05/21/2014 10:23 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

The Confidence Game: Is That Really All It Takes to Win in the Workplace?

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Adding to the growing canon of books offering advice to women in the workforce, best-selling authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman are back with The Confidence Code, their new book arguing that the reason men still predominate in corporate culture is that women lack confidence.

That's not just a premise or reality check; it's a bit of a gut punch. Reflexively, there's the urge to argue that a host of factors other than not having a bold stride or a big swagger keep women from achieving their full potential in the work place. But if we're honest with ourselves, we've seen it all too often: the woman who when presenting a really great idea undermines her credibility with qualifiers -- the "kindas" and "sortas" that raise doubts; or someone who doesn't make eye contact when presenting at a meeting or seems to disappear into herself when challenged.

A confidence gap might seem like an unbridgeable divide, but it doesn't need to be. Confidence isn't an innate talent; it's a skill that can be learned. And like all skills worth learning, it takes practice and effort. In business, confidence is required, but it can also be acquired.

Here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • You can't just think your way to confidence. We all remember the mantra of The Little Engine That Could: "I think I can, I think I can." But that's not how confidence works. Cameron Anderson, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley, has done extensive research into confidence. His findings show that confident people don't just think they're confident, they actually believe it. The science seems to show there isn't much power behind the "fake-it-till-you-make-it" approach. A better approach is to play to your strengths while recognizing and addressing any shortcomings. Recognizing your own limitations can allow you to set realistic goals and identify strategies that are most likely to lead to success.
  • Practice is critical. My job requires me to make a lot of speeches. People often say that they wish they could present with the same level of confidence. Well, it's not easy. I prepare -- a lot. Never walk into a situation where you need to be convincing without preparing. And get help -- rehearse in front of others so they can give you feedback before the live show.
  • Find someone to tell it to you straight. Find a "buddy" who is around you on a regular basis to give you immediate feedback when he or she sees you exhibiting greater or lesser levels of confidence. There is nothing more effective than walking out of a meeting and having someone tell you that you were looking at the table when presenting your ideas!
  • Confidence speaks loudly. Confidence isn't just a belief; it's something that's readily apparent to others. And that comes from really understanding what you're communicating and being passionate about the reason for your story or speech -- the why what you're saying is worth listening to. In his TEDTalk, "How Great Leaders Inspire Action," Simon Sinek stresses that "people don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it." He's right. Knowing what you want to communicate and believing deeply in the importance of persuading others to your point of view can make all the difference in the world.

While there may be a "confidence code," it's a code that clearly can be cracked. There's no foolproof formula, but we all -- women and men alike -- have within ourselves the means to improve our credibility and presence in the workplace.