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Why Less Confidence Could Make You Better at Work

Posted: 09/14/2012 11:29 am

Confidence is supposed to be the key to just about everything: The first date. Waterskiing. Lying (not that we would know). If you're confident, they say, you're already halfway there.

And nowhere is the allure of confidence more pervasive than in the workplace. Whether asking for a raise, giving a presentation or just rounding up co-workers for happy hour, we're repeatedly told that being confident will make our career successful.

Until now. Research published by Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in The Harvard Business Review argues that confidence isn't the key to career success... though lack of confidence might be.

Why Low Self-Confidence Is a Good Thing

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL) and Visiting Professor at New York University, is an international authority in personality profiling and psychometric testing. His research findings argue that a less-confident person will be more successful than someone who is overconfident.

His reasons are as follows:

1. Self-Criticism

"To be the very best at anything, you will need to be your harshest critic," writes Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic, "and that is almost impossible when your starting point is high self-confidence." He finds that people with low self-confidence don't have an "optimistic bias," which would condition them to focus on positive feedback and ignore the negative. Therefore, they're more likely to take constructive criticism to heart and, being very aware of their flaws, fix them. In some ways, that's similar to the bias we found when we discussed how pessimism can actually help your finances.

2. Motivation

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic makes this distinction: Low self-confidence is detrimental to achieving your goals if you aren't that motivated to begin with. But if you are willing to put in the work, he says, low self-confidence will make you work that much harder, because you think you have a long way to go before you get there.

3. Modesty

Modesty has nothing to do with what you wear and everything to do with how people perceive you. "Lower self-confidence reduces the chances of coming across as arrogant," writes Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic. He explains that less-confident people are more likely to admit their mistakes and less likely to take credit for other's accomplishments. Now, doesn't that sounds like someone you would want to promote?

So What Does This Mean for You?

Okay, you caught us. We aren't going to say that you should be less confident to succeed in the workplace. (Not after sharing our two-minute trick to build up that confidence!) You need confidence to rock a job interview or make a department presentation, so our goal is to help you walk that line between confidence and too much confidence.

Here are some takeaways we'll incorporate into our own lives based on Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic's findings:

Take Constructive Criticism Seriously

Criticism: "You're driving me crazy." Constructive criticism: "You're driving me crazy because you refuse to label the files you keep dropping on my desk." Know the difference so you don't take unconstructive criticism too much to heart, and then take what feedback you can from the constructive kind. Your co-workers will appreciate that you're not only listening, but doing your best to improve.

What You Can Do: Next time someone criticizes you, write down the comment, disregarding any mean language, and put it aside. Look at the critique again in a few days with fresh, uninjured eyes, ignoring the venomous parts and looking for any kernels of truth. If there's anything you should learn for the future, use the information accordingly, and if not, let it go.

Make the Effort

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic says that low self-confidence only impedes your progress toward a goal if you don't want that goal badly enough. The lesson? Recognize how far away you are from your goal and be prepared to bridge that distance. If you want it -- whether "it" is a promotion, new project or desk near the window -- accept from the outset that you'll have to work hard.

What You Can Do: Break your goal into smaller steps. For instance, manageable steps in "get a promotion" could be something like:


  1. Write down all the contributions you've made to your employer

  2. Research positions and salaries in similar organizations

  3. Draw up a list of points to make with your request

  4. Schedule a meeting

  5. Get a great night's sleep the evening before!

Recognize the Contributions of Others

Even if you're not actively taking credit for someone else's work, everyone always appreciates being recognized for his or her achievements. Remember, putting down others (or simply declining to mention the role they've played in helping you) doesn't make anyone look good, in the workplace or elsewhere. If anything, giving credit where it's due will make you look good... as a team player.

What You Can Do: When you recognize the great job someone has done, compliment her. When someone else deserves the credit on a project, give it to them. Being gracious takes effort, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.

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