Self-belief can make the difference between success and failure, but losing it is easy in challenging and highly-visible positions. Resiliency in leaders comes with confidence in their ability to achieve goals and overcome obstacles, along with the humility to take negative feedback as an opportunity to learn. Although they will have doubts at times, their confidence encourages them to cultivate the skills of mental toughness, like setting stretch goals, taking risks, and making decisions.
The two components of self-belief are self-esteem, which is the respect and trust for the self, and self-confidence, which is the belief in being successful in a given situation. While self-esteem is not controlled by external factors and erodes only slowly, self-confidence is easily swayed by external pressures and can quickly rise or fall. Even though they react to the environment differently, self-esteem and self-confidence are linked together so that one can influence the other. High levels of self-esteem keep self-confidence high as well, even though it may still fluctuate. On the other hand, low self-esteem causes self-confidence to stay at relatively low levels.
It takes time to raise low self-esteem to the strength and resiliency needed to keep consistently high self-confidence levels. One of the most important steps is to stop taking feedback personally and instead using it constructively with the understanding that it does not reflect personal worth. Leaders who take criticism as a personal attack can spiral down into a suspicious and confrontational attitude, making them ignore the advice that could help them move forward in their careers.
Successes and failures are part of the foundation of self-esteem, but fully understanding the causes behind both is key to keeping a realistic view and avoiding becoming overly negative. The underlying causes of successes and failures can be rated on two continuums: a “source of control” dimension that runs between internal and external sources, and a “changeability” dimension based on whether the cause is constant or variable.
Four common reasons for success or failure that fall into the quadrants of these continuums are personal ability (internal and constant), the amount of effort dedicated to the task (internal and changeable), the difficulty of the task (external and largely constant), and luck (external and changeable). Attributing all four causes with a value representing how much each contributed to a specific outcome helps leaders understand how they think about their self-worth. Taking deserved credit for success that resulted from internal, controllable sources and not dwelling on failures caused by outside, variable sources is a key step in building self-esteem.
Many leaders downplay major achievements, but recognizing success is such an integral part of building self-esteem that leaders cannot afford to forget victories. It is a good idea to write down successes or use some token to keep them in mind over time, like displaying degrees or awards in plain sight. While celebrating their successes, leaders must remember that their personal value comes from their personal characteristics and abilities as a leader, rather than circumstances or luck.
Perfectionism causes unnecessary stress and lowers self-esteem by focusing on minor failings and diminishing accomplishments. Nobody is perfect though, and the unrealistic expectations created by perfectionist attitudes are incompatible with maintaining healthy self-esteem. Three strategies that help overcome perfectionism are accepting mistakes, setting achievable goals, and realizing when perfectionist attitudes are taking over and quickly changing them.
High-pressure situations can overwhelm the self-confidence of even the toughest leader and make them panic if they do not have strategies to adequately cope with the stress. Along with self-esteem, self-confidence makes up self-belief and needs to remain high for leaders to handle pressure. Being able to quickly boost self-confidence may mean the difference between success and failure.
As with self-esteem, remembering successes increases self-confidence. However, successes from long ago are less effective in this role, so focus on wins from the past few days or weeks to boost self-confidence in trying times. Since the events are usually fresh and easy to remember, focus on using vividly-detailed mental images of the success as a powerful reinforcement.
Action plans that only include long-term goals make it unlikely that there will be any recent successes to focus on. Leaders should try to identify short-term objectives that can provide “quick wins,” which help build confidence and show progress on larger agendas. Short-term goals may include accomplishing daily tasks that need to be performed anyway, but leaders in tough situations can derive an extra boost in confidence by looking at them as successes.
When tough times come, leaders can bolster their confidence by considering the characteristics of the situation they are in and drawing on their experiences in similar circumstances. Details like the people involved, their traits, and the physical environment can help leaders refer to their past experiences to understand how they handled the trouble before. Learning from mistakes and successes alike also gives leaders the chance to mentally rehearse for upcoming, potentially stressful situations, leaving them better prepared and therefore more confident in their ability to meet the demands that will be placed on them. Negative self-talk eats away at self confidence and generally strikes people who fall into one of three categories:
1. The worrier, who spends too much time dwelling on potential troubles and concentrating on imminent failure.
2. The critic, who judges and draws attention to limitations and failures instead of abilities and success.
3. The victim, who is ready to give up without ever trying because of helpless anticipation of situations that might prove to be too tough.
Meeting negative self-talk immediately with positive responses is the best way to keep self-confidence high. Leaders should rehearse statements that directly refute negative thoughts, use positive language, focus on the present, and are believable. Self-talk can also cast in a more positive light reactions to stress that people normally perceive as negative.
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