Unlocking potential: The power of believing in your team

Lack of confidence - a metaphor showing human struggle with Lack of confidence. Resigned and exhausted person chained to Lack of confidence. Depressed by a continuous struggle,3d illustration

Don’t know what to say to someone struggling with confidence? We have four effective practices! Julie Smith dives into the topic

Confidence plays a crucial role in personal growth, career success, and overall wellbeing. But it can be like a roller coaster with ups and downs throughout our lives. Even the most capable and experienced can find themselves grappling with self-doubt from time to time.

If we keep pushing ourselves eventually it becomes less scary

As a manager, knowing how to provide the right words of encouragement enables you to support a team member through a confidence dip, helping them to regain their footing and to excel.

Don’t say that

Let’s start with what NOT to say to an employee who is struggling with confidence: ‘you should be more confident.’ It’s such a well-intentioned thing to say, full of appreciation and support. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. It implies that somehow confidence is a choice, that there’s a switch that the person could reach for to switch off their self-doubt now that they know that they ‘should’ have confidence.

‘You should be more confident’ doesn’t work because those who lack confidence tend not to be able to see themselves clearly. They don’t see their strengths and achievements in the same way that you see them – the low confidence individual sees a shrunk down version. Worse than that, they see a larger than life version of their weaknesses and ‘haven’t done yets’.

So if ‘you should be more confident’ doesn’t work, what does? Let me explore how confidence works and offer four practices that can make a tangible difference to your low confidence employee. We’ll start with a practice aimed at supporting your employee to see their strengths and achievements at full size. This is an important part of supporting them to develop ‘humble confidence’ – a level of confidence that aligns with the reality of their skills and abilities.

Practice 1: Help them to see their own achievements

Invite them to write a really long list of their achievements over the past month – an inventory of successes, large and small. Then ask them to take you through their list, lingering long enough to really encourage them to take ownership of each success and to recognise the skills and capabilities that enabled them to achieve it.

You might imagine that ‘offer high support’ would feature in the list of what you can do to help someone who is struggling with confidence. I’d suggest not… Too much support can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, giving the individual a warm feeling of reassurance, whilst quietly and steadily sapping their confidence. You might be familiar with Montessori schools, educational settings that are founded on the mantra of founder Maria Montessori: ‘never help a child perform a task that he feels capable of accomplishing himself’. The mantra is powerful because it conveys to the child that the teacher believes in them. It communicates ‘I have confidence in you’ with the aim of prompting the child to have confidence in themselves.

The Montessori approach illustrates the power of offering just enough support – no more than is needed. If you step forward with more support than your employee needs, then your kind-hearted intentions are counterproductive. The risk here is that over time the individual’s comfort zone gets smaller as they rely on you to make the right decisions for them and doubt their own ability to do so.

Practice 2: Offer just enough support

Watch-out for a desire to ‘help’ by keeping your employee safe from nerves, or rescuing them from situations that they find difficult. Whilst well intentioned, this kind of cocooning will result in further loss of confidence.

In fact, I’d go further than counselling caution on the level of support. I’d suggest that you actively stretch your low-confidence individual, in the full knowledge that this will (for a time) make them uncomfortable. There’s a paradox that in order to build confidence, we must push ourselves to take action without it. It’s the repeated experience of acting, learning and progressing – in spite of our self-doubt – that grows our confidence over time. By pushing ourselves to do something new and scary, we find out a bit more about what we’re capable of. We do it once and we survive. We find that perhaps we can add that new, scary thing to the range of situations that we’re comfortable in. It might not be immediate – it may well take more than one try before we get comfortable – but if we keep pushing ourselves eventually it becomes less scary. We might even start to enjoy it. Our confidence has grown. This is the truth that sits behind the third practice:

Practice 3: Stretch them just enough

This is about helping your employee to be brave. Challenge them with assignments that they see as just beyond their capability and then offer your support as they gather their courage and push themselves to tackle this new and scary thing.

In my experience, many of those who lack confidence hear feedback through a filter. How does that filter work? Well, when we are given feedback, we hold it up against our self-image to see if it fits. If the feedback doesn’t fit with how we see ourselves, with how we evaluate our own capabilities, then it’s difficult for us to process it. If our confidence lags behind our capability, positive feedback bounces off, unprocessed and unabsorbed because we can’t square it with how we see ourselves. Recognition that your employee might hear feedback through a filter is what underpins practice 4.

Practice 4: Help them to (really) hear positive feedback

Tell them (clearly and frequently) what you value about their contribution. Take the time to give specific, positive feedback, being as descriptive as you can. Vary the mechanic that you use – the occasional voice note, text or email is great because it’s something that they can come back to multiple times.

Being very specific with your feedback, rather than the oft-used “you are a star” is important to highlight exactly what the act or behaviour was. Also perhaps explaining the impact to someone can help them see things that they didn’t appreciate before.

Unlock confidence

I’ll leave you with four words that work when your aim is to support someone to find their confidence:

‘I believe in you.’

These four words can have real impact as long as: you mean it, you demonstrate that belief by providing opportunities to grow, and you support the individual to use your belief in them as a springboard to grow their self-belief. Believe in them in order for them to believe in themselves.

Julie Smith is founder of Talent Sprout and author of ‘Coach Yourself Confident: Ditch the self-doubt tax, unlock humble confidence

Julie Smith

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