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Careers Café

The confidence game

Liz Koblyk explores the role that confidence plays in both career exploration and the job search.


While I’m writing this, “Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?” tops University Affairs’ Most Emailed list and nearly tops the Most Read list. The article has me thinking about confidence and its odd perceived roles in the career hunt.

It’s funny how, in university career centres, we tend to take very different approaches regarding confidence when it comes to career exploration – figuring out what you want to do – and the search for a job that will let you do it. With career exploration, career counselors often aim to help clients accept uncertainty. We work from the premise that people typically need to make career decisions without feeling 100% confident in those decisions.

Switch to the job search, however, and you’ll get lots of advice on how to appear 100% confident. It’s a tougher call to action, too, since it requires job seekers to be confident in themselves, and not just in their career decision-making ability. As job seekers, we’re supposed to project confidence as we network, follow up on leads and interview for jobs. With interviews, our projection of confidence should begin even before we’ve spoken with an employer to better determine our fit for the role, right as we walk into the interview room and shake hands.

(The idea that a firm handshake bears any relation to our ability to do a job is laughable, but so widespread is the influence of the handshake that I have coached clients and continue to coach them on how to shake hands with confidence. The handshake still matters.)

It’s been a breath of fresh air to read Confidence, by business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. He notes that “the correlation between career success and any measure of career confidence is .30 at most, which suggests that if we measured someone’s confidence in order to estimate how successful he may be [sic], we would be only 15 percent more accurate than if we just guessed”. Further, “when scientific studies measure not just current levels of confidence and career success but also previous competence…the already small correlation between confidence and career success disappears”.

Yet, Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic notes, high confidence continues to be “mistaken for competence”. So, what’s the solution for the person whose confidence may well take a beating from the rejection that is part and parcel of the job search? How do you come across as confident enough to please employers without feigning arrogance?

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic suggests preparation. I like his answer. It doesn’t require behavior that’s fake. It’s wise to prepare well for interviews, regardless of whether you come across as self-confident or not. And the act of sharing well-prepared answers suggests a certain amount of confidence, even when you’re completely swagger-free.

Mind you, until people stop assuming that confidence indicates ability, it’s also wise to keep practicing your handshake.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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