of win: that Instagram post about Couch to 5K perhaps, or your latest banana bread creation in a WhatsApp group. Did you trivialise it, joking about how ‘terrible’ you were, getting in quick with the criticism before anyone else could? Playing down our skills or talents as women makes us feel less threatening to others, explains psychotherapist Charlotte Armitage. ‘We often use self-deprecating humour in an attempt to show we’re still human and “flawed”. We do this as a way of making ourselves more relatable to others, which encourages the recipient of the message to feel supportive, rather than eliciting potential feelings of jealousy or competition. The result is a positive, instead of a negative, response.’
But, in the long-term, the impact isn’t quite so rosy. Shouting about our achievements is crucial, because research shows that confidence and belief in our own abilities matters. Lots of studies intrinsically link confidence to performance and success in all areas. (Did you know that in a work context, for example, women apply for 20% fewer jobs than men, due to a lack of confidence in their own abilities?) Research even indicates that the more competent a woman is at something, the more likely she is to understate it (while the opposite applies to men). But by making light of our achievements in favour of appearing humble or likeable, we’re increasingly likely to be missing out on opportunities, flags Kate. If you’re guilty of underplaying your accomplishments, it’s time to get down with bigging yourself up.
‘The most confident people are those who are aware of their knowledge, skills and abilities, so it’s important to identify your strengths, first of all,’ notes Kate. ‘That way, sharing your successes should feel more natural – and authentic, too. Fill out an online strength profile (try the free one at viacharacter.org), or ask people who know you well what they think you’re good at.’
It may sound obvious, but once you’ve identified your strengths, you need to focus on them and not your weaknesses. This will help you be more motivated and productive. ‘Instead of worrying about what you could improve on, put your energy into what you can do. And, if necessary, enlist other people to make up for anything you need help with,’ advises Kate.
You’ve won an award for your presentation/kickboxing/cross-stitch (delete as applicable), but sharing the news with friends or peers feels weird. ‘First, you need to recognise why you’re hesitant or fearful,’says Charlotte. ‘Are you scared of rejection, judgement, criticism or something else? Once that’s recognised, you can look at why that particular issue is making you afraid, because understanding the fear is the most powerful way to overcome it.
‘Next, share your achievement in a way that feels safe for you: perhaps it’s via text to a small group of people or speaking to a few close friends, as opposed to posting it to a larger group on a wider social media platform. The positive feedback you receive should help you feel more comfortable to be able to share it with a larger audience.’
‘Verbal or written encouragement from others is really useful, but it’s easy to then forget the positive things people say about us,’ explains Kate. ‘Start a notes document on your phone or in an email folder to save positive feedback. Revisit it regularly when you feel your confidence waning or need a reminder of your progress.’ The same goes for other forms of feedback – did someone say something lovely in a birthday card or an email? Print, screen-grab or tear out anything that makes you feel great – it could be just the boost you need.
Many of us mistake confidence for arrogance. But, if you’re that worried about appearing conceited, it’s likely that you’re not, says Kate. ‘Confidence is all about owning your skills and being authentic, while arrogance is where it’s all to do with you. Championing your strengths and sharing them doesn’t make you cocky,’ she adds. ‘In many ways, it’s basic self-care.’
If you’re still struggling to get into the mind-set, Kate suggests that you could think of it in this way: ‘Ask yourself, “Who am I to say that the people praising me are wrong and I’m right?” Isn’t it far more arrogant to believe your own opinion of yourself is worth more than the positive feedback of others around you?’ Food for thought.
As Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said: ‘Confidence and leadership are like muscles – you learn to use them, or you learn not to. If you’re afraid to speak up at a meeting, every time you force yourself to do it, you get better at it.’ Be prepared to put in the work and set realistic goals – both in terms of your achievements and the way you share them. ‘We often set long-term objectives that are too difficult and find our confidence levels crumbling as a result,’ says Kate. ‘Strive for achievable short-term ones instead.’
It’s worth remembering that not all feedback will be positive, adds Charlotte. ‘Be prepared for opinions you might not be comfortable with, and think about how you’ll respond and deal with them psychologically.’ Above all, believe in yourself!
Use ‘ands’ not ‘buts’
‘When you get positive feedback, don’t respond with, “Yes, but I had a lot of help…”,’ explains Kate. ‘Say, “Yes, and I enjoyed doing it”. Acknowledge success instead of dismissing it.’
‘Most maladaptive behaviours stem from early experiences. So, if a belief or fear of speaking out is holding you back, ask yourself whose voice you can hear saying it,’ says psychotherapist Michelle Scott of The Recovery Centre. ‘Is it parents, an old teacher, or social media? Drilling down into the specifics will help you spot the difference between useful thoughts and critic-led fear.’
Name and shame
’Give your critic a name (“Oh, here’s so-and-so again telling me I’m rubbish”),’ adds Michelle. ‘It can help you separate your own, valid thoughts from unhelpful fears that hold you back.’
‘Often, keeping quiet and not promoting ourselves makes us feel safer. So, consider other ways of grounding yourself and feeling secure, such as a quick mindfulness exercise,’ explains Michelle.