How confidence can transform your life at work

he key to success is confidence, say career coaches Alice Olins and Phanella Mayall Fine, even if you have to FAKE it. Here’s how… 

When tennis star Billie Jean King accepted a challenge to play the former male world number one Bobby Riggs in 1973, she took a step into the unknown. Not only was she about to take on a bigger and stronger opponent, she was also up against his atrocious opinion of women: ‘Number one, the woman should stay in the bedroom. Number two, they should get to the kitchen. Number three, they should support the man.’ It took confidence to even walk out on to the court that day and she won in three straight sets. ‘I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,’ Billie later said.

We aren’t born confident – it’s something that evolves, a fluid attitude that influences how we shape our lives. At work, confidence is crucial; often the missing link between our hopes and our achievements. It is the cornerstone on which we build our careers. Confidence isn’t just feeling good and walking into work with a spring in your step; it is multifaceted. When you do not believe that you are important, able and worthy, you marginalise your chances of success.

Because of the way most women’s minds work (active, analytical, self-critical), we tend to talk ourselves down. We over-think, we allow weakness to creep in and infect our minds, and then we stop taking risks or speaking up at meetings.

Confidence can be tricky for men, too – we all suffer from insecurities – but men don’t doubt themselves so persistently and are less likely to let it affect their work. Like peacocks, they can put on a good show – they make us believe they are great at their jobs – but the reality is that their confidence is often just shimmer and bravado.

Confidence is a state of mind. Here are our top ten steps for manufacturing it…


Even Academy Award-winning actresses are not immune to imposter syndrome. ‘I thought everybody would find out and they’d take the Oscar back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, “Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep,”’ said Jodie Foster. Lots of successful women who earn big bucks and wear slinky dresses feel like frauds in their jobs and that it is only a question of time before they are found out.

We all have that little devil in our heads. It is how comfortable you make that devil feel that will determine how destructive she is allowed to be. Women tend to combat these feelings of fraudulence by grafting really hard. To some extent this strategy can pay off. ‘As a woman, you need confidence,’ said architect Zaha Hadid. ‘So I believe in hard work; it gives you that layer of confidence. In the early years we worked all night to establish ourselves.’

But hard work alone – and in particular over-work: putting in endless hours and keeping your head down – won’t rid most of us of that sense of being an imposter. In fact, it might make things worse. You graft, you don’t get ahead and you end up feeling dispirited.

We say, rock the boat. Take hold of your career with both hands and be proud of your opinion. When you become a stronger, more powerful you, you will more easily accept that you haven’t got to where you are today by luck. You are not a fraud. You have secured your own success.


When people feel confident they exhibit lots of clues – both verbal and nonverbal – that give off an air of control, contentment and aplomb. Once we start acting fearlessly, the negative beliefs we hold about ourselves begin to wane. Our body language becomes more expansive, we intervene earlier in conversations and we work with a calmer, more relaxed attitude. Even faking confidence can make us feel more self-assured.

If that seems like a charade, that’s OK. In time, these acts of self-confidence, such as speaking up at meetings or pitching an idea to your boss, will become self-fulfilling.


However nice it feels, praise can be a cunning swine that panders to our insecurities. It is a short-term high – that shot of tequila at the end of a very long night. Most of us get hooked on praise in childhood with comments such as, ‘Isn’t she lovely?’ and, ‘What a clever girl.’ When we receive buckets of praise (misplaced or genuine), it can fuel our cravings later in life.

It isn’t so much the receiving of praise that’s the problem, but the act of seeking it out. Praise holds us back because it’s addictive. When we work in a way that does not require immediate approval, we become self-sufficient and that breeds confidence.

It is a similar story with criticism. Don’t see criticism as a put-down – think of it as a valid call to improvement. ‘If you just set out to be liked,’ said Margaret Thatcher, ‘you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.’

When praise or criticism arrives, try asking: who gave it to me? What is its purpose? Why do I need it? Praise may well be genuine, but it’s just as likely to be used as a social mechanism or a means of control. And with criticism, we know that the stuff that really sticks and hurts relates to insecurities we already hold about ourselves, whether that’s regards to our intelligence, gravitas or looks.


Whatever doesn’t break you makes you stronger – a cliché, but it’s true. Confidence can’t happen without failure. Risk is the springboard to failure and that requires confidence, but if you fail, you can learn from it. J K Rowling, in her Harvard commencement address, said: ‘It is impossible to live without failing, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case you fail by default.’

The best response to perceived failure is to ask yourself three questions: what did I learn from this situation? How can I grow as a person from this experience? What are three positives about this situation?


Perfectionism is the enemy. It makes us risk averse, kills our confidence and congests the channels of production. Humans are imperfect. Millionaire authors are imperfect. Even masters of sport, the arts, music and business make mistakes or get rejected. If you want to get to the top of Mount Confidence, you are going to have to tame that perfectionist voice – because when we lower our self-imposed expectations, we can set ourselves free.


When the words ‘assertive’, ‘woman’ and ‘work’ are used in the same sentence, the implication is often unfavourable. But don’t let that put you off. Being an assertive woman is not about being a tyrant, it is something more subtle. Assertive women stand up, absorb criticism and keep going. Assertive women drip with confidence. But assertive women aren’t always liked.

To make sure you keep everyone on side, massage in some of your natural female style, for women have a trump card: empathy. Use empathy to round the edges of the sharp tongue so that you can power forward. Don’t be daunted – assertiveness need not be a permanent state, it’s just a place you can advance to when needs be. Strong, assertive women take time to grow.


So much of confidence is control, which is why crediting luck rather than genuine know-how for our achievements is such a fatal mistake. When a woman bags a promotion, she rarely brags about it, perhaps believing – wrongly – that she just got lucky. A man, however, is more likely to attribute his success to skill. He earned his promotion – and guess what? That’s worth bragging about.

But your intelligence and aptitude, your don’t-give-a-damn resolve and your killer networking prowess are what got you where you are today. When you are able to accept and communicate these facts, your confidence – and your career – will glide elegantly forward.

To be able to truly accept your brilliance, it is worth taking a moment every week or month to step back and be objective about your recent achievements. Or try imagining how your best friend would describe your career trajectory (we’re pretty sure she wouldn’t say you’ve been lucky).


Gravitas infers authority. It isn’t about what you think or say, it’s about how you say it. Gravitas can present in many forms: poise under pressure, decisiveness, an indisputable power of persuasion. Happily, gravitas can also be an act. Caroline Goyder, a trained actress and ‘impact coach’, says the number-one gravitas blocker for many women is over-thinking, so – like an actor – you should deliver what you want to say without analysing it as you speak.

Caroline says: ‘Practise really listening to what’s being said when you are in a meeting, or to other speakers if you are waiting to make a presentation. The voice deteriorates when we are nervous, so I tell clients to get grounded before they have to present. Go for a run, do some yoga, breathe – take 15 minutes to get into your body. Don’t frantically check emails: multitasking is very anti-gravitas. We have all experienced the calm, grounded presence of extremely senior people, such as a FTSE 250 CEO who had a million things going on but, in meetings, was completely calm. She gave her full attention and that was powerful.’


The way you position your body will influence how confident you feel and how others perceive you. In her study on body language, social psychologist Amy Cuddy found that adopting a more powerful stance for two minutes (such as standing with your shoulders back, arms stretched out to the sides, chest raised) significantly increased testosterone (the dominance hormone) levels and lowered cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, and made the test subjects more attractive to prospective employers.


When we speak in a shrill voice, it suggests anxiety rather than confidence. The same goes for speaking quickly. We think our voices are stuck in their ways but we can train them into new habits. When we’re conscious about not just what we say but how we say it, we feed confidence. Try for a slow, even pace in the lower end of your register. A steady (pause) deliberate (pause) voice (pause) conveys total (pause) confidence. When we reduce the tempo we have more control over our voices. Speaking slowly relaxes the vocal chords. And turn the volume down: when you force people to strain to catch what you’re saying it encourages them to value your thoughts.

The cycle of confidence is self-perpetuating and powerful. The more you start doing and achieving, the more confident you will feel. At some point this week, try to push yourself out of your comfort zone: speak up in that meeting, be bold when it comes to new ideas, strike up a conversation with a stranger during rush hour. All too often our fears are heightened in our own minds and, as the broadcaster (and all-round success story) Kirsty Young says, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’

This is an edited extract from Step Up: Confidence, Success and Your Stellar Career in 10 Minutes a Day by Phanella Mayall Fine and Alice Olins, published by Vermilion.