8 tips for confident communication when returning to work

This week’s guest blog is by Sophie Clark from Denison Clark

Communicating with confidence and impact
consistently in meetings, on conference calls and during presentations can be a
challenge when returning to work.  As a
workplace communication expert I help people to build their confidence, polish
their skills and avoid some the common pitfalls when speaking. I have put
together 8 tips and tricks to remind you how to communicate with greater impact
when returning to work.

Give
me time to think
Speaking too fast is a credibility
disaster. Pause. All the time. Break up what you’re saying. If you speak how I
am writing now, if you pause often, it’s the cheapest trick in the book to look
calm and authoritative. Yes, it really is that simple. Watch Condoleezza Rice
to see it done well and steer clear of Tony Blair’s pausing style.
Audience
first
There are people who say 93% of your
message is body language and voice. This has been taken out of context for
years. Getting your content right is critical and so stop naval gazing and first
think about your audience. Lead with why your audience should listen to you?
What should they know? How will it impact them? What do you want them to do?
Please
don’t put on a ‘show’
We are often told to “fake it till you
make it”, but this advice is better targeted when taking on a new role, not with
your communication style. News flash – you are most likable when you are your
warm, authentic, natural and professional self. I spend my life removing the masks
from my female clients, so don’t wear a mask thinking it will help you appear
more confident when you speak. Pretending to be someone you’re not is not only
exhausting but it makes it harder for others to trust you.
Power
pose
This term was coined from Harvard
professor, Amy Cuddy. If you don’t know who she is, take 20 mins and watch her
35 million times viewed TED talk. Taking time to make yourself ‘big’ before you
speak has been scientifically proven to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone)
and increase testosterone (the confidence hormone). This uses your body’s
natural hormones rather than play acting being someone else. If you haven’t
watched this talk I cannot recommend it highly enough. Find a spare board room
or empty bathroom and ‘wonder woman’ your way back in.
Put
your hands up
Put your hands (and forearms) on the
table in meetings if you want more presence. If your comfort zone is to place
them in your lap, then please, change your comfort zone! This matters
particularly for women. 70% of my female clients show this behaviour and it can
make them look small and under confident. Only about 5% of my male clients do
this and the perception difference is huge.
Practice
how you introduce yourself
Humans judge each other. Naturally, sub
consciously, all the time. You will likely have an opinion of The Queen, Barack
Obama and Sheryl Sandberg even though you may not have met them. I’ve met
returning colleagues who have said “Hi, I’m Alex. I’m back after maternity
leave and am working 3 days a week now”. What I take away is the external
side of Alex’s life and their working hours. What I am missing is what is Alex
is doing in her role and what impact that is having to the firm. E.g. “Hi,
I’m Alex. I’m back after maternity leave and I’m working mainly on X project X for
Y client.” There’s nothing wrong with talking about your time out or
your children, but be careful if that’s what you lead with
or the only thing I know about you.
Speak
up and be counted
Perhaps your comfort zone is to sit,
watch and participate later, particularly as you catch up and build confidence
back. Whilst no one likes the over talker in a meeting, be aware that
repeatedly saying nothing can be career damaging. A sage piece of advice I was
once given was by a senior female investment banker who said “don’t speak
unless you have something worth saying, but don’t let people judge your silence
as a distinct lack of interest or ability”.
And
finally..  stop the negative chatter in
your head
Internal communication matters just as
much. Mentally, many of us have “obnoxious roommates in your heads” as Ariana
Huffington calls them. Voices who say – you’re not good enough/ you’re brain’s
been a little mushy since the baby/ technology has moved on so quickly/ people
are going to know I’ve lost my edge/ I can’t give it the time it deserves…. I
even had clients who refer to themselves as “has-beens’”. You have the power to
stop these thoughts, especially if they are not helping you. If this is
happening, it’s time to get some control back and park them.
Good luck. Power pose. Pause. Think
about your audience and please be your authentic, polished true self.
About Sophie
Sophie is a communication expert at Denison Clark. She coaches
small groups and individuals to speak with more confidence, clarity and impact across
their work conversations and presentations. 
 

Kick-starting your Career Courage

Anna, one of our Women Returners coaching team, suggests ideas and exercises to build your return-to-work confidence and courage.

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face Eleanor Roosevelt

In my coaching of women returning to work, the theme of confidence (or lack of it) is a common one. If someone is trying to build their confidence, I first ask some questions to understand where it is they want to be. Some typical responses are:

‘I want to put myself out there and network but I’m not sure people will want to meet me’
‘I want to go for that job but I don’t think they’ll be interested in me’
‘I want to go for interviews without worrying about sounding stupid and out-of-touch’

Digging underneath these responses, it is very often fear that is making these talented women hesitate. Fear of ridicule, of others’ opinions, of failing, of judgement, of stupidity, of being found out. Simply trying to be more confident doesn’t address the underlying fear.

Confidence to Courage

I often work with women to reframe confidence as courage. Courage implies feeling some sort of fear but going for it anyway. I also find women perceive courage as something positive they can aspire to. Ask them to say, ‘I am a courageous woman’ and they sit up a little bit taller.
So, in your own returning to work journey, how can you overcome your fears and build up your courage? Here are a few exercises and ideas:
  • Reframe fear as simply what happens when you are pushing your boundaries. I watched my 5 year old son stand on the steps of the swimming pool paralysed with fear. Yet he splashed in and took the first steps towards swimming. To become a better swimmer he will keep feeling fear but it’s a sign he’s trying something new, not of weakness.
  • Think about a time when you have been courageous. How did you nourish your courage and starve your fear? Taking a moment to think about your strengths and achievements can help in building feelings of courage.
  • Fear tends to grow if you don’t address it. Let’s say your fear relates to getting your opinions heard. On your return to work, you’re sitting in a meeting, time is ticking by, you haven’t said a word, and your throat is getting dry and your palms sweaty. Next time, get your voice in early. By doing something, anything, to move things forward you are demonstrating courage.
  • Imagine an area of your life where you do feel courageous – maybe it’s experimenting with new recipes, running long distances, setting boundaries for your growing children (believe me, it takes courage!). Think about the preparation needed, the consistent planning, the bit-by-bit improvement. Courage at work is the same – preparation and practice are needed. There isn’t a quick fix for courage.
  • Often, fear relates to others judging us – and in returning to work you’re likely to be hyper-sensitive to this. If someone does offer some critique, remember that they are commenting on your work and not you as a person. Often, we take ‘your views lack coherence’ to mean ‘you lack coherence’. Women, in particular, tend to internalise criticism ‘it’s my fault’ and externalise praise ‘it was good luck’. Try to separate one instance or piece of work from your overall view of yourself.
Remember, fear is a natural part of growth and progress. It takes courage and confidence to face your fears and move forward. It takes a big dose of courage to face some of the doubters and commit to making that return to the workforce. Sometimes, it can help to simply ask yourself, ‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?’

Posted by Anna Johnstone, Coach & Facilitator, Women Returners

You’re not a fraud! Tackling Imposter Syndrome

I first learnt about the impostor syndrome when I was studying for my psychology masters. I remember feeling hugely relieved that it was normal to be asking myself “What are you doing here?” as I sat in the lecture hall and started working with clients. Although not naturally plagued with self-doubt, I had found that retraining and practicing in a new profession after a long career break made me question my abilities. I felt like a fraud when I introduced myself as a psychologist, and wondered if I would ever truly feel like a competent professional in this new field.

The Imposter Phenomenon

It was reassuring to find out that even highly successful people can feel like frauds, and that these feelings are so common that they have a name. The ‘imposter phenomenon’ was first identified in 1978 by two clinical psychologists, Pauline Clance & Suzanne Imes*. They interviewed 150 successful women who, despite their qualifications, achievements and professional recognition, still considered themselves to be impostors in their fields. Clance & Imes drew out three main aspects: a belief that others have an inflated view of your abilities, a fear that your true abilities will be found out, and a tendency to attribute your success to luck or extreme effort. Since then, there have been many follow-on studies supporting the findings of this research, with mixed-gender samples across a range of occupations finding that up to 70% of people have feelings of impostorism at some point. Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that these feelings are most common when people are making a move outside of their comfort zone, such as starting a new job or taking on new responsibilities. Although it’s not an area that’s been studied, it’s clear that returning to work after a career break is also a likely trigger for this irrational fear of incompetence, even if you’re returning to the job you did before.

A decade ago, the impostor syndrome was little known outside of psychology, so I’ve been happy to see that it’s now more broadly known & discussed. A recent article on the topic in the New York Times quoted Maya
Angelou, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going
to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me
out.’”

There is sometimes a misconception that this is another ‘women’s issue’ – lumped in with low self-confidence as something that holds women back more than their male colleagues. In fact, despite the initial focus on women, research now suggests that men are just as likely to experience impostorism. But maybe they are less likely to admit it?

How can you tackle Imposter Syndrome?

One of the most useful steps is to recognise that these fears are very normal & that many other people have them. Nobody knows everything and even the people at the top of your company or your profession probably have times when they too feel out of their depth. Don’t blindly believe your self-doubts or let them hold you back.

If you’re coming back to work after a long break, understand that you are more likely to doubt your abilities in this time of change and give yourself a boost. Spend time identifying what you do well and the part you played in your achievements, both in your pre-break career and during your career break. And remember that no-one’s successes are just down to luck!

* Psychology research ref: Feeling like a Fraud, Christian Jarrett The Psychologist, May 2010

Posted by Julianne 

Don’t write yourself off – employers want returners!

I’m following up Julianne’s post from last week to reinforce her point about UK companies being interested in returners with an array of recent evidence.

In September alone, we introduced a new initiative for returning professionals in partnership with Centrica, Mars and Vodafone, which are combining their efforts in the HitReturn returners programme: we also provided the coaching support at the start of the RBS Strategy ComeBack programme. At the same time, Deloitte, Allen & Overy and Cushman & Wakefield welcomed their first cohorts of returners and Morgan Stanley’s second programme commenced. In October, the first UK JP Morgan programme gets underway and we will have news of other upcoming programmes.

Simultaneously, our supported hiring innovation extends the range of options available to companies which wish to hire returners directly into open positions, while still providing support through the transition period. We are delighted that major employers, in particular M&G Investments, have signed up to this approach and we have more opportunities in the pipeline with smaller as well as larger employers. One employer we’ve already worked with told us that she was delighted to have accessed “a pool of top quality people” which she would otherwise have missed out on.

Despite all this encouragement, we recognise that there are still too far few openings for women returning to work after a career break and are focused on widening the range and variety of options available. We’d love to hear from you if you’ve been able to return to fulfilling work after your career break.

Posted by Katerina

Career break women: don’t write yourself off!

This week I listened to Allison Pearson speak at a Working Families event about
the challenges of the Sandwich Generation – juggling work, elderly parents and
teenage children. As I laughed at her anecdotes, it rang a few too many bells as I’m currently recovering
from my daughter’s 18th birthday house party and making plans to support my
parents during my mother’s imminent hip operation  … while fitting in
the day job of course! 

Allison also talked about her frustration that so many women she knows – all amazingly talented – have given up hope of getting
their careers back after taking many years out of the workforce to bring up their
children. This I can also relate to; I regularly meet talented and experienced women on career
breaks who have similarly written themselves off. 

Typical is Jackie, who
stepped back from a high-flying 18-year career when jetting around the world
for client pitches became impossible with three young children. She told me
apologetically: “I’ve mainly been just a mum for years now, doing bits of
consultancy for small businesses, nothing exciting.” Approaching her
fifties, with teenage children, she was sceptical of her chances of restarting
her career: “I’d love to have a great job again but it’s been too long.
Who would want me now? Media is a young person’s world and I’m too old to start
again.”

I can remember my own doubts and insecurities after four years out. It is so
easy to give up when well-crafted job applications are ignored and recruiters
dismiss your chances. Keen to relaunch in your previous field, you can start
your job search with a burst of enthusiasm, but then rapidly become
disillusioned. 48-year-old Carmen, who had wanted to resume her career as a
City macro-economist, was told by a headhunter that she had “no chance on
earth of going back to the financial sector” after a seven year break. So
she wrote off this option, decided she’d have to start again at the bottom and
took a minimum wage internship with a charity.

At Women Returners we are fighting hard at a business level to tackle this waste of female talent,
by working with organisations to create more routes back into satisfying
corporate roles. But if we’re going to succeed in this objective, we also need
you to remove any limits you are placing on yourself – to value yourself and
what you can bring to the workforce:

1. Don’t minimise yourself. You’re not “just a mum”, you didn’t run
“just a small business from home” and your previous professional
success wasn’t down to luck.

2. Remember you are still the same talented professional woman you were and you
will quickly get back up to speed. You also have a wealth of new skills
developed during your break, combined with maturity and a fresh perspective.

3. Know that UK businesses want you back. Companies from Credit Suisse to
Thames Tideway Tunnel are launching returner programmes. I talk every week to
many companies who see returners as an untapped talent pool which can both fill
capability gaps and build diversity.

4. Be open-minded about new possibilities. If you don’t want to go back to your
old career, you are not too old to retrain into a new career or set up your own
business and, most importantly, all those years of experience will still count.

5. Don’t give up. We’re not claiming that getting back into a great job after
many years out is easy, but it is possible with determination and persistence,
as our many return-to-work success stories demonstrate.

Carmen didn’t give up and is now back working as an Executive Director in the
City through participating in Morgan Stanley’s returnship programme. And Jackie
is starting to explore other options as well as reconnecting with her
ex-colleagues who remember her as an amazing boss, not “just a mum”.
If you want to restart your career, remind yourself of Henry Ford’s words …

Posted by Julianne; Adapted from a Mumsnet Guest blog I
wrote in April.

Just do it! Taking action to bring back your confidence

Regular readers of our monthly newsletter will be aware that, Julianne and I have presented or joined panels at a large and varied number of events on getting back to work after a long career break. At one of these, a CFA Women’s Network panel, I was asked for ideas on how to build confidence, a very natural question. In my coaching work, this is often an area where returners wish to focus and I have also run dedicated workshops and written advice columns about it many times. As I have so much to say on this topic, I initially wondered how I could do it justice in a short answer. Ultimately I responded simply with a single effective method for improving confidence … just get on and do stuff!
I can illustrate this idea best with my own experience of speaking at all these events in the past months. I’ve always believed that public speaking doesn’t come naturally to me and so I haven’t actively sought speaking and presenting opportunities. In fact, prior to 2015, I’ve given maybe 6 or 7 public presentations in total through my whole career. However, since the profile that we have generated for Women Returners has led to multiple speaking invitations, I’ve had plenty of chances to gain experience.
As is normal when doing new things, the first few times didn’t go smoothly at all: I made many ‘rookie’ mistakes and felt what confidence I had at the start was draining away. Although I would have found it easy to decide that it was all too difficult and uncomfortable and decline to do more, I didn’t have that option because I had already committed to more events. So, I had to persevere, learning from my earlier errors and gradually developing an approach to public speaking which works for me. Each time I’ve presented or participated I’ve learned something new and as I’ve gained experience, I’ve learned to take the positives from it, rather than focus on the bits that aren’t perfect.
Over time I’ve noticed that I can stop my voice from wobbling and my heart from racing, that I know my topic and don’t need copious notes and that I can pause and take a drink without losing my connection with my audience. Through doing this – keeping taking action, while focusing on what has gone well – I’ve experienced a noticeable increase in my confidence at speaking. Even though it still doesn’t feel natural to me, I no longer dread it. Indeed I find myself looking forward to opportunities to test out my new skill!
When returners ask about how to improve their confidence, I will ask them what it is they would like to feel more confident about: we all have areas of our lives where we feel confident as well as areas where we don’t. Two areas where returners commonly tell me they feel low in confidence are re-establishing a professional network and going to interviews. Based on my experience of building confidence through taking action, these are some ideas for actions I recommend:
Re-establishing your network
  • Draw up a list of all the possible people you could get in touch with, including people from your past, your present and those you’d like to meet in the future
  • Starting with those who you find easiest to approach, set yourself a target of a number of calls to make, or emails to write, on a weekly basis.
  • Ask friendly former colleagues if you can meet for a coffee to talk about industry or sector developments
  • Join LinkedIn groups in your professional field and initiate, or comment on, discussions
  • Volunteer at or attend relevant conferences or professional network meetings with the initial goal of speaking to just one or two people
  • Reward yourself for meeting your targets, identify what went well with your approach so you can repeat it – and increase your targets as your confidence builds
Interviews
  • Performing well at interviews requires preparation
  • Ask family, friends and even former colleagues to support you by giving you practice at answering interview-type questions. Ask them for feedback on both what you do well as well as ways to improve
  • Take every opportunity for interviews as a place to practice your technique: even if you are not interested in the role, you can gain valuable experience from the interview itself
In whichever area you are hoping to re-build your confidence you will find that regular and repeated action will pay off.

Posted by Katerina – co-founder of Women Returners  

What role does image play in supporting your return to work?

One area that can be neglected when thinking about your return to work is how to present yourself in a way that reflects the image you want to convey.  If you’ve been out of the workforce for some time, you might have questions about what exactly ‘business wear’ looks like today.  And you might be uncertain about the styles and shapes which suit you best.  Business and Career Coach, Natalie Hunter, explains how getting your image right can boost your return to work confidence.
Returning to work after a significant
break can induce a whole range of emotions. On the one hand it can feel
daunting and tap into our darkest self-doubts. On the other hand, we might feel
excited and reawakened at the prospect…possibly all of those things and more.
I’ve taken a few breaks during my
career, one to go travelling and two maternity leaves. I clearly remember the
mixed feelings of returning: disorientation, anxiety, pressure to make a good
impression, optimism, engagement and liberation – at least for a while – from
the daily demands of domesticity. As it turned out, my last return was on 9/11
and any fears I had on that occasion were soon eradicated by more important
things.
It feels trivial to talk about the
importance of image after that, although, rightly or wrongly, we do judge each
other on appearances and make all kinds of assumptions: How professional is
she? How smart? How contemporary? How creative? How well organised?
I’ve been involved in many an interview
over the years and listened to the hiring manager’s comments afterwards. Appearance
is often on the agenda…and it’s not always flattering.
Like many people, when I’m facing the
unknown I try to focus on the aspects of the situation that I can control. In
terms of returning to work, one of these things is appearance.
Image, of course, is no substitute for
competence. I want to be known primarily for the quality of the work that I do,
not how I look, although if I feel confident that my appearance will create an
authentic and favourable impression, that’s a bonus. Paying a little bit of
attention to understanding what makes us look our best frees up our time and
attention to focus on the content and quality of our work.
Some of your original working wardrobe
might still work for you, although even classic styles can look dated – the
fashion industry is very clever at getting us to keep buying more! Perhaps your
body shape has changed and the styles you once relied on no longer seem to
work. Colour has an amazing capacity to make us look radiant or drab. This
doesn’t mean you suddenly need to start wearing lots of strong, bright colours,
it’s just about understanding what depth, brightness and tone of colour works
best for you in the context of what would be appropriate for your potential working
environment.
I love style and colour and how they
transform the way we look, but I don’t enjoy spending huge amounts of time and
money on expensive, sometimes torturous, grooming procedures or lengthy
shopping trips! In my book, anything that can make life simpler, calmer and
lower-maintenance is to be welcomed.
Being able to edit a shop floor with a few quick glances, for example,
or quickly pick the right outfit for the occasion, saves precious time and
energy.  Knowing what to look for helps
avoid expensive mistakes or those ‘fashion over style’ disasters that stare reproachfully
at you from your wardrobe.
Investing a few hours to explore how
your image can support your career aspirations can make all the difference in
helping you to feel confident and make a positive impression. Once you
understand what suits you and why, you can make confident choices and always
look your best.
By Natalie Hunter, Women Returners associate, Business & Career Coach, Image Consultant and Leadership Development Consultant

Body Language -The two minute route to self-confidence

When I work with women feeling nervous before a major event, such as their first interview in ten years, I give them an instant self-assurance tip that is often met with a look of incredulity. I recommend that they find a quiet place just before the event and make a ‘Power Pose’ – taking a Wonder Woman stance or adopting the ‘starfish’ pose which Mick Jagger is modelling so effectively in the photo above. This sounds like the type of ‘too-good-to-be-true’ advice that could give psychologists a bad name, but in fact it is based on a convincing body of research evidence.
Amy Cuddy, a Harvard social psychologist, explained in a wonderful 2012 TED talk* how “making yourself big” for just two minutes changes the brain in ways that reduce anxiety, build courage and inspire self-expression and leadership. Changing our body language effectively changes the way we think and feel about ourselves. If you’re interested in the science, lab studies found that a two minute power pose increased the levels of the power chemical testosterone by around 20% and lowered the stress hormone cortisol by about 20%. What’s more, this has a knock-on effect on how we behave, how we are seen by others and the likelihood of positive outcomes. In another study Professor Cuddy reported that people who adopted high-power poses before interviews were overwhelmingly more likely to be offered the job by impartial interviewers.
Recently I followed my own advice. My nerves kicked in before my first time on national radio, appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour** to discuss returnships with Jenni Murray, Julie Thornton (Head of HR at Thames Tideway Tunnel) and Carmen Nuzzo, who joined Morgan Stanley in a permanent role following their 2014 Return to Work programme. So if you had walked into the ladies’ toilets in a cafe down the road from Broadcasting House at 9.18am that day, you might have been surprised to see a blonde middle-aged woman in a green jacket striking a full-on hands-on-hips legs-wide Wonder Woman pose … and now I can personally vouch for the benefits!

Amy Cuddy’s TED talk
**Woman’s Hour feature on returnships (07:53 minutes into programme, 10 mins long)

Posted by Julianne Miles

Moving out of your return to work comfort zone

Last Saturday, I had my first experience of appearing on a live radio show, to talk about our work at Women Returners. Although I’m very comfortable with talking to all sorts of audiences about what we do and why we do it and have had a small amount of media training, it was still daunting to be appearing live on a public broadcast. But I did it – and enjoyed it!

This experience made me reflect how easy it is to stay in our comfort zones, generally, and specifically how remaining in our comfort zone can be a barrier to a finding a way back to work. There are many things we know we ‘should’ do which will help with our return (and this blog is full of ideas and advice) but if these things feel uncomfortable and difficult we make excuses and don’t do them.

Three zones not one
It is useful to think about three zones of experience. In your comfort zone, you feel safe and unchallenged and possibly slightly bored. In your stretch zone, you feel slightly unsafe and nervous and there is also some excitement at doing something a bit different. In your panic zone you feel out-of-your depth, scared and unhappy.

What might you be doing that keeps you in your return to work comfort zone?
– not calling a former colleague to arrange a coffee
– delaying putting your LinkedIn profile online
– filling your days with chores, volunteering and looking after others
– not putting yourself forward for a strategic volunteering opportunity
– not going to events or conferences in your area of interest

How can you move into your stretch zone but not your panic zone?

Sometimes we need something or someone to give us a push to do something that takes us out of our comfort zone and into our stretch zone. This was certainly true of the radio interview: I hadn’t actively sought the opportunity but when it came along I decided to go for it. As I reflected on the experience, there were quite a few things which helped me to make the move out of my comfort zone, without going into my panic zone, which will be useful to in your return to work activities:

  1. Small steps. This first interview was with a small local radio station, far from where I lived so I didn’t feel my reputation was at stake and nor was it a ‘make or break’ opportunity for the business.
  2. Mindset. I decided to treat the interview as an experiment and an opportunity to learn.  This mindset made it possible to be open to the experience and not judge myself too harshly on how I performed.
  3. Realistic expectations. Alongside my mindset, I chose to set my expectations at a reasonable level for me. I didn’t have to be perfectly fluent in the interview, I could be ‘good enough’. It was OK to make mistakes because I would learn from them for next time.
  4. Preparation. Even though I only managed to do this at the last minute, I spent the journey to the studio writing out bullet point answers to the questions I was expecting to be asked. Having thought through what I would say in advance and having my notes in front of me gave me focus and helped me to stay calm. I had also listened to the previous week’s programme so I had some idea of the format of the radio show and the style of the presenter.
  5. Enlist a buddy. Sharing the experience with Julianne made a big difference. I wasn’t alone and I had someone to give me a boost if I needed it.
  6. Celebrate success. By acknowledging that I had achieved what I set out to do, it reinforced the possibility that I could continue to stretch myself. It is great to know that I will never face my first radio interview again!
These six components are applicable to every return to work situation whether it is attending a networking event, calling a former contact or putting your self forward for a new role. What are you ready to do to move out of your job search comfort zone?

Posted by Katerina – Co-founder Women Returners

If you want to listen to the broadcast, click here

Building Self-Efficacy – Believing that you can succeed!

The Problem with Confidence

It’s often reported that women’s self-confidence plummets during a career break. A recent study* found that women on maternity leave start to lose confidence in their ability to return to work only 11 months after giving birth.
The problem with labelling return-to-work doubts as a ‘confidence issue’ is that we use the same explanation for a wide range of setbacks that women face in the workplace: from presentation nerves to not putting ourselves forward for a promotion or (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) ‘not taking a seat at the table’. It’s become too much of a general catch-all.
I would suggest that we need a different term to describe the (often extreme) self-doubt that women can experience when they consider returning to the workplace after a long time out. This is the doubt that stops you even believing that it’s possible to get back into a satisfying role .. the doubt that made a highly talented MBA with 15 years’ experience say to me after her 6 year break “I’m a write-off – no-one will want to hire me now”.
Self-Efficacy

From a psychology perspective, what you’re experiencing in this situation is better termed “low self-efficacy”. The psychologist Albert Bandura described self-efficacy as a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a particular situation. If you have low self-efficacy about getting back to work, then you feel less motivated and behave in negative ways that make you less likely to achieve your goal; you see barriers as insurmountable blocks rather than challenges to overcome, you lose focus and interest more quickly, and you struggle to pick yourself up again when you hit an inevitable setback.
Building Self-Efficacy

The encouraging thing about self-efficacy is that it’s not fixed – there are specific ways to boost it. Bandura identified four key sources of self-efficacy, three of which are within your control and the other you can influence:
1. Mastery. Performing a task successfully through hard work and effort improves self-efficacy. If you haven’t worked for many years, you will feel ‘rusty’. Create opportunities to do work-related tasks that feel daunting to you, but in a low risk environment, such as offering to chair a volunteers’ meeting or taking a training course which involves group & presentation work.
2. Social Modelling. Seeing other people being successful raises our belief that we can do it too. We need role models! That’s why we’re collecting success stories of women who have successfully relaunched their careers. Read our stories & actively seek out women who have already gone down the road you want to take.
3. Social Persuasion. Getting encouragement from others helps us to overcome self-doubt. Spend more time with people who will encourage you and give you a boost, and less with the downbeat ‘energy vampires’ in your life! Remember that the people you are closest to may be discouraging about your return to work because they are worried about the impact it will have on their lives.
4. Psychological Responses. Better managing your stress levels and emotions can improve your confidence. Work out what helps you to feel calmer under stress – maybe having time to prepare, going for a run, or just taking a few deep breaths – and use these techniques consciously next time you’re under pressure. Think about taking a yoga or mindfulness course if you find it difficult to manage your stress levels and emotions.
And you can use this framework to build your self-efficacy once you’re back at work too!

* AAT, 2013

Posted by Julianne