A few years into working in my first ‘proper’ job, a friend and colleague, of roughly the same age, said something to me that I found very interesting.

Now I’m kind of paraphrasing here but the gist of it was..

“I always thought that I should only say I know something for sure if I definitely did. Saying I can commit to doing something and failing, or saying I knew something and to be repeatedly proven wrong would damage my credibility. But it seems that in the work place the exact opposite is true.”

I have always remembered this conversation because over those first few years at work I came to a similar revelation.

I watched time and time again as people would speak up in meetings explaining things that were obviously not accurate, but saying it with such flare that they were entrusted with significant responsibility. These same people, when they didn’t succeed, or if the information they had conveyed turned out to be inaccurate, would then confidently explain the outside factors that caused the failure. If it was inaccurate information, the inaccuracies most often would never be picked up.

This is because we are all human, we have a huge number of unconscious decisions going on in our heads. We are drawn to confident personalities, this is why great leaders are generally great public speakers. How you convey a message is just as important as the content within it. But the confidence of which a statement is made, and how accurate that statement is, is often not correlated.

Now some people may never notice this phenomenon going on. But others might sit back in meetings and despair at the amount of illogical decisions being made due to these types of social politics. So how can we cut through this and make better team decisions?

Question what people tell you

It doesn’t matter how confidently somebody sounds, or how senior they are, I want to know the why and the background story and be able to make my own decision on whether I agree with it. That doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t believe what people say. You should trust the people around you and take what they say at face value – but always keep an open mind and be very aware that it is only an opinion.

Get to know your colleagues

Now people who spend a lot of time confidently declaring things and then not backing them up with results can’t really continue in the same way if they are doing it with people who know them well. If you are in a big organisation where your networks are larger, people can get away with it for a lot longer. In a team environment people will naturally begin to question opinions and dismiss those that are not well backed up.

In a similar vein, by working closely with team members you can begin to build confidence in their opinions, learning what specialised knowledge each member has and knowing who to turn to for what information. If you get to work in one of these closer nit teams, you will often see some of the more superficial social interactions fall away and new leaders come to the fore.

Acknowledge that these confidence gurus have a lot to offer

The ability to convince a whole room full of people of an idea, to get people to believe in you, is an amazing skill and one we should embrace. In every project we need this skill to speak to senior stakeholders, to negotiate for budgets, and to be able to lead people to follow new directions. So if we have a pitch we know the person that should be pitching it!

Can you learn how to speak with confidence in meetings?

There are all sorts of books on how to lead others, to sell ideas and to do public speaking. But if you ask me there are two things that are key:

Actually know your subject matter – I am known for being pretty confident at work and I am aware of how important it is to gain the confidence of stakeholders. But I still fall at the first hurdle if I don’t truly believe in what I’m saying. It screams out as if a large siren shouting impostor has been attached to my ponytail.

Realise that the people you are talking to are just like you. I remember when I first started out, realising that a really senior executive, who I had thought was checking his emails through all of our meetings, was actually just looking at Facebook, literally all the time. To anyone who has been around for a while, this won’t be much of a surprise. But at the time this really changed the way I viewed my senior execs. It kind of brought them down to just being people who’d much rather be pissing about with social media than listening to a long requirements meeting. If you struggle to speak to senior stakeholders, try to remember this simple fact.. for me it helps a lot more than imagining them all naked.