Female Leaders: 5 Exercises to Help Boost Your Self-Confidence (and Perform Better at Work As a Result)

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By Carrie Swift, founder of LovePublicSpeaking

The debates around gender equality in the workplace rage on, with issues like the gender pay gap and the #MeToo movement rightly taking centre stage. As a result, we’ve seen an explosion of discussions, events and training sessions around gender equality across all kinds of industries, and I have been privileged to lead a number of them, most recently at the Inspiring Women in Business conference.

What always strikes me the most at these kinds of events is how many bright and successful women in business are struggling to feel confident in their professional lives, and take the necessary risks to move their careers forward. On the one hand, this could be pinned on a number of external factors. There’s plenty of evidence to show that there’s an unconscious bias against women at work purely because of social stereotyping. To give just one example, if two identical CVs are presented to a recruiter (one with a male name, one with a female name), 70% of them will put the male candidate through versus just 49% for the female.

On the other hand, however, there are plenty of factors that clearly come from within. Imposter syndrome affects a great many of the female clients who come to me at LovePublicSpeaking, and its effects can be profound. In my experience, women generally tend to have much less faith in their abilities than their male counterparts, and they feel at a loss as to what they can do to turn their mindset around. In that vein, here are five exercises anyone can practice to help boost self-confidence, take greater risks and reap greater rewards in return.

1. “Know thyself”

First of all, go back to basics and focus on the values that matter most to you. Take a look at the table below, and choose the 4 values that resonate with you the most.  Remind yourself of them wherever you can – on post-its in your workplace, as stickies on your desktop, in ‘reminders’ on your phone. Check in with them daily, and try to live your life by them.

As they become a habitual feature of your everyday life, your values can become like the lighthouse that can guides you home as you move through choppy waters. If you’re unsure of the best course of action, remind yourself of those key beliefs, and let them guide your decision. That way, you’ll trust you’ve been true to yourself, have greater faith in your decision-making and see alignment across your work and your home life.

2. Manage your self-talk

What’s the running commentary that goes through your head day to day? Let me guess… the chances are, it’s not always the most supportive of narratives. And how do you back up that narrative? By seeking out evidence that reinforces the negative story you’re telling.

It’s time to change that story. Focus on one unhelpful phrase you tend to tell yourself (e.g. “I don’t think I have enough experience”), then come up with a counter-statement that turns it around (e.g. “I’m a fast learner – I’ll pick things up as I go”). See where you can find evidence to back up that counter-statement from previous experience, and begin rehearsing that narrative until it becomes your habitual way of thinking. The more you tell yourself how capable you are, the more confident you’ll become.  You can complete CBT exercises to change your thinking habits on our course Women in business: developing executive presence and leadership confidence.

3. Keep expanding your comfort zone

It’s easy to take up a cosy seat in the middle of your comfort zone, only to find yourself stuck while others around you get promoted. However it’s only by challenging yourself to expand that comfort zone and take more risks that’s you’ll advance your career.

Try this exercise – draw three circles, one inside another. Your circle at the centre is your tried and tested ‘comfort zone’, so think of what that means for you and add some notes in here on what feels comfortable e.g. “I’m happy taking part in a group discussion at work”.

Label the next circle out as your ‘challenge zone’ and think about what you’d find more challenging, e.g. “I’d find it challenging giving a presentation at a conference”.

Now label the outer circle as your ‘danger zone‘ and write down an even tougher challenge, e.g. “I find it very challenging representing my company on BBC news”.

Now go back to your ‘challenge’ zone, and pick 2 challenges to complete within the next 6 months.  Write them down, give yourself a deadline, and have someone hold you accountable to them.

4. Leave perfectionism behind

Perfectionism is arguably one of the least constructive traits a person can boast. Whilst a desire succeed is no bad thing in itself, perfectionism positively correlates with a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Often, rather than spurring us on to take risks, perfectionism does the precise opposite: it holds us back from pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone, taking risks and therefore bolstering our confidence.

Perfectionism traps us in a fixed mindset, rather than the growth mindset that’s described by psychologist Carol Dweck. A growth mindset works against the theory that our personalities, capabilities and our potential is fixed and immutable; rather, it advocates the idea that there’s always room to challenge yourself and grow.

Instead of pursuing perfection, therefore, it’s far more constructive to strive for self-acceptance. As the song goes, we’re “only human after all” and so there’s no such thing as failure – only feedback. Of course you want to push yourself to get better and better at what you do, but trust that it’s only by trying things out and making mistakes that you can learn and ultimately improve. In ‘GROW: Change your mindset, change your life a practical guide to thinking on purpose’, Jackie Beere sets out some straightforward, practical exercises you can try out to help you leave perfectionism behind.

5. Work on your body language

Believe it or not, you can trick your brain into feeling more confident by adopting a “power pose” (think Wonder Woman style).  Take some time to watch this fascinating TED talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy who explains how ‘power posing’ has a dramatic physiological impact on our mindset. By standing (or sitting) tall, relaxing your shoulders and keeping your upper body open, you immediately radiate that you’re more comfortable and confident. Body language can radically alter the way you feel inside as well as the way others perceive you on the outside.

So here are just five exercises you can practice in your quest to boost your self-confidence and challenge yourself to take risks. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so take a deep breath and go for it. You’ll be surprised at just how brilliant you can be.

Find out more about our course on Women in business: developing executive presence and leadership confidence and get in touch today.

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