As I work with leaders, one of the challenges they consistently face is what to do about people on their team who just aren’t confident enough in their abilities to perform well. We know that confidence is a critical component of higher level performance and we even know that confidence comes, at least partially from successful repetitions of any task or set of tasks. What often eludes us as leaders is how to help people develop confidence in a set of things that they are not currently very good at.
It’s kind of a chicken and egg scenario where someone isn’t doing a thing very well and so they can’t build confidence at the thing, but to do the thing well they must have at least some confidence in their ability to do the thing. Where the heck do we as leaders go with that? And yet, if we want to create a strong, high performing team, we should probably be able to help others build confidence, even in things they aren’t good at yet. What if we had that little skill mastered? Would we lead more effectively?
There are a few key things to consider as we think about helping anyone build confidence. While confidence can appear to be an overarching personality trait, it is actually more task specific in many cases. Rarely do we find people who actually believe they are good at nothing. Maybe they can’t sell stuff but they can make a mean italian wedding soup. Or they might feel like they aren’t a great conversationalist but they can make a spreadsheet sing and dance. Almost everyone who is physically able has a great degree of confidence in their ability to walk but if you have ever watched a child learn to walk, you can find all kinds of reasons why they shouldn’t be confident at it. We as humans are a perfect picture of massive struggle and failure as we learn how to take those first steps. We tend as leaders to assign confidence to the person, rather than the things the person does, and that can get in our way as we lead them. If I think you will just never be confident at your job because of who you are, then I probably won’t be a very good coach or leader for you.
It’s also important to understand what is happening in people’s brains as they exhibit confidence in certain areas. Confidence is associated with the value centers of our brain which reside in our prefrontal cortex and striatum. Those areas do not function well when we are in what we consider to be heavily stressful situations. People appear calm when they are confident, well, because they are. The task doesn’t feel particularly stressful for them and they are not overly anxious about it. People who are confident public speakers, do not typically feel the same level of anxiety about it. It’s important to remember that they developed that confidence though, it wasn’t magically instilled in them. As leaders, we can help people develop confidence in any area by creating an environment where confidence is built.
Think about these steps and environmental qualities as you help others become more confident at a task or process.
Practicing a task, partially because we are simply practicing it, is less stressful than performing a task. There is no scoreboard, no results are being judged, we are simply focused on repetitions of the thing and the goal is to get better, not to already be good. Most of the time in business, or even life, we place way too much emphasis on how well we perform something long before we have put enough practice in to expect to be good at it. That can compound for us as humans too. We start to have this language in our head after a few attempts that sounds like, “I am never going to be good at this.” For people on our teams we want to help them have language in their head that sounds more like “let me practice this and see if I can make a little progress as I go.” Our definition of success with practice is simply focus and repetition of a thing, not outcomes. If we can help people work in that environment they can develop confidence much more easily. Maybe we ask them to simply think about the questions they want to ask in the next meeting, and jot them down and we can talk about them together and see how they feel. Or we help a person on our team script out their conversations with a customer about a certain product or service we are selling with the goal being to just capture it and see what it sounds like and then we can think about what if anything we would like to change. Break the task into steps, just focus on letting them practice each one and build confidence there before moving on.
I do not mean hand them a trophy for trying. I do not mean throwing a party for them for actually making a customer call or handling a routine technical issue. I do mean that we are using progress as our metric rather than competence. Help them build confidence in their ability to make progress on a skill because that has a compounding effect. If I can see myself making progress, I can begin to picture being good at this. If I can see myself asking a good question in a high level meeting then I might be able to envision making a presentation to senior leaders. But I probably can’t make the leap from “no confidence in meetings” to “phenomenal influencer from the front of the room.” We build confidence on a strong foundation, just like we build anything else. Use questions with them like, “how do the repetitions feel so far,” “what is getting more comfortable,” or “what are you starting to think differently about?” Or, “what are you learning as you go through the process of practicing,” “what do you feel is starting to stick or make more sense to you as you think about it?” Let them identify the progress because then it isn’t judged, it is felt, and that matters more as they decide for themselves if they are getting better at it.
Help your team focus on development
As leaders we are known for caring about certain things. Maybe we care about our numerical results. Maybe we care about what time our people show up and get to work. Maybe we care about whether or not people listened to our ideas and suggestions. There are lots of signals we send to our team about what the most important things are for us as a team. We have to be sure that our continued growth and development is an important thing. Not because we say it but because of how we actually focus on it. We can be using questions like, “what do you feel like you are getting better at or more comfortable with,” “what is one thing you would like to learn more about or get better at this quarter,” “if you wanted to be the absolute best at this role what is one thing you would want to do more consistently or improve in your approach?” Telling people we expect them to grow is very different than just making it a key part of the conversations we have and the emphasis we convey.
We have a tremendous amount of impact as leaders and we actually do have the ability to help others build confidence in areas of importance to them. Developing our process for doing that, practicing it and putting it to use for our team is one of the ways we can help them change their future and also change the future of our team. There is also an incredible amount of satisfaction that comes from helping someone move in that direction and feel confident in areas they thought they never would.