When the University of Pennsylvania released research in 2015 showing that happiness can be contagious, it was something most of us already knew. You’ve no doubt experienced another person’s positive energy in a room and felt it spread to your own personal joy and sense of wellbeing. So if a positive emotion like happiness is catching, could confidence also be contagious — and if so, could women use it to propel themselves forward and close the persistent confidence gap still found between men and women in the workplace?
According to neuroscience, the answer is yes — your own self-confidence can change the behaviour of those around you, and vice versa. It’s due to the phenomenon of ‘mirror neurons’. These brain cells fire ‘when an animal observes the same action performed by another’. So when you see others take calculated risks, make bold decisions or openly celebrate their successes (all of which require a healthy dose of confidence), you are theoretically much more likely to start exhibiting those behaviours yourself.
Another study found that a particular region in your brain monitors how positive other people appear to be about their choices, which in turn then influences your own perceptions and creates a positivity bias in your own thinking. ‘We’re biologically equipped with the potential to allow more-confident people to have greater sway over our own beliefs,’ says psychologist Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn.
Letting ourselves be ‘affected’ by those (carefully selected people) around us — and mirroring their behaviours may then be one of the easiest ways to give yourself and your performance the edge.
Harvard Medical School professor, Nicholas Christakis has researched the contagion of emotions within social networks and observes that it’s not just about the person-to-person transmission. ‘Just as some diseases are contagious, we’ve found that many emotions can pulse through social networks,’ he notes. The definition of confidence, as ‘the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something’ is not just a personal one, but a collective one that can gel a team, driving each individual member to create something ‘greater than the sum of its parts’.
Researchers of team confidence note that this contagion phenomenon has two parts; first, feeling confident that the team has the collective skills and abilities to do what is required, and second, feeling confident that the team can achieve their goals. In having confidence in the abilities of the other team members, research shows that individuals themselves are then likely to stretch themselves and become more resilient. The mechanism of this contagion is in part due to the Pygmalion effect, a psychological phenomenon whereby the more that is expected of people, the better they perform.
Positive confident leadership is essential, and can affect the team as a whole, elevating individuals to feel they are making a difference and transmitting trust that the outcome of a project will be good. Nowhere is this seen to greater effect than in sports teams, and as renowned American football coach Joe Paterno once noted: ‘When a team outgrows individual performance and learns team confidence, excellence becomes a reality.’
In the post-pandemic world, confidence might be the one thing that we should focus on ‘passing on’ to someone else. The benefits of this particular contagion for women’s progress in the workplace can be huge — impacting everything from performance and promotion to personal fulfillment. As Mark Twain once noted: ‘Great people are those who make others feel that they too, can become great’.
FIVE WAYS TO ‘CATCH’ CONFIDENCE
Be strategic about your network
‘Hacking’ your confidence starts with being strategic about who you connect and collaborate with daily. You might not always be able to choose exactly who you interact with at work, but being aware of whose energy lifts you up and trying to increase the level of time you spend with them, while minimising time with those who pull you into negative chatter or workplace gossip, can move the odds in your favour of picking up confidence boosts along the way.
Embrace the power of peers
To catch confidence most effectively, make sure you are spending time with peers, those whose roles are similar or just slightly more senior, or whose abilities mirror your level. If you feel out of your element or the power dynamic is too mismatched you might well be inspired (or intimidated), but it won’t have quite the same potential for you to recognise and mirror the other person’s beliefs or actions naturally.
Take an inventory
Observe people in your life that you feel are confident and consider what actions they live by. Do they take credit for their achievements? Do they focus on all the ways things could go right? Are they happy to take responsibility? Make a list of three behaviours you see them displaying consistently and introduce these consciously into your own life for a few weeks to see how it feels. This kinetic learning will raise your own awareness of where your energy is going — and as a result can also make you more receptive to mirroring these behaviours in others naturally, building your confidence at the same time.
Create a ‘mastermind group’
As coach Tony Robbins notes, ‘The quality of a person’s life is often a direct reflection of the expectations of their peer group’. In other words, you become like your inner circle and vice versa and that includes your confidence levels. Unlock what Robbins calls the ‘power of proximity’ by joining a ‘mastermind group’, a small group of accomplished peers, usually five to six people, who meet regularly to inspire, question and support each other. Gather like-minds in your network and start your own group or look for existing groups to join on LinkedIn or through coaching programmes to plug into this kind of contagious power.
Embrace positive networking situations
Becoming a member of everywoman — whether as a Champion, Ambassador or a member of our Network, enables you to connect and surround yourself with talented, confident and supportive women and is a potent way to pick up some positive feeling. Including yourself in such supportive and inspirational networks holds a mirror up to the elements of challenge, resilience, creativity and success that build to create inner confidence — inspiring you to accept and build on them in yourself, and contribute your own confidence and talent in return.
AND HERE’S HOW TO SPREAD IT…
- Be generous with your time and share your own experiences. Allowing people to relate to you on a human level will help them to be accepting of their own challenges, recognise their own successes and mirror your confidence more easily.
- Put yourself forward to be a mentor – either general mentoring or short-term specific mentoring around a skill or project — to share your confidence one-on-one, through your attitude and energy, as well as your experience and advice.
- Focus on authenticity — nothing is more confident or compelling than someone who knows what they stand for and what they want to do in the world. By working to be as authentic as possible in all areas of your life and being open about that as a value, you inspire and empower others to follow your lead.