Confidence. A 'feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one's own abilities or qualities'.
Confidence is something that I have struggled with at work, particularly in the early stages of re-joining IBM as a graduate. My friends and family would not describe me as someone who lacks confidence. However, I can see a different story in some of my feedback development points:
“I would like to see Jasmine have more confidence in her abilities”
“I thought that she lacked confidence…needs to be a bit more assertive in her communication style”
And suggestions to: “trust her judgement and believe in her own ability” and “continue to grow her self-confidence”.
It’s been an aspect that I’ve consciously worked on. More interestingly, I think working remotely has helped. In this post I want to be candid about where my lack of self-confidence comes from, how remote working unexpectedly seems to have helped, and some other lessons I’ve learnt along the way.
This bit is pretty easy to work out; this tweet sums it up nicely. In fact, I laughed, felt slightly attacked, and then proceeded to send it to quite a few of my friends who I knew felt the same. I have been very lucky and able to navigate life doing things I either enjoyed and/or was ‘naturally’ good at.
For my A-Levels, I really hated my final year, barely revising. At university, I enjoyed learning about data, but couldn’t grasp how to write data reports in the style my tutors wanted, so I avoided those modules in my last year. I was determined to get a First, even if that meant I got a BA instead of a BSc. I wanted to avoid a repeat of how I felt opening my A-Level results...on regional radio. One of the heads of my Sixth Form asked to me to do it as they thought I got my predicted grades – I hadn’t. It didn’t help that it felt like half of South West England knew I’d failed. My Mum was at the hairdressers that day and overheard everyone innocently chatting away about the ‘poor girl on the radio’ who didn’t get into university, and how terrible that must have all felt.
To be honest, I feel embarrassed when I’m not good at something straight away. And as that tweet says, I recognise that existential spiral when I’ve failed. I re-applied to a Politics degree where I already had the required grades, rather than having to redo my exams to get that A*A*A I needed for History. I convinced myself I better liked the look of the course content, but no doubt was driven by a complete lack of self-confidence and fear of failing (again). In hindsight, I made the right decision about Politics over History, but perhaps not for the right reasons.
There’s also the extra pressure I’ve felt to embrace failure (so many LinkedIn posts and leadership books) which has felt completely unnatural to me. Emotionally, I am extremely resilient, but if I can’t immediately understand the practical intricacies of something I’ve never seen before, I have to consciously push through until I do get it. Spotting and avoiding that abandonment trap has taken practice. As a child I remember not understanding fractions when I first saw them. I was so mortified and panicked; I never asked for help. Instead I copied whoever I was sat next to until years later when it clicked - I still remember the feeling of relief.
At work, I don’t as readily have the option to avoid things that I can’t excel at immediately, and it’s not healthy to do so.
So, what does Covid have to do with this?
A fear of doing things wrong at work often led me to ask a lot of questions. Clarification in itself is no bad thing, but I was looking for reassurance that my emails were worded correctly, that it was okay to go over and speak to the client, and that it was fine to go home even though it was past 6pm.
Whilst I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing for the benefit of my colleagues and clients, my uncertain and tentative approach didn’t instil a lot of confidence in others about what I could do. To avoid disappointing anyone, I would always undersell myself (so that if I was terrible, I’d already warned them), and then it would be a pleasant surprise when I was indeed capable. Although this was a great coping strategy, I was getting feedback on this approach and knew it would eventually hinder me.
Switching to working remotely ultimately forced me to get on with it. Whilst I could Slack my colleagues, it felt more of an inconvenience. No longer could I keep asking a ‘quick’ question to get reassurance (ironically as a people pleaser I was more worried about being a nuisance than I was anything else). It took some getting used to, but I was noticing I was a lot more comfortable to do a task, seek feedback and iterate, rather than asking so many questions beforehand, trying to get it perfect the first time.
Others have seen the potential in me, assigning me challenging work, knowing I was capable. It always felt uncomfortable at the time, but deliberately pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone has meant I no longer fear failure in the same way. I don’t seek copious amounts of reassurance that I can do that task, now having more self-belief before I've even started. If it’s tricky, I will first have a go on my own, and then ask someone for help if needed without a nagging feeling that support equals failure.
My confidence has also increased around modes of communication. I think it’s no secret that my generation are less comfortable with phone calls, but I know for some of my colleagues they prefer it. I don’t worry that I’m wasting their time – now working remotely it's often longer to try and solve a problem via message or email than it would be to pick up the phone and talk it through.
A permanent change?
I would definitely say so. There are of course times where I’m unsure about work, but it doesn’t feel as all-consuming. I don’t see it as such a personality flaw to not be good at something straight away – there’s a lot of satisfaction in achieving something because I couldn’t do it easily.
Despite receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback during my time as an Associate so far, I still don’t feel like I’m where I should be. It has been much harder building relationships with clients and colleagues working remotely, and I anticipate that’s an area of my confidence that I will get the chance to work on in the not-too-distant future.
The past 18 months have at times felt like a mission to undo a lifetime of fear about being bad at things, when being good at everything felt like such a fundamental part of my identity growing up. There’s still room to keep growing – I am trying not to put exclamation marks all over my emails to prove how nice I am, and I’ve removed 10 ‘just’s from this blog post upon revision as I don’t need to qualify everything I say.
Confidence is a complex feeling, but one that I’ve understood to be essential to my job and personal happiness. I expected to feel even more uncertain working remotely, but that’s not been the case. Some days I definitely live by the motto ‘fake it until you make it’, but more often than not I’m able to take a step back and recognise that I’m actually not doing too badly.