17 Tips to Exude Exec-Level Confidence at Work

Coming across as confident and powerful at work might be the most important strategic career move if you want to make it to the boardroom.

Indeed, among the most important, unspoken rules to make into the C-suite are confidence, and mastery of power dynamics.

In this article, we will review some key aspects of coming across as powerful and confident in business settings.

businessman in confident pose

1. More Declarative Sentences, Fewer Questions

Declarative sentences communicate certitude and conviction.

Questions communicate doubt and unconfidence.

If you are confident about something, you want to avoid questions and use declarative sentences instead.

Examples:

(Talking about seeranve packages)
HR representative (question): Don’t you think it could be a good idea if we offered 3 months of pay instead of 2 weeks salary?

This is rather weak, especially considering the HR representative has a good degree of authority in discussing employees’ termination.

The declarative sentence would be:

HR representative (declarative): We must offer her 3 months of pay. That’s the fair way of letting someone go.

However, this might be too overpowering.

So this one strikes the right balance:

HR Representative (balanced): I would rather offer Sandy 3 months of pay to end our relationship. It will lower the chances of getting sued, and it will uphold our reputation as a fair employer.

2. Avoid Speech Weakeners

Speech weakeners include:

2.2. Minimizers

  • Just: “I just need a minute of your time.”
  • Small
  • Little
  • Tiny
  • Quick

As a rule of thumb, you want to limit their use unless you are using them strategically.

2.3. Discounters

  • “I might be wrong about this, but… “
  • “I should preface I’ve never done this before… “
  • “You may already have thought of this..”
  • “Maybe this isn’t important…”
  • “This may be beside the point… “
  • “It’s not like I’m an expert… “

Watch out that you don’t use too many of these unless you are using them strategically (exceptions in Social Power).

2.4. Qualifiers

  • “It’s kind of like…”
  • “We sort of did…”
  • “Somewhat I tried… “

These make you sound both insecure and juvenile, so you want to avoid them most of the times.

3. Cut Preambles, Go Straight to The Point

A preamble is a concoction of words and nonwords used before getting to the main point.

As a rule of thumb:

Preambles serve to soften your message, and the more words you use, the “softer” your message will be.

Women are more likely to use preambles in fear of appearing too direct or aggressive, but some men fall for it as well.

An example of using too many preambles, adapted from Lois Frankl:

Preamble Speaker: You know, I was thinking about this issue. In fact, I’ve been talking to my colleagues, too. A lot of us share the same concerns over reduced productivity during the last two quarters, so I’m not alone in this.
Come to think of it, it might be even more than just those two quarters. It’s something we’ve known about for a long time but haven’t measured. Anyway, we’ve all been trying to find a way to address it and I think I may have come up with an idea. I’m not saying it’s the best idea or the only idea—just that it’s one idea.
Now, my idea involves…

That whole speech screams “defensiveness” and “fear of saying something stupid”.

Confident Without Preambles: Productivity has been an issue we’ve struggled with for some time. In the last two quarters, we measured it, so we’ve been able to quantify it. The numbers are in your brief, page 5.
The good news is: I have studies the issued, and I have two proposals for fixing this problem.

Again, preambles can be used strategically. A good preamble is like a good starter. It strokes people’s appetite for more, and it’s part of storytelling. But you must know what you’re doing. 
When you’re not sure, cut to the chase.

4. Use Logic or Data

In “Stealing the Coner Office” career consultant Brendan Reid explains that pitching one’s own idea with passion and fervor is the typical rookie’s mistake.

Executive materials instead position themselves as neutral and rational operators above any single idea or option.

That’s a smart idea because workplaces, on average, revere logic, rationality, and data.
Being seen as a guy who speaks based on data, facts, and logic will give you lots of power -and make you come across as upper management material-.

5. End With Your Suggestion (& Avoid “Laundry Listing”)

Let’s pick from the same previous example:

Poor communicator: A lot of companies are doing this now. We can either use an outside consultant or our own staff. Or if you prefer, you can name a task force to investigate options. On the other hand, if you want I will investigate the options and get back to you.

That’s what I call a “laundry list”: a list of options with no added value from your side.
That all sounds like fluff unless you make your own recommendation.
A much better approach would be:

Effective communicator: Based on my research, I see two different options. We can hire BCG Digital Ventures to help, and their quotation is for 750k. Or we can do it with our own staff. Based on the same number of people BCG quoted, I projected less than half the cost, at 350k. If management is interested, I’d be happy to take the lead.

Now that’s someone management listens to because he brings some expertise that it’s worth being listened to.

6. Think, Then Speak (& Don’t Think Out Loud)

Some people fall for this one when they’re not sure of the answer, or when they’re asked a tough question.

Then, instead of pausing and organizing their thoughts, they start speaking their mind as they make up their mind.
The result is that it makes them look scatterbrained and uncertain.

This is especially damaging when a higher-up is asking for your opinion.

See an example:

CEO: Do you think it’s best to warn shareholders about the anticipated loss, or should we wait until we’re sure about the nunbers
SVP: Hmmm… We could tell them now in preparation for the fourth-quarter financials. But if we wait, we might sound more credible when we give actual figures. If we tell them now we’ll have to deal with lots of questions we can’t answer. But then again, if we wait it may appear we’re trying to hide something…

The problem with this answer is not that it’s wrong, but it ends up being a laundry list of pros and cons that do not help the SVP.
And it does not make you look smart and helpful.

You don’t necessarily need to give him a “yes or no”, but you want to use the opportunity to sound smart and strategic.
For example:

CEO: Do you think it’s best to warn shareholders about the anticipated loss, or should we wait until we’re sure about the nunbers
You: There are pros and cons either way, for sure (pacing reality).
If we tell them now, we come across as honst straight shooters. If we wait, we will be able to be more precise and answer questions more accurately. Given our culture for transparency, I would issue a profit warning ASAP. I would just make sure to make it sound like there is no reason to panic
CEO: How would you do that?
You:

7. Return Touch to Your Colleagues

two businessmen with notes about who is showing more power

The rule of thumb is this:

People higher up in the hierarchy can touch you, and you can freely touch the people beneath you in the hierarchy.

That means that you shouldn’t touch your boss at work.
But it also means that to keep the relationship with your colleagues on an equal footing, you want to return their touch.

Tips for Women

Some men will touch women more freely than they do other men.

And some men will purposefully do it to one-up women.

Touching him back right away might betray that you’re out for power, and make you less liked.
A good way then is to make your touch a bit more feminine. Instead of a pat behind the back, touch the outside of his forearm.

Another option if he overdoes the touch is to highlight his impudence with social grace -and maybe throwing him under the bus-.
Looking at his hand, stop talking to draw attention to him, or replying “hey, hello” with a tonality that says “what was that”.
The flinch is another option.
Angela Merkel tried the flinch when Bush sneaked on her from behind:

It wasn’t the best flinch, but the idea is good: draw attention to the touch being out of place, and you will win with superior social intelligence.

8. Keep Your Personal Issues to Yourself (Stay Professional)

It’s fashionable these days to say “bring your whole self at work” and to be “radically candid“.

But that’s also a trap.

Some bosses will appreciate you be candid and being your true self.
But most, won’t.
In doubt, keep it professional and don’t divulge the details.
For example:

Boss: there is some feedback I want to give you. It seems like you have been going home early quite often, and that’s fine, but you missed a deadline twice this month
You
: I’m going through some challenging personal situation right now. But doing great work is as important as ever, as it will always be.
Now, about the work…

And then go back to talk about work, thank your boss for the feedback, and tell him that you will work on delivering great work, on time.

9. Assume Permission Granted

Junior and less competent employees must ask for permission.
More senior and competent people who take responsibility for their work, don’t.

If you always ask for permission, and if you do it with the most submissive style, you communicate you’re not leader-material.

Consider these different levels of subordination:

Very low on power:

Very low on power: Hello Matt, sorry to disturb you. I wanted to ask you if you could allow me to work from home the first half of the day tomorrow?

Low on power:

Low on power: Would it be all right with you if I work at home tomorrow? I’m expecting a delivery midday and it would be great if I could be at home

Neutral:

Neutral: Hi Matt, may I work from home tomorrow? I’m expecting a delivery midday

High on power:

High on power: I’ll be working from home tomorrow as I’ve got a delivery coming. OK with you?

Very high on power

Very high on power: I just wanted to let you know I’ll be working at home tomorrow. I’ve got a delivery coming.

Highest in power:

Don’t ask any permission, you call your own shots

In any performance-based organization you should reach this last step already when you’re in a first-level manager position.

PRO Tip: Focus less on power, more on trust & responsibility

If you are trustworthy then you can safely ask with power.
But if your boss thinks you need supervision and you ask high in power, you’re going to piss off your boss -and he’d be right-.
So this is a case where you must focus on delivering great work, gaining trust, and taking responsibility. And then you can focus on power.

10. Use the “I Got This” Format When You Smell Opportunity

Sometimes higher-ups will ask your opinion as a way of putting out feelers on a possible opportunity.

That’s when it’s not so much what you say that matters, but the confidence you exude.

In one of Pat Heim‘s examples, a manufacturing firm sought to restructure operations.
The head of operations asked two different people in the team if they had any idea how to go about it:

I’m not sure reply: Well, I’m not sure. You know I haven’t had any experience in this approach. I suppose we could try giving this to the work cells to solve, though I’m not sure they can. If they don’t, we can have R&D and engineering form a team to look at it. If those two approaches don’t work, I suppose we could call in a consultant. But to be perfectly honest, I can’t say right now.

The second one:

I got this reply: Easy, we can totally get that done. We form a cross-functional team to take care of it. If they can’t do it, we’ll give it to one of the cells to chew on. And if they can’t, I can personally look for an external consultant and keep an eye on them.

Wanna take a guess at who got the opportunity to lead the restructuring?

11. Introduce Yourself With Full Name & Surname + Title

Have you ever heard of “Bill” as the founder of Microsoft?

Or “Elizabeth” for Elizabeth Warren?

Me neither.
Because those are powerful people, and powerful people go by their full names.

If you have a strong title, you can also use it to build your authority. If someone does not use your power title when introducing you, you can say it as soon as you are introduced:

Interviewer: Today we have with us Lucio. Lucio is a blogger and he will talk to us about power dynamics
Lucio: Thank you Mark. Indeed, my name is Lucio Buffalmano (gives full name), I’m a social scientist (replaces the low in power “blogger”), and I focus on power dynamics. I’m excited to talk to you today (ends on a friendly tone)

For Women

I categorize the following as “for women” as women are more likely to make these mistakes.

1. Become Aware of Your Smiling Pattern

Smiling is great.
Unless you’re smiling too much, or out of nervousness:

One previous video also had an example of smiling at the wrong time.

People, and women more often, smile excessively when they are nervous, self-conscious, or vulnerable (also notice in the example the voice going up, plus fading out).

Become more aware of your smiles and keep them only for:

  • Entertaining situations
  • When you’re truly happy about seeing someone
  • Strategically, to appear more welcoming and kind.

2. Keep Your Head Straight

Tilting and chin lowering convey vulnerability.
But also powerlessness, so you might want to avoid them at work.

woman smiling and lookingly girly

Cute, friendly, and approachable. In a “girly” way. Not exec material.

You can use the head tilt strategically when you want someone to open up or when you want encourage someone to keep speaking.

Practical Advice:

  • Keep your head straight when speaking: when speaking, especially when conveying an important message, keep your head straight
  • When listening to someone talking about personal matters, feel free to tilt: it helps people open up, and it conveys you’re empathetic and you understand
  • When people are sharing something difficult, searching for words, tilt: it helps to bridge an uncomfortable silence, it communicates “take your time, I understand it’s difficult”

3. Ban the Word “Girl”, Use “Woman”

At work, never allow anyone to introduce you as a “girl”.

And the same is true for any woman in your team.
You can correct people indirectly, for example:

Colleague: That girl you sent me was super
You: Glad to hear, she’s one of the most competent women in my team

What if all else fails?
Then you can explain that it’s demeaning to call a professional a “girl”. To help grasp the concept, you can tell them “how would you feel if referring to you I’d say “that boy did a good job?””.
With that, they should get it.

4. Beware of the Nurturing Trap

Be aware if someone introduces you or recommends you with typically feminine traits, such as:

  • Helpful
  • Caring
  • Kind

These are all good traits to have, but the receiver might subconsciously think “oh, here is a nice girl who will make a good supportive role”. And that’s not what you want them to think if you are ambitiously aiming at the top spots.

Also, be even more careful for adjectives such as:

  • Self-effacing
  • Humble
  • Anything that resembles “nurturing”

The more feminine you look, the more you might want to be introduced with adjectives that highlight skills, drive, competence, and leadership qualities.

5. Speak Louder (If You Speak Too Softly/Airy)

As a rule of thumb:

Soft and hairy voices are high in femininity but low in power

Volume also impacts body language. The louder you speak, the more gestures you tend to naturally use. By combining appropriate volume and gestures, you immediately convey a sense of authority.

As an example of too soft voice, listen to Marilyn Monroe:

Albeit successful in her own field, Monroe certainly wasn’t successful in corporate and business environments

Notice especially her voice on the word “important”.

6. Avoid The “Hair Behind Ear”

You probably already know that lipstick and makeup should only be done in private.

What you might not be aware are the subconscious “hair-flick” and “hair be the ear move”.
They both make you look more girly and less authoritative.

Now that I said “hair behind ear” you probably know what I’m referring to. If not, here is an example:

7. Play the Banter Game…

Men use banter and verbal aggression as a way of bonding and jostling for status.
They don’t expect women to push back, so you can score easy wins and gain their respect if you can dish it out.

8. … But Don’t Get Drunk With the Boys

Yes, the boys might order a pitcher of beer or do the rounds with the cocktails.

But you joining then makes you come across as a potentially loose woman. The night might end with nothing happening, but the rumor mill starts anyway.

9. And If A Man Stares at Your Breast…

When you’re speaking and a man stares at your breast, stop speaking.
It’s like a wake-up call to move his gaze up.

If he goes down again, stop speaking again.

And if he does it a third time, you can more directly tell him “up here”.
Like Nicole Scherzinger did to Conan:

But please note this only works when you dress professionally. Otherwise, it will be used against you (like Conand did in the same skit).

Also read:

Direct, Indirect & Power

There is a big misconception when it comes to direct and indirect talk.

The misconception is that direct talk is powerful, while indirect talk is weak.
As linguistic researcher Deborah Tannen explains, the truth is a bit more complex. But, to keep it brief: indirect talks prioritizes relationships, while direct talk prioritizes immediacy. 

Direct and indirect run on a continuum scale, and they involve both language, tonality, and body language.
There are countless ways of being both direct and indirect, but here are some examples:

Direct: Prepare a list of all the invitees and send it to me
Slightly indirect: If we can have a list of invitees, that would be great
Questioning Indirect: Do we have a list of invitees? (and he expects to be told “I can make one” or “Yes, I will send it to you now”)

A man in power can also get people to act by making an indirect statement. For example “it’s cold here”, and he expects his subordinates to do something about it.

Adapt to Your People & Environment

People and cultures differ in their preference for direct or indirect language.

Direct people tend to see indirect people as time-wasting and, potentially, even underhanded and manipulative.
You can see an example here with Kobe Bryant being annoyed by his former coach Phil Jackson indirect way of leading:

Bryant: If you want me to do something, just tell me. You don’t have to go around the corner, drive around the block (…). Just tell me. You tell me what you want me to do..

Bryant is basically saying: I’m a direct type of guy. Please lead me with direct talk.

On the other hand, indirect people tend to see direct folks as overbearing and overly-aggressive. Potentially, even as little despots that need to be overthrown. That’s one of the risks of direct talk and orders: it can grow resentment and make you enemies.

People high in power and independence are especially annoyed by direct orders, and so are as more senior and experienced people.

Avoid Indirect-Insecure

Indirect is a fair choice, and can be delivered confidently.
But it can also be used to mask insecurities. Here is an example of indirect-insecure you must avoid:

Lumberg: shhhh… Uuuuhhhh… Yeahh…. Aahhhmmmm.. I’m gonna have to go ahead and sort of disagree with you there… Yeah…  (…) and I’m just not sure that..
Consultant: (..) You haven’t challenged him enough
Lumberg: I’m just not sure about that right now

Lumberg uses indirect style, but the problem is not the indirect style, it’s the extreme levels of indirectness, both in words and nonverbals, that makes him across as slimy.

Choose Indirectly-Secure

I like this format the most.

Indirect-secure uses indirect language, but delivers it with confident nonverbals and tonality.

With indirect-direct, you preserve relationships, and you also come across as confident and authoritative. 
This is the high-warmth / high-power style.

The indirect-secure is versatile. It can be soft-spoken, or it can be delivered with so much poise as to leave no doubt as about who’s cracking the whip has power. 
Look at Joan from Mad Men:

Joan: Unless one of you needs help finding a dead client file, I suggest you pick your tents elsewhere

Joan proposes to help by seeing “unless you need help”, but it’s not a real request of help. It’s an indirect way of saying “you’re loitering”. 
Then she says “I suggest” you pick your tents. But, again, it’s not a real suggestion and what she’s really saying is “scram and go back to work”.

Joan is cracking the whip, but since she uses indirect-direct, she comes across as socially skilled, emotionally intelligent, and charismatic.
Powerful and classy.


This is a preview from Power University, the workplace module, where you can find more real-life examples and practical advice.

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