Perhaps you started your day like Annette Bening in “American Beauty”: “I will sell this house today. I will sell this house today. I will sell this house today.” But instead you didn’t achieve what you set out to do and felt your self-confidence retreat. Maybe visualizing and focusing on success isn’t the right way to go. Maybe what you should recognize and affirm are the precise skills you know you already possess.
People in low positions of power perform better when they focus on their best skills, according to a recent study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“You should reflect on things that you know are good about yourself. Anyone has the potential to do really well. It’s how you respond under pressure that makes a key difference,” the study’s lead author, Sonia Kang, Ph.D., told ScienceDaily.
In one experiment, researchers asked job candidates to spend five minutes either writing about their most important negotiating skill or about their least important negotiating skill. Afterward they were given the task of negotiating the price of a biotech plant they wanted to buy. Buyers who completed the positive self-affirmation beforehand were much better at negotiating a lower sale price.
So the anxiety one feels during an interview, while asking for a raise, or while giving a speech, isn’t just about fear of failure. It’s about a power struggle. When we feel powerful, we feel confident about what we’re talking about, sure of what we can accomplish and probably more resilient about the outcome.
“Performance in these situations is closely related to how we are expected to behave,” said Kang, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Toronto.
“Anytime you have low expectations for your performance, you tend to sink down and meet those low expectations,” Kang explained. “Self-affirmation is a way to neutralize that threat.”
As an anxious person, there have been many occasions when I felt confident going into something but being in a less powerful position still held me back. I felt as though I had to defer to the more powerful person. I needed to be grateful and thank my lucky stars that they were considering me or helping me. Maybe somewhere in the back of one’s mind they’re always aware of their position in the hierarchy of power.
In a recent episode of “This American Life,” a woman who grew up in the Bronx, worked hard to put herself through college and lift herself up out of poverty, explained that she still can’t feel as though she “belongs.” Each time Raquel Hardy walked into a job interview, the fancy New York City office dwarfed her accomplishments.
Even though I got my foot in the door by having a good resume and maybe giving a good phone interview, when I get in there, I’m like, I don’t deserve this. The pay grade salary was above what I deserved, and this is more money than either of my parents have ever made probably. And those things go through my mind came when I’m walking into a place that I’m trying to apply for work. And so how could you convince somebody that you deserve it when you don’t even believe it yourself? It’s a reoccurring theme in my life. You know, I have to tell myself that I deserve this, because I work really hard for it.
This kind of behavior has to affect more than just job interviews and business negotiations. After all, we can perceive power disparities in any area of life. If you’re interested in asking someone out, it may seem like they have the powerful position. If your older brother makes more money than you, it may seem like he’s in the more powerful position.
What we tend to forget in all these situations is that we also have experience and expertise. It’s just different experience and expertise.
What if we were to think harder about our strengths? What if you took stock of them on a regular basis? It’s something I’m sure I’ve been meaning to do, but — just like self-promotion — it’s not an exercise that’s easy for me. In fact, it’s a little painful, but here’s what I came up with:
- I’m a natural planner, so I tend to be the best-organized person in a room.
- I’m particularly skilled at diffusing tense situations, and it has surprised and impressed people in the past.
- A good judge of character, I can smell intent from a mile away.
- The world often seems like it’s divided between highly creative folks and social butterflies. I’m both.
- I often give of myself without even thinking, and I have no regrets about that.