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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Surprising Secrets to Unshakeable Confidence

Act As Though You Expect the Best

Imagine two people of equal skill applying for a job. Would you pick the person who is less confident? Ever? Quite simply, a positive sense of self can transform your life.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, PhD, author of the bestselling book Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End, has honed the definition down to its essence:

"Confidence is the expectation of a positive outcome," says Kanter. A professor at Harvard Business School, Kanter helps translate textbook concepts about success and attitude into practical results. "The fact is," she says, "confidence makes you willing to try harder and attracts the kind of support from others that makes 'winning' possible."

In marriage, it makes you more capable of hearing the feelings and criticisms your partner really needs you to hear. In the business world, confidence bridges the chasm between the person who'll ask for and receive a raise, and the employee who accepts the status quo; between the salesperson who gets bummed out by rejection and stops cold-calling, and the one who forges ahead and scores the mega sale.

If, like most people, your confidence could use a boost, here are strategies on how to develop it quickly -- and keep it working for you the rest of your life.

1. The toes and shoulders test
Remember how Eliza Doolittle was transformed from a lowly flower seller into a confident grande dame in My Fair Lady? In the 1960s, Harvard researcher Robert Rosenthal studied how you can make people succeed simply by labeling them "successful." Students were randomly assigned to two groups, "high-potentials" and "low-potentials." Those singled out as more successful ... were.

Even a hint of praise or scorn can affect our performance. A recent study, published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, demonstrated how powerful a few words can be.

Forty competitive tennis players were shown digital images of balls coming their way. Just before each ball appeared, the players saw or heard comments like "Good shot" or "Bad shot." The reaction times of players hearing negative remarks were measurably slower. And these were athletes who trained frequently to play a consistent game and not make unforced errors.

What's the explanation? Negative feedback undermines anyone's belief in his or her ability to succeed. But if you can hold on to a winning attitude, you'll make a greater effort and also create positive momentum. Confident people inspire others; opportunities seem to come their way more often. They become magnets for success.

At the most basic level of daily activity, confidence shows itself in body language, demeanor and in one's surroundings. Chris Wallace, general manager of the Boston Celtics, used the "toes and shoulders test" to see if pro basketball players were likely to win. He looked at whether players were sticking close to the ground or were up on their toes; whether their shoulders were sagging or they were standing tall -- all to determine if they were really fully focused on the game.

Your body language and attitude send signals. Often the first thing Kanter suggests executives do to boost morale in a business that's failing is to refurbish the workplace. It's one more way of labeling yourself successful. Harvard Business School, where Kanter teaches, is not beautiful by accident: "The surroundings inspire people to live up to high standards," she says. "And don't assume that treating yourself to a good haircut or a stylish suit is frivolous, either," Kanter adds. "You don't do those things to dazzle someone, but to build confidence in advance of victory."

Be Your Own Coach and Take Charge

2. Practice, practice, practice
"Learn the importance of giving yourself pep talks, and keep the voice in your head positive," says Kanter. "I've observed this in athletes, who talk to themselves before and during competition. The best athletes' success is rarely due to raw talent alone. It's because they're simply better prepared." They stay focused, they're willing to work as hard as they need to, and they keep the positive voice in their heads switched on.

"If I'm going into a meeting feeling rotten -- because I have a cold or have had a tough day," says Kanter, "I make a deliberate effort to not let my bad mood show. I smile and work harder than usual to act positive. Similarly, if you are having trouble finding confidence in one area of your life, another way to 'coach' yourself is to create confidence in a different area and leverage it. If you walk into a situation smiling because of satisfaction you've gotten elsewhere -- even something that's as simple as a book club you've joined -- you are more likely to provoke a positive response," Kanter comments. "There's evidence that these feelings are contagious."

Perhaps the most important aspect of being your own coach is to do what any outside adviser -- or a good parent, for that matter -- would preach: practice, practice, practice. Even though Kanter has been a top-gun consultant for years, she admits that she still "almost always over-prepares for lectures," and suggests that others do the same. Recently she traveled to India to consult with a group of executives. "I had to leave two days early in order to arrive on time," she says. "Practically all I did for those two days was rehearse. When the flight attendants on the plane spoke to me, I literally didn't hear them. Whenever I travel for business, I work on the plane, and try to avoid chatting with those around me."

3. Flying without spoons
Avoid individuals who suck your energy and diminish your confidence. You know who they are: Steer clear of them. Hang out with the people who see you at your best, and remind you about it every so often. Pessimists drag you down, as do whiners and critics.

At work especially, stay away from gripe sessions. "If there are legitimate concerns, you should express them, but make it a rule not to complain unless you all agree to try to solve problems," says Kanter. "Confident people have the sense that they are in control, and can take action that will make things happen.

"I love a story from Continental Airlines," Kanter adds, "where the boss wanted each employee to help reach the goal of making sure the planes took off on time. One day a flight attendant noticed that they were delayed because the catering department hadn't provided spoons. She took it upon herself to say, 'Okay, we're going to fly anyway, and I'll explain it to the passengers.' It's a small thing that was big: She showed she had the confidence to be in charge because she knew she was surrounded by people who would support her."

Practice an "In Charge" Attitude
4. The angry e-mail file
If there's one winning behavior that people building confidence should model, Kanter emphasizes, it's the willingness to get back into the game after a setback. "Don't whine or nurse your wounds," she says. Yes, you've heard it before, and, yes, you need to get in there and try again.

There are, however, important caveats. Panicking can compound a small misstep by causing you to lose your head and forget to think clearly. "If you suffer a terrible loss, give yourself time to absorb the blow," Kanter stresses. "Don't deny the hurt or try to solve the problem immediately. Gather your support system around you and simply get nurtured. This is what I did when I lost both of my parents within a few years of one another. We were very close, and I missed them terribly. I made a point of reaching out to friends -- I called people and asked if we could go for a walk, or if I could come to dinner. Sitting around and thinking about your loss is the worst thing you can do to solve your problem."

Panic following a stressful situation may cause you to seek an instant -- and often wrong -- solution. "Write the angry e-mail -- but don't send it in the cold light of day," says Kanter. "If you are feeling panicked, it is not the moment to spring into action, because you'll be too emotional. I've seen this in sports, where athletes forget to do what they know well and start making stupid mistakes." Your basic rule of thumb: Panic makes a small fumble worse.

5. Let the Confidence Games begin
When Kanter advises executives, she stresses the importance of recognition and praise: "Bosses who have both big plans and the human touch, who walk through corridors acknowledging and complimenting people, can make a huge difference in the confidence level -- and in the success of their companies."

The recognition itself does not need to be a big deal, but it does need to be genuine. When Tom McCraw coached for the Houston Astros, he offered a $100 reward to the player who drove in the winning run. "Guys making million-dollar salaries chased me around after the game for that money," he said. The cash itself wasn't the point: It was the recognition of the contribution. Continental Airlines found success with the same practice. One year, they offered a $65 bonus to all employees if Continental managed to score in the top four airlines in on-time arrivals. The results speak for themselves. The airline's performance went from seventh place to first -- and some $2.5 million in bonus checks were distributed to Continental employees.

"Find the strength in somebody else, and tell them how you feel about them," says Kanter. "Be specific in sharing with people what they've done that pleases you. Even in marriage, husbands and wives often don't know what their partner really likes about them. My husband is extremely cheerful, especially in the morning. I tell him how much it means to me that he wakes up happy, when I may not feel that way. It's a small thing, but after 33 years we have a very close, solid marriage."

Unfortunately, in the workplace especially, not everyone gets the praise they need to feel confident. Kanter suggests the reason may be that your boss is getting no recognition from his or her boss: "People who don't have anything to feel good about can become petty simply to prove how important they are." If you get stuck working for someone like this, it can sap your confidence. You may start thinking you're a loser. If that happens, find a situation in which you can win. Look for another job, get together with co-workers to try to change things, or put your efforts into something outside of work."

6. Remember Kanter's Law: Everything can look like a failure in the middle
Winning is often the result of persistence, of not giving up when your goal appears to be in jeopardy. "When you adopt the attitude that if you do something it will make a difference, that's confidence," she says. "Look at your situation and think of yourself as being in the middle of it. The story is rarely over, even when the great majority think it is -- something every sports fans knows."

Kicker Adam Vinatieri helped the New England Patriots defeat the Miami Dolphins 27-24 on December 29, 2002, when he kicked a 42-yard field goal in the final seconds, after many spectators had already gotten up from their seats to make their way out of the stadium. This event got fans saying, "It's not over until Vinatieri kicks." Sure enough, in the 2004 Super Bowl, Vinatieri kicked the game-winning points for the Pats in the final few seconds.

Certainly, there will still be moments and situations that just aren't going to go your way, and this is the time when confidence needs to be tempered by realism. If you believe in yourself so strongly that you act rashly, confidence can actually make you "stupid." So handle it with care -- and use your new confidence wisely.

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