The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
Can you stay true to who you are without sacrificing your success? Absolutely YES.
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Building Confidence

Confidence and Intimidation:
You Can't Have One Without The Other

Every confident and successful business person has 
felt intimidated at some point in their career.   
How do you think they got so confident?

I remember the first time I was intimidated in the workplace. I was fresh out of school and completely confident in my capabilities. Why wouldn't I be? I learned very quickly... that I had a LOT to learn. My first research paper as an analyst was brilliant. Or so I thought. I got called into the president's office at my firm for a review. I was so excited; it was my first big project.  She handed me what I could only assume was my research report. I couldn't actually see the print underneath her myriad of comments, scribbles, and notes in bright, flaming red ink. I almost stopped breathing. I was stunned. As we went through the feedback, all I could hear was a loud and clear message that I had failed. I wasn't sure how to respond, but I was shaken to the core. (I'll come back to this story and share my learnings in a moment.)

The reality for most of us, if we're lucky, is that we'll have the opportunity to work with extremely talented people in our careers. We'll interact with people who seem better, faster, and smarter than we are. We may not feel particularly lucky in the moment, but there's so much to be gained from surrounding ourselves with people who are confident... and intimidating. The trick is not allowing people or situations to intimidate us, but rather help our confidence grow with every encounter.

What do you do when you find yourself intimidated by a person or situation? 
How do you build your own sense of confidence over time? 
How do you fake it until you make it, for quick gains in your career?
For the record:
I believe that nothing is more important to your success in business than confidence.

I sat in stunned silence from the (in my words) horrible feedback session with the firm president. And then I heard the following words: "Good job. When can you have a revised draft?" I don't think I asked her to repeat it in that moment, but I'm pretty sure I was expecting to hear "You're fired." I learned a few really important lessons that day, not the least of which is that constructive feedback shouldn't shake your confidence. Feedback builds your confidence, if you allow it, with every bit of knowledge you gain.

I found out after the fact that I was chosen for a tough assignment because the company wanted to mentor me and help me grow. They had confidence in my ability to contribute. What I took as a vote of no-confidence in me (red-lined feedback) was actually an investment because they had confidence in me. Turns out, I just didn't have confidence in myself the moment I felt judged.  Big lesson. I've learned many more lessons about confidence in the years to follow. Almost everything I've learned about confidence in the workplace applies to life outside of work as well. Today, I'll share some of my best lessons with you.

Understand what intimidates you.

It's really easy for someone to say, "Don't be intimidated." It's another thing altogether to actually not be intimidated, in intimidating circumstances. Developing confidence starts with understanding what intimidates you in the first place. There's a business concept referred to as "FUD", which stands for fear, uncertainty and doubt. Understanding what it is specifically that you find intimidating is the first step toward overcoming your fear, uncertainty and doubt to build your confidence.

Ask yourself why a certain person or situation is intimidating. Are your peers intelligent and you're worried they won't judge you equally so? Is someone known for grand-standing and embarrassing other people, and you're concerned they'll choose you as their target? Are you in a situation where you should know something, and you don't?  Are you nervous in group settings, uncertain about speaking up? Are you worried you'll be judged for making poor decisions or making bad choices? Are you feeling over your head in your current position?  Is your perspective different than others around you, and you worry you'll be ostracized if you speak up? Are you so impressed with a co-worker that you feel inadequate in every way by comparison? Are you simply shy and introverted?

Armed with this insight, you can start to develop your game-plan to overcome intimidation. I encourage you to be very honest with yourself about this topic. If you don't understand what causes your confidence to wane, you won't be able to regain it. Conquering the FUD factor is essential.

Build your confidence, one step at a time.

Many people believe you're either born with confidence or you're not. It's simply not true. You build confidence over time, often by putting yourself in situations where you feel uncomfortable and intimidated by others. For that reason, your confidence needs to be built on a strong foundation. Confidence by definition is a belief in yourself and your capabilities. Let's talk about a few ways you can build your confidence.  
1.  Really understand your talents. 
When I say talents, I don't mean the strengths and competencies you'd necessarily talk about in a job interview. I mean your real talents. Maybe you're great at coming up with creative ideas. Or maybe you're skilled at taking someone else's idea and making it better. You may have the ability to teach difficult tasks, or be particularly patient with clients. You may be the most logical one at any gathering. 
It may be that you relate well to others, and make people comfortable in uncomfortable circumstances. You may be someone who calmly supports others when they're in crisis, allowing them to settle down and solve a problem. Your talent may be humor, which is invaluable in the workplace when properly channeled. Any one of these talents can be enormously beneficial to others. Your unique combination of skills and talents is what serves as the strong foundation to build up your confidence. 
Whatever it is you're good at, think of all the ways you can use it in the workplace. This is your value at its core. When you feel capable and competent, you feel confident. Do what you're good at, even if it's secondary to your job responsibilities. Understanding your talents and putting yourself in situations to use them is key. Everyone brings their own magic to the table. Bring yours. Your confidence will grow exponentially.
2.  Always, and I mean always, be prepared.  
People are generally most intimidated when they feel they don't have anything valuable to contribute to a discussion. To feel confident, you have to prepare for situations you'll encounter. This is particularly true when you're in a new environment, on a new project, or in a new role. This is also true when you're interacting with a group of people for the first time.   
Before attending a meeting, think through the potential topics that may be discussed and ways you can provide value or insight. Know who else is attending and what may be on their mind. As you head into a meeting with your manager, be thoughtful about topics you want to discuss or specific thoughts you want to share. Think about what your boss will want to talk about; prepare yourself in advance. You may find yourself feeling unprepared on occasion due to surprises that come your way. It should be the exception. The more you get into a practice of preparation in your work (and your life) the more confident you'll feel in any situation. 
3.  Form opinions and share them.  Don't be a sissy.   
People uncomfortable expressing their opinions are easily intimidated by others. Often, people shy away from expressing opinions, particularly in a group setting, out of a fear of being judged. You're actually judged more harshly in most cases for not having an opinion. It can make you feel irrelevant in a conversation.  That doesn't do much for your confidence. At times, you won't care about a given topic, one way or the other. In those situations, state that you don't have an opinion and you look forward to hearing what others have to say. In most cases, however, form an opinion and be prepared to express it to others.
Be informed. Go through whatever process you naturally follow to inform yourself. Evaluate alternatives and come to a conclusion as to what you believe makes the most sense. It's important to share your opinion when asked. You should also consider volunteering your opinion even if you're not asked for it, as long as you feel you have a unique perspective.   
I offer a few don'ts in this category. Don't be a "yes-man" to your boss and agree with his or her opinion in all cases. Don't repeat what others have already said just to have something to say. And don't vacillate between opinions in the course of a few minutes. (A daisy blowing in the wind is always bad in the workplace.) It's perfectly fine to change your mind. Just do it from a position of having an original opinion, being newly informed, and adopting a new opinion based on new information.
Seek out strong and confident people.  Watch, listen and learn.

After my very memorable red-ink review, I wanted to run from the room and avoid the president of the firm as much as possible. My boss, Lisa (one of my all-time favorite bosses) coached me to a new perspective. People who you perceive to be smarter, faster and better than you - are good for you. They make you stronger and help you develop your skills and talents. I can now attest to this 100%. I've worked for some very smart and capable leaders. I've been lucky to learn from them, even while being terribly uncomfortable and intimidated at times. The more I learned, the more my confidence grew.

My challenge to you is this: Why would you want to play "down," and avoid being around people who can only make you better? Don't let your discomfort or feelings of intimidation keep you from engaging with confident people. Even if you don't like someone, you can learn from them and grow more confident from your interactions. Watch, listen, and learn.  Identify what makes others confident and see if you can adopt some of their traits as your own. What you admire about the confidence of others, you can likely do yourself, with practice.

Shine in your talent.

One thing I know to be true is that everyone has a unique combination of skills and talents. Everyone is good at something. We always tend to want what we don't have. You likely admire traits and talents in others that you find lacking in yourself. Other people may admire strengths in you that you discount because they come so easily to you. The people we tend to hold in high regard are those that shine confidently in their talent. The ability to use your talent is is the sweet spot of contribution in any organization and the fastest path to confidence.

One of the most brilliant and innovative leaders I worked with was also somewhat socially challenged. My people skills were a great balancing factor as we worked side-by-side. We were each more successful because of the other. We leveraged our common ground and then brought our unique talents to the table. Seek out ways to use your talent in the workplace. Recognize how your value adds to the overall mix and don't be afraid to show confidence in your area of strength. Shine in your talent. It is only through the use of your talent that you can develop sustained confidence in the workplace.

Fake it until you make it?  Only to a degree.

You often hear people use the expression "Fake it until you make it." I offer two perspectives on this with regard to confidence in the workplace. First, I think it's probably best to admit when you're lacking a degree of confidence associated with something new or different you've been asked to do. When you show confidence in your ability to learn, but acknowledge that something is new and challenging for you, you come across as strong. Faking an overly confident stance with regard to all the details can hurt you. Show a strong willingness to learn and invest the time needed to do a good job. It trumps confidence in most cases.

Second, I think a big part of being confident is acting with confidence. You've heard people say that if you smile you'll start to feel happier. This is a similar concept. There are certain characteristics and behaviors that most people associate with confident people.  You can begin to demonstrate them, even if it's a push for you initially. Trying to demonstrate confidence when you don't necessarily feel it can be tough. I highly recommend you try anyway. These characteristics are valued and rewarded in almost any setting or environment. The better you get at them, the more confident you'll appear and the more confident you'll actually be over time. Below are my top recommendations to help you show confidence in the workplace.
Some Do's:  Stand tall and straight. Make eye contact and say hello when you walk past people. Look at people when you talk to them. Ask questions, offer opinions, and engage actively in discussions. Speak clearly, concisely, and with volume. (See notes on preparation earlier in this post.) Maintain composure even when the world around you is crazy. Be approachable, sincere, and gracious in your interactions with others. Don't lose your sense of humor, even under pressure.
Some Don'ts:  Don't be tentative in your discussions, decisions, or actions. Don't mumble, ever. Avoid being indecisive. Don't tear down another to increase your own confidence; others will see through it. Don't ridicule others when they speak up and share opinions. Don't demonstrate arrogance; it erodes others' perceptions of your confidence over time. 

I'll say again that, in my opinion, nothing is more influential to your success in business than confidence. People want to associate with self-assured and confident co-workers. Everyone will be intimidated at times during their career, feeling inadequate in comparison to others. You can improve your confidence with a change in your perspective. Any effort invested here pays off.

Don't shy away from people or situations you find intimidating. Experience them, understand them, and work hard to gain confidence from them. Be thoughtful about your talents and find every possible opportunity to use them. This is the key to sustained confidence in the workplace.

Always invest time in preparation for important discussions and meetings. Form opinions and don't be afraid to express them. As you work to build your confidence over time, adopt the characteristics and behaviors of confident people. You'll be surprised how quickly your own confidence grows.

On a personal note:  
Sometimes intimidation doesn't fade, even as your confidence grows, and it's perfectly fine. The president of my research firm, who inspired my early lessons here, will always intimidate me a bit. I'm okay with that. This year, she was appointed by President Obama to serve on the Board of Directors for the bank that governs financing of the export of US products to international markets. She's so impressive all these years later. I can say with full confidence, that I will always let Patricia Loui intimidate me just a little bit. She's earned the right. I hope you're able to find your confidence, but always temper it with a touch of sustained intimidation for those who are worthy of it.

My final thought on confidence?  Shine. Let impressive and confident people inspire you... so you can go on to inspire others.

More soon,

Next week's topic:  Surviving Enemies. What do you do when someone intentionally tries to intimidate you, discredit your accomplishments, or damage your reputation?  Check back next week to hear my thoughts and share yours too.