While low levels of confidence can be problematic, very high levels may not be ideal either. Our talent doctor Rob Yeung analyses the evidence on how to get it right
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This article was first published in the February 2018 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
How confident would you say you are on a scale of 1 to 10? Suppose that a 1 means that you experience immense anxiety and self-doubt and a 10 on the other hand indicates that you are supremely comfortable in all areas of your life. What score would you assign to yourself?
Clearly, low levels of confidence can be problematic. People with low self-confidence may have trouble speaking up at work, making an impact during job interviews and so on.
However, very high levels of confidence may not be ideal either. For example, studies by researchers such as Randall Colvin at Northeastern University in Boston, US, suggest that highly confident individuals typically make a good first impression; however, over time they have a tendency to talk about themselves and dominate conversations so much that they may alienate people.
A fine balance
In my latest book Confidence 2.0: The New Science of Self-Confidence, I review research evidence looking at the relationship between people’s confidence and their performance. In both social as well as professional situations, there may be an inverted-U relationship between confidence and performance. People who have very low confidence can boost their performance by improving their confidence. However, the benefits of improved confidence may peak at around a score of 6 or 7 out of 10. After that, there may be an inverse relationship between further confidence and performance. In other words, very high levels of confidence may reduce people’s ability to succeed: for example, overconfidence may make them less able, or less willing, to learn from their own mistakes.
An important research study led by Stanford University scientist Emily Pronin suggested that up to 80% of people consistently rate themselves as better than average across a wide variety of skills and domains of knowledge. Clearly, that’s statistically impossible. So the likelihood is that most of us overestimate ourselves in some respects.
The only way to find out how good you really are is to seek feedback from knowledgeable colleagues – ask them for candid comments about your performance.
However, be certain to avoid justifying or explaining your behaviour or you will come across as defensive and closed-minded. If you are genuinely committed to enhancing your performance, you must accept the validity of people’s views; it is your responsibility to develop your skills and change your behaviour until others agree they have seen real changes in how you perform.
One technique that has been shown to boost people’s confidence and performance in high-pressure situations is visualisation. Effective visualisation, however, is not just a case of imagining what it would look like to perform strongly in a presentation or meeting.
In one scientific study, volunteers were recruited to participate in a mock interview. All of the participants were given a booklet of 10 interview questions and asked to write down answers to questions such as ‘Tell me about yourself’ and ‘What are your major strengths?’
Next, half of the participants were told to visualise themselves answering the 10 questions. The other half were asked to sit quietly for a similar length of time.
When the participants were then interviewed, those who had practised visualisation reported feeling less nervous. Perhaps more importantly, these visualising participants were also rated more highly by the interviewers.
Before you start visualising though, bear in mind two major caveats. The study suggests that visualisation works when you have done proper preparation beforehand. Simply envisioning a successful interview, presentation or meeting won’t work.
In addition, the participants who visualised a successful interview spent between 10 and 20 minutes imagining how a successful interview would look and feel. It wasn’t merely a technique that they did in seconds or a few minutes. It took a real investment of time to be beneficial.
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: talentspace.co.uk
Until 28 February AB readers can get 20% off the cost of his new book by redeeming the code CONFIDENCE at guardianbookshop.com
"Very high levels of confidence may reduce people's ability to succeed; their overconfidence may make them less willing to learn"