How to be confident (even if you are not)

By Lisa Iarkowskihappy working women
Constant change and complex challenges at work can test the self-confidence of even the most accomplished of us. So how can we keep our confidence going strong, amidst the changes and challenges we’re facing? Studies in what social psychologists call “self-efficacy” may hold the key. Simply put, self-efficacy is our belief in our ability to accomplish a specific future task. When our belief in our ability is strong, we more readily take action, persevere through obstacles and adversity, and produce successful outcomes. And the stronger our self-efficacy, the more overall confidence we create for ourselves. The work of self-efficacy pioneer Albert Bandura and mindset expert Carol Dweck provides effective practices to help us strengthen our self-efficacy and build confidence for taking on future challenges.
Act – Learn – Succeed – Repeat
Bandura, identified “mastery experiences”— a cycle of taking action and succeeding–as the most effective way to increase self-efficacy, and thereby confidence. As authors Kay and Shipman discovered in their research for The Confidence Code confidence is both a product of and catalyst for action. When faced with a daunting challenge for which you are not feeling confident, ask yourself what other actions you can successfully take to practice using your relevant capabilities. Set SMART goals for those actions. For the cycle to work, choose stretch or “risk” actions in situations where you are assured of a successful outcome. The more you perform the cycle with successful results (even with different tasks and scenarios), the more self-efficacy and confidence you will develop to take action in new or challenging areas in the future.
As you work with the cycle, it’s crucial to practice learning from your experience. Psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset shows that effort, learning, and persistence are far more powerful pathways to success than a focus on innate talent or ability. Refocusing your mindset to what you can learn in any given situation will help you more readily take action and turn setbacks and failures into lessons learned for improvement, rather than personal defeats. Learning includes both your own self-reflection and getting feedback from others on how your efforts lead to success as well as how you work with obstacles and setbacks. The “STAR” question framework can help you and others reflect on your actions and lessons learned. Break down your experience with these four questions: What was the Situation (what, who)? What Task (intention, goal) were you trying to accomplish? What Actions did you take (what worked, what could work better)? What were your Results (how do the outcomes compare with your initial intent)? Learn from your experiences, and as you take on new challenges, begin with a growth mindset question: What can I learn from this experience?
Learn from Others
It’s easy to feel isolated when you are not feeling self-confident. But you don’t have to go it alone—nor should you. Bandura identified both learning from role models and verbal support from influential people in your life, such as mentors, as effective ways to increase self-efficacy.
Identifying role models who are similar to you and have succeeded in areas you want to succeed in is a powerful way of strengthening your belief in your abilities: “If other people like me can do it, so can I.” Start by identifying 2-3 role models. Then, look at the efforts they took to succeed. Finally, identify those efforts you can emulate.
A mentor–someone who believes in your capabilities and tells you so—can also be a valuable support to increasing self-efficacy and confidence. Maybe less obvious is the confidence you can gain from becoming a mentor yourself. In a recent discussion with, Erin Geiger, VP of Business Development  at Hackbright Academy in San Francisco, talked about the crucial role of mentoring—for both mentor and mentee–for building confidence in women engineers entering a competitive, male-dominated field. The San Francisco-based engineering boot camp for women includes a robust mentoring program and network that supports new engineers in and beyond the classroom. Geiger’s advice: “Become a role model and mentor. Let’s take an introvert. They may not think of themselves as a role model, but that confidence pushes out to others and it’s mutual. If somebody has a mentee, it can feed the confidence and morale of the most introverted introvert.”
Manage Your State
Bandura’s work shows that negative emotional and physical states, like stress or exhaustion, negatively influence our belief in our capabilities, weakening our self-efficacy and confidence. For example, if you feel exhausted during a presentation, you may find yourself believing that you are not a good presenter and then may shy away from a bigger role where presentations are featured. Chronic stress and exhaustion may be harder to pinpoint, but nonetheless they play a significant role in your self-efficacy and confidence. When you are not feeling confident about a task or situation, take into consideration your stress and tiredness as factors, obvious or not, and take steps to reduce them. Then revisit your situation and observe any change in your level of confidence. Likely you will find that you have a more productive, confident perspective that can support moving forward.
Using any one of these approaches, or better yet a combination of all of them, gives you a powerful practice for taking charge of your self-efficacy and confidence in even the most challenging situations.
Lisa Iarkowski is a Columbia University certified executive coach who helps women transition, reinvent, and reenergize their careers. Lisa has extensive experience leading and coaching individuals and teams in the publishing and technology industries. Lisa is a regular contributor to