Are you a victim of the Confidence Con? Most of us cannot gauge accurately how nervous others really are

You’re unlikely to be caught out hiding your nerves behind a smile
Think about the stereotype of someone who works in the City. Most people come up with a person who is clever, ambitious and confident – perhaps to the point of cockiness.
So would you be surprised if I told you that a large proportion of your colleagues may actually be a good deal less confident than they seem?
As a coach and leadership development consultant, I work with investment and retail bankers, lawyers and accountants, business development and marketing folk.
And one of the most common questions I get asked is about confidence.


Surveys confirm that people are generally less confident than they seem.
A recent study conducted by the Tuck School of Business, for example, asked people to guess the extent to which their friends experienced negative emotions such as sadness and anxiety.
The researchers then asked their friends to report how sad and anxious they actually felt.
The results showed a clear disconnect between the two groups. People tended to underestimate their friends’ negative emotions by nearly 20 per cent.
Putting it another way, even people we know reasonably well are almost 20 per cent more anxious and less confident than we think they are.
In technical parlance, this is known as “pluralistic emotional ignorance”: we simply aren’t aware of how those around us really feel.


I call this the Confidence Con: we see friends and colleagues displaying confidence publicly, so we assume that they must feel confident privately – and that we must be the only ones who feel less so. The appearance of confidence on the outside deceives us into believing that other people must be confident on the inside.
But research tells us that’s simply not the case. Many high achievers appear unruffled on the surface while being shredded by nerves underneath.
I work hard to disabuse clients of the confidence con because it can be isolating and disempowering.
If you worry about speaking in public, selling to clients, pitching or other high-stakes situations, it can sometimes feel very lonely when everybody else seems so much more confident than you.


The flip side of the confidence con – and the good news – is that your true feelings are probably less apparent than you think.
When you feel nervous, you may notice your heart pounding in your chest. You might worry how dry your throat feels.
You also have a whirl of negative thoughts and self-doubts bouncing around in your head. But remember that your colleagues and clients can’t see how fast your heart is racing; they can’t see how tight your throat may feel.
No one can see the content of your thoughts, no matter how negative they may be. Putting it another way, you are less transparent than you think you are. For the most part, your inner turmoil is far less visible than you think.
Many clients say that understanding the confidence con is liberating. The knowledge that other people don’t feel as confident as they look means that, if you ever feel worried or anxious, you’re likely in good company.
Furthermore, an appreciation that your own tumultuous feelings are less evident to the rest of the world may help you to relax more. People can’t see exactly how you feel.
And even if they have got a whiff of it, they’ll be underestimating the impact. So just get on with things and pretend you’re confident – just like so many other people do.
Dr Rob Yeung is a director at leadership consulting firm Talentspace and author of How To Stand Out: Proven Tactics For Getting Noticed (Capstone).

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