Do you come out in a cold sweat at the prospect of a job interview or taking on a big project? If so, you're lacking confidence. But Wendy Bristow has good news for you: it happens to everyone, and it's easier to beat than you think
"Most people say to themselves, 'I need to feel confident, then I'll go out and get a new job'. But it actually works the other way around. Confidence comes from competence. If you know you can do something well, you're confident about it. But to do something well, you've got to practice, and that's how you get confident."

Michael Maynard, founder of management consultant Maynard Leigh Associates, who lists Hewlett-Packard, Airmiles and the London Stock Exchange among his blue-chip clients, has hit on one of the many misconceptions we tend to have about confidence: that it comes first, and then we act as a result of having it. In fact, the confidence equation works the other way round: confidence comes from doing things, trying things and finding out that – yes – you can do them.

Another myth is that some people are born oozing with confidence, others aren't and there is nothing you can do about it. This, again, is rubbish. Even confident-seeming people have moments of self-doubt when they're taking a risk, taking on a challenge or trying something out for the first time. Margaret Thatcher and Richard Branson had a few wobbles when they went for their first job interview. Probably.

There does seem to be a genetic component governing the other side of the confidence coin: shyness. Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan discovered that shyness in adults could be traced back as far as toddlerhood, and that sensitive, fearful children grew into shy, timid adults. However, if you recall wetting the bed at the prospect of a birthday party and feel pretty much the same way now at the thought of a job interview, be reassured that character is not destiny. Like any skill, confidence can be learned. All the researchers note that with a bit of work and practice, even extreme shyness can be overcome.

If you can overcome it, so much the better for you. Lack of confidence holds us back in a million ways. Statistics show that shy people have more problem advancing in their jobs than those who can muster up confidence from somewhere. Research carried out at the University of Tulsa in the USA found that the more shy the individual, the less prestigious their last job title tends to have been. On a personal level, the constant anxiety engendered by imagining everyone you meet is judging you harshly – which is where shyness tends to come from – takes a heavy toll on health and can lead to depression.

More research by Harvey Coleman at IBM revealed that how well you do in your job is 10% to do with talent and ability, 30% image and 60% exposure. In other words, it's no good being good at your job if you can't look like someone who's good at their job. And that requires confidence.

We all need to make leaps in the dark. It is possible to build up your confidence, and you owe it to yourself to do it: it may well be the only thing standing between you and success.

What's holding you back?

Most people have an area of their work where they don’t feel confident, and which can hold them back in their career. It’s useful to be clear exactly where your confidence black holes are, so that you can tackle them. Here are the most common. Score yourself as to how confident you’d be in the following situations, where 10 equals totally confident and 0 equals quaking in your boots:
    1 Entering a room full of people you don’t know and being expected to mingle.
    2 Negotiating more money, for yourself or for the company you work for, with people you know.
    3 Negotiating with people you don’t know.
    4 Public speaking, including job interviews.
    5 Taking on a bigger piece of work than before.
    6 Taking on a challenge slightly outside your area, or going for a new job.
    7 Dealing with conflict with people you know and like.
    8 Dealing with conflict with a new client or outside company you don’t know well.
    9 Turning down work.
    10 Asking for more time or extra help.
    11 Doing paperwork and accounts.
    12 Writing letters and reports.
If your score was low for numbers 2 and 7, you need to work on what psychologists call “boundaries” – you allow being mates with people to get in the way of your job. Remember that people respect those who draw a line and won’t be walked over. If your score was low for 4, 11 or 12, remember that there are good workshops and evening classes on public speaking, interview technique, accounts and so on. See it as a career investment. If you scored low for 2 or 3, money is an issue. How much do you feel you deserve? The money you earn is directly related to your feelings of self-worth. There are millions of books on this subject. Buy one. If you scored low for 5 or 6, you’re facing the feelings of self-doubt that arise whenever we take on something new. Bite the bullet and go for it. As the book says, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Everyone feels fear in the face of unknown devils; don’t let it put you off taking them on. If you scored low for 1, 2 or 8 (and 7 or 3), you might be suffering from a mild case of “social anxiety”. Do you worry too much what others think of you? In any job, some people will like you and some won’t. If you’re afraid of conflict, it will hold you back because, in work, conflict is always going to crop up somehow, somewhere. If you scored low for 9, think about what stops you saying “no” and the consequences of always being overworked. It can often just be a habit, and all habits can be broken.

Five ways to boost your confidence

Confidence isn’t something you’re either born with or not. Like any skill, it’s something you can learn. The following tips will help. 1 Identify your negative beliefs about yourself …
Whenever we can’t take action and try something out, it’s because we think we can’t. We’ve hit some negative belief we have about what we can do. There are all manner of beliefs that hold us back in our careers, from “I can’t cope with pressure” and “I’m rubbish at managing people” to “I don’t deserve to earn £100,000 a year”. Another is “I’m secretly no good and one day I’ll get found out”, a symptom of what psychologists call impostor syndrome: people believe they are faking it at work and that one day they will be unmasked. 2 … and then change them
The trick is to become aware of your negative beliefs, and then tackle them. Start consciously replacing unhelpful thoughts with positive, encouraging ones, such as “I can do this – I’ve done it before”, and “I’ll never know until I try”. Another trick is to follow your fears through to their conclusion. Say you get an interview for a job you really want. You could try writing down all the horrible, self-deprecating thoughts you have about it. Things like “they’ll see my hands shaking and think I’m a berk”, or “I’ll run out of things to say”. Then go through them and ask yourself, is this true? And then, would it really matter if it were? What’s the worst that could happen? You may not get the job, but you won’t be garotted either. If you uncover any areas where you genuinely believe you lack practice or competence, ask yourself if there is anything you can do about it, such as taking a course in presentation skills, or getting some coaching. Or try asking for help. You could ask a colleague you trust to give you their honest thoughts in an area in which you lack confidence. Often we’re afraid to do this for fear of looking an idiot. But if your chosen colleague knows you’re serious, they will be, too. 3 Think confident
Confidence is also an attitude, a state of mind. As Alix Needham, whose company Lifestyle Management counsels top executives on managing stress and developing confidence, says: “Confident people look back and remember their successes, whereas unconfident people focus on their failures. It’s just a different way of looking at things.” Once you catch yourself thinking thoughts that only reinforce your lack of confidence (“I’ll never get that job, so what’s the point in going for it?”), you need to stop and think about all the reasons you might get it. It helps, too, to think about all the things you have achieved in life; these could be buying a house, getting married, getting a degree. Focusing on success is what keeps sales people going through countless rejections: they remember the previous sales and focus on the possibility of achieving another. 4 Look confident
When we look confident, people believe we are – ourselves included. When we feel unsure of ourselves, we tend to slump, head down, chest concave. Standing or sitting up straight, adopting a confident pose, tells our brains that we feel good. Another tip is to breathe. It sounds silly, but it works. When we’re nervous, our breathing becomes faster and shallow, and our voice sounds nervous as a result. Take deep breaths, stand up straight and tall, and you’ll feel better instantly. 5 If you make a mistake, try again
Mistakes don’t matter. If you think you’ve chosen the wrong career or the wrong job, or that you’ve messed up an interview, don’t beat yourself up about it and let it ruin your life; try again. Remember that mistakes are how we learn, and be kind to yourself.