In December of 1920, Amelia Earhart paid to go on her first plane ride. The experience lasted only ten minutes, but it changed the direction of her life: Amelia was determined to be a pilot. It didn’t matter to her that there were only a few women in the field of aviation. Through hard work and challenging conditions, she developed her skills. While other female pilots feared the long journey across the Transatlantic, Amelia’s gutsy determination led her to be first woman to fly it solo. The confidence she possessed was one of her greatest strengths and led her to set many records.
Amelia Earhart was not the only highly competent female pilot during that time in history. Although she was skilled, I don’t believe that is what caused her to be so successful. Rather it was her confidence, her willingness to go after the impossible, and her belief that she could do it. At Zenger Folkman we’ve found that confidence proves to be equally as valuable as competence because it leads to action, attention, and resilience—all traits exemplified during Amelia’s transatlantic flight.
Amelia Earhart’s accomplishments were especially noteworthy at the time, because of her achievements in what had been a male domain. Aviators were nearly all men. Gender differences in confidence are quite dramatic. A study done at Cornell University found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. In fact, their actual performance does not differ in quality or quantity.
This female confidence challenge was also described as the “imposter syndrome” by Pauline Claunce and Suzanne Imes. Women frequently express that they don’t feel they deserve their job and are “imposters” who could be found out at any moment. They found that women worry more about being disliked, appearing unattractive, outshining others, or grabbing too much attention.
Men are not exempt from doubting themselves—but they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do. A Hewlett Packard internal report found that men apply for a job or promotion when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. What doomed them was not their actual ability, but rather the decision not to try.
I wish there were definitive steps to build self-confidence and self-esteem, but I don’t think they exist. However, there are a number of things you can do that appear to be related to higher levels of confidence and self-esteem.
Mindset: It has been said that self-confidence is what you think about yourself, and self-esteem is what you think others think of you. To build self-confidence:
Focus on the strengths you possess and your achievements, rather than what you don’t do well. Guard carefully against negative self-talk.
Radiate optimism and general happiness. They bring life and vitality into conversations. Your outward behavior changes your inner feelings.
People are attracted to those who are perceived as “warm” and shy away from those who are perceived as “cold.” The self-confident person is usually described as being warm.
Dress and grooming: These are immediate and tangible signals to others about how you feel about yourself. Beyond that, they have been shown to make a difference in how someone feels about themselves. Bottom line, people feel more confident when they know they look nice.
Posture: Your posture has a strong impact on what you’re feeling inside.
Stand tall. Research has shown that when someone stands tall in a position of strength, their inner feelings begin to change.
Make and maintain eye contact with others. This conveys interest in others and confidence in yourself.
Facial expressions communicate important messages and need to be consistent with words being said. Some estimate that at least 80% of communication comes non-verbally, and facial expression conveys a great deal of information.
Overall manner: How you behave will transmit a feeling of confidence to others.
Walk briskly, conveying that they have somewhere important to go and something important to do.
Laugh with others and cause them to laugh. This does not necessarily come from telling jokes, but usually comes from pleasant banter regarding topics of mutual interest.
Speak up in meetings. They don’t sit quietly through discussions, but are an active participant.
Interact with many people when put into a large gathering rather than confining themselves to long conversations with two or three for an entire evening.
Initiate contact with others, not waiting for others to come to them. Confident people extend themselves to a much larger number of people than their less-confident counterparts.
Speech: What you say and how you say it transmits a great deal about your level of confidence. It also shapes how you feel about yourself. Confident people:
Project their voice, making them easily heard and understood.
Vary the pitch and tone of their voice. They make their conversation interesting by avoiding monotones and injecting variety.
Pause for emphasis—they are not afraid of moments of silence. Not filling every pause further conveys personal feelings of self-worth and confidence. Sometimes these pauses are used to gather time to think, take a deep breath, or refocus a discussion.
Use a rich vocabulary, enabling them to be vivid and pre They continue to develop a strong vocabulary, not to impress, but to help ideas come to life.
Colorful, visceral words make their communication memorable.
They avoid “non-words,” such as “er,” “umm,” and filler-phrases such as “you know.”
Communication practices: Confident individuals use communication practices that convey certainty with others while also making them feel more confident within themselves. For example, they:
Frequently ask questions of others, showing intense interest in what others say and in what they are doing.
Use metaphors, examples, and stories liberally. Communication comes alive with illustrations that make the abstract more concrete and theoretical ideas easily understood.
Use humor to make important points.
Confident people are often masters of self-deprecating humor. People of stature and accomplishment are the ones most willing to poke fun at themselves.
Express ideas respectfully, never with unnecessary confrontation. If their ideas differ from others, this is more likely to be expressed as, “I see this a little differently,” or, “Help me to understand your reasons for thinking…”
Amelia Earhart had the guts and gumption to take every opportunity even when she was unsure if she was competent enough to do it. No one knows everything, and most people—male and female—have moments of feeling they are imposters trying to prove their competence and worth. The good news is that for women and men, confidence keeps increasing over time.