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Self-confidence is often regarded as the key to career success. Countless self-help books riff on the theme of winning through self-belief. And the average Joe is often portrayed as hopelessly lacking in this essential skill.
But how true is this stereotype? How confident is the average American worker? Are we really all shrinking violets, desperately in need of a self-esteem boost so we can unlock our true potential?
To find out, we surveyed 1000 people to get to the bottom of their confidence levels at work. Read on to see how your self-assuredness, or lack thereof, compares.
We went into this endeavour expecting to find a notable lack of confidence from respondents. Numerous studies have reported a “confidence crisis” and even a “confidence gap” between the self-belief of men and women.
But we were pleasantly surprised.
Our own insights revealed workplaces brimming with confidence and less of a disparity between men and women than you might think. In fact, it’s fair to say that there’s a lot to be positive about when it comes to self-belief at work.
But we also found entrenched differences in responses between different generations and people with different educational backgrounds. So despite the mostly positive outlook, we’ve definitely identified areas where confidence in the workplace can be improved.
Overall, we aimed to find out all about workers’ confidence in themselves, their colleagues, and their interactions in the workplace. First up, our respondents’ view of themselves.
Crisis of Confidence?
Are we really facing a crisis of confidence? Popular culture would have us believe that millennials don’t know “how to adult” and that we’re facing crisis levels of low confidence and motivation.
One study revealed 79% of women and 62% of men experience a lack of confidence in the workplace. Another reported that a massive 93% of workers had experienced a drop in confidence due to incidents that happened at work.
But is it really as bad as all that?
Our own survey results were rather different. When it came to the most fundamental aspects of self-confidence, our respondents were overwhelmingly positive.
I know what you’re thinking, why ask something so shallow, what does personal appearance have to do with the workplace? The answer is it’s actually one of the most fundamental aspects of confidence in all facets of life.
Research has consistently revealed that there is a positive correlation between self-esteem and physical appearance. And self-esteem has a strong relationship with confidence and happiness. So this is fantastic news, and a counter-balance to some of the negative tropes that have entered popular culture.
What we did find notable though was a clear difference between the numbers of men and women lacking in self-confidence.
Both formal academic research and informal survey results alike have revealed a ‘confidence gap’ between men and women. And it’s certainly evident with our own results. Twice as many women as men reported that they don’t like their personal appearance.
And with the effect that has on self-esteem and confidence, this will continue to negatively impact women in the workplace. Thankfully though the gap between men and women in those who do have confidence in their looks is relatively small.
Another interesting takeaway was the effect of education on confidence in personal appearance. Higher education in our respondents was linked with higher confidence.
Digging deeper, we then asked our respondents about their awareness of their own strengths.
Another crucial part of the confidence equation is to recognise our own abilities. Knowing where our skills and strengths are weighted helps us best target our efforts at work. It also makes for effective skills gap analysis in identifying areas for growth and improvement.
And in another positive finding, the gender gap here was considerably narrower.
So it appears that we genuinely are confident in and capable of recognising our strengths.
That said, having awareness of your strengths is one thing but how about honest assessment of your weaknesses? Next, we asked our respondents how they viewed critical feedback.
The flip side of recognising your own strengths is being able to acknowledge your weaknesses. That becomes even more important when the criticism comes from others. Constructive feedback is consistently cited as being essential for growth and development. But how willing are we to accept it in reality?
But here’s where it gets interesting. The dreaded gender gap once again came into play. With women being significantly less likely to consider criticism useful.
But don’t leap to any conclusions about the way men and women react to feedback. Other research has shown that women are “systematically less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes.” In other words, the feedback they’re given is qualitatively less useful in terms of identifying areas for improvement than the feedback given to men.
And our own findings seem to back this, there’s no doubt that if feedback is less actionable that it’ll be considered less useful. What’s more, we also smashed a stereotype about entitled and overconfident younger workers.
Receiving criticism with grace is one thing, but we also wanted to see how confident workers are in seeking the knowledge to improve once their weaknesses have been identified.
Knowledge is Power
How confident are you in actively seeking out new skills at work? After you’ve identified your strengths and weaknesses and taken criticism on board, then the next logical step is to take action to improve. So we asked our respondents whether they actively seek out opportunities to learn new skills.
So overall, it seems people are pretty keen learners. But once again the education gap came into play, with more highly educated respondents being the most eager to kick their knowledge up a notch.
We felt this disparity could be attributed to the nature of the work carried out. Workers with lower levels of education tend to be employed in lower-paid lower skilled jobs. These roles in turn have fewer options for promotion and growth and therefore create less impetus to learn new things.
Higher skilled jobs on the other hand offer more opportunities for learning, encouraging personal development and creating a positive feedback loop of growth.
Ultimately though, confidence in the workplace can’t just be measured by our trust in ourselves. No man is an island, and our confidence and trust in our coworkers and superiors is just as important.
You Have My Full Confidence
Confidence in our coworkers and superiors builds trust and a sense of teamwork. It’s undeniably a fundamental building block of a successful and profitable business. First up, let’s take a look at the big one.
Who’s the Boss?
Do workers have confidence in their boss or are they stuck with a Michael Scott type nightmare?
So it seems for the majority of people, the stereotype of the boss you love to hate just isn’t true. But once again, educational attainment was a clear differentiator in responses.
And in some ways this came as no surprise. Again, workers with less education tend to be found in lower-paid jobs. Evidence would suggest that the problem of abusive bosses is a particular burden on lower-paid workers in non-managerial roles. No wonder then that trust levels would be lower.
We then asked if people would be confident to go to their boss when facing difficulties at work, without feeling the need to cover up their mistakes. Once again, it was good news.
Next we took a look at meeting the expectations of your boss or manager.
And with this question, age was a crucial defining factor in how respondents answered.
So it seems for younger workers that they bear the weight of expectation more heavily. It’s interesting to note that another survey revealed 74 percent of millennials frequently felt “left in the dark” about how their managers feel they’re performing. So perhaps this is a case of expectations not being clearly communicated in the first place.
Having confidence in your boss is one thing, but it’s also important to have confidence in your colleagues. Trust in their abilities but also confidence in them in the sense of someone to confide in. Support and camaraderie from your fellow workers certainly helps to sugar coat the sometimes bitter pill of working life.
Take One for the Team
It seems we’re definitely a nation of team players.
And this sentiment was universal, there was no significant split when taking into account age, gender or education.
Next we looked at how confident people are in their co-workers' competence at work. Trust in their professional abilities.
So we really do have faith in each other’s abilities, and there were no notable demographic differences here either.
Finally, we took a look at how people felt about confiding in their coworkers when facing difficulties at work without feeling the need to cover up their mistakes.
So the trust is there and the bonds of teamwork are alive and kicking in the modern American workplace. And that’s brilliant news both for the happiness of workers and the balance sheet of their employers. Effective teamwork has been shown to have a positive correlation with organisational performance.
We also ran a deeper analysis of our own data to see if we could discover our own correlations. Here’s what we found.
Without boring you with the math too much, we ran a statistical analysis on all the questions we asked. And this revealed a few interesting correlations.
People who agreed that they trusted their boss were more likely to feel comfortable going to their boss when they faced difficulties. This makes perfect sense because it’s that very trust that gives workers the confidence to have open conversations with their manager.
And it also appears that trust in your coworkers begets trust in your manager and vice versa. We discovered a strong correlation between respondents trusting their colleagues and also trusting their bosses. So it appears that the circle of trust goes both ways.
The third, and perhaps the most interesting correlation we discovered, was a link between self-esteem levels and trust in your boss and colleagues. Higher belief in yourself seems to translate to higher belief in the people you work with, and the converse is also true.
Evidence would suggest having lower self-esteem and lower trust levels could form part of a vicious circle at work. Bad management and high pressure environments can batter an employee’s self-esteem. Low self-esteem itself is proven to have a negative impact on the way we interact with others. This then magnifies work issues further and it’s been shown that employees with low self-esteem have a negative impact on the workplace.
In fact, our own research into management in a separate survey revealed that 70% of respondents experienced apathy as a result of having a bad boss. Apathy is intrinsically linked with low self-esteem so it seems clear that poor management techniques feed into this problem.
That means it’s essential that trust is maintained through positive relationships and effective management to avoid this cycle becoming entrenched. Not just for personal well-being, but for business performance too.
We went into this exercise expecting much more in the way of negative results, but instead found that upwards of 7 out of 10 respondents had trust and confidence in various workplace scenarios.
What was notable was the small but clear gap in personal confidence and responding to criticism between men and women. But surprisingly, this was eclipsed by the differences in other areas caused by age and educational attainment.
We’d suggest that companies need to focus more on what can be done to build trust and confidence in lower-paid workers and how to adapt to the expectations of different generations.
And although trust was high overall, there was still a small but statistically significant minority who were lacking in trust in the workplace. To maximise their success, organisations need to examine how to bring these workers on board too. Trust can be truly transformational.
As the great American educator and author Steven Covey said:
Trust is the one thing that affects everything else you're doing. It's a performance multiplier which takes your trajectory upwards, for every activity you engage in, from strategy to execution.
Methodology and Limitations
To collect the data shown above, we conducted a survey of 973 respondents who were employed full or part time. Respondents were asked a number of questions relating to confidence and trust in the workplace and asked to respond to statements with the answers agree, neutral and disagree.
Because the survey relies on self-reporting, issues such as telescoping and exaggeration can influence responses. An attention-check question was included in the survey to make sure respondents did not randomly answer.
Fair Use Statement
Please feel free to share our findings. The graphics and content in this article are freely available for noncommercial reuse. All we ask in return is to link back to this page to give the authors credit. You’ll have our full confidence if you do.
- A Social Influence Analysis of Perceived Organisational Support
- Confidence at Work: Why Employers Should Nurture This Soft Skill.
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