Why Your Confidence Needs to Match Your Competence

Even if you produce amazing results at your job or in other areas of your life, others may still not see you as being competent if you lack the confidence to back it up. If you are good at your job, exuding confidence will ensure others also recognize your competence in your area of expertise. And research backs this up.

In a study from the early 1980s, psychologists Barry Schlenker and Mark Leary asked 48 real test subjects to rate the competence (among other things) of 60 fictional people who would either be taking part in a tennis tournament or a final examination for a class. The test subjects received both the fictional people’s predictions about how they would do (from very poor to very good) and the results of how they performed.

It turns out the test subjects rated the competence of the “people” who predicted they’d do well higher than the “people” who were more modest in their expectations — regardless of how well the fictional people ended up performing in the tournament or on the test. Even when the fictional people predicted they’d perform well and it was shown they did not, the test subjects still rated them as more competent than the other imaginary people who had predicted they’d do poorly.

“Confidence. If you have it, you can make anything look good. ” – Diane Von Furstenberg

A more recent study from 2017 that replicated the earlier one found the same results, showing that a healthy dose of confidence can help sway how people perceive your competence.

One possible explanation for why people may see you as more competent if you project more confidence is confidence bias, which is when people simply believe someone who exudes a large amount of confidence because they think someone who is confident about a subject must know what they’re talking about (even if they actually don’t).

Obviously you want to avoid conveying false confidence when you don’t actually know what you’re doing. Having the confidence, but not actually having the skills and experience to back it up is a dangerous combination. The following tips are not for cultivating a “fake it ‘til you make it” mindset. These tips are to help you convey the right amount of confidence in your skills and experience so others can pick up on your already existing competence.

1. Get feedback

Find someone you trust who can give you straightforward feedback about how you come across to others. (Perhaps a trusted work colleague or personal acquaintance who isn’t so close to you that they’ll hold back with their critique). Ask them to provide both positive feedback and make suggestions for how you can improve the way you convey confidence. For example, you might subconsciously rub the back of your neck when you’re explaining something, which could give off an air of doubt. Having someone point this out so you can stop doing this will be helpful.

2. Memorize some key information

The best way to convey competence is to be competent in something. Make sure you know as much as you can about the subject or job that you want to be seen as competent in. One way to make sure you not only know your subject, but can also speak confidently about it is to memorize some explanations that you have to give often or answers to questions you hear often (a sort of FAQ list in your mind).

Memorizing some boilerplate answers to some basic questions that you can rattle off almost without thinking will help you exude confidence because your answers won’t be filled with “ums” and “uhs” as you search for words. It’s like having a script in your mind that you can immediately call up when asked an FAQ about your area of expertise.

There has been much research about so-called “power poses” and various other body language that can help you convey confidence. Whether or not it’s true is a matter of discussion, but there are some basics you can rely on, like keeping good posture, keeping your hands in front of you, keeping hand movements to a minimum and maintaining some eye contact with the people you’re talking to.

If you’re absolutely sure about something you’re saying, then state it with an even tone of voice rather than allowing your voice to rise at the end, which will make it seem more like a question. Do some experimenting with your body language and tone of voice and see what works best for you.

“When you have confidence, you can do anything.” – Sloane Stevens

4. Use your successes

Retired professor of counseling at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley Meg Selig, has developed the “Small Successes Method” where you keep an updated list of three successes that you can be proud of having accomplished. They can be as big or small as you like. When your boss or a colleague asks you what’s new, you’ll have a ready answer instead of falling back on “nothing” or “not much” as we so often do when people ask us what is new or what’s going on. Having a ready answer to highlight a success will give you confidence boost. 

To sum up, the most important aspect of conveying competence is to actually be competent in your area of expertise and you shouldn’t try to “fake it until you make it.” If you are completely confident with your skills and experience, but others still have trouble seeing you as competent, try these four tips to help you exude more confidence, which will get people to see you as competent in your position. 


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