Strengthening Confidence

I have begun to detect a dip in the level of self-confidence people have. Two merging observations which have led me to this. First, I less frequently hear people describing their work as a slam dunk or similar term, indicating they will have no trouble with it. Work these days is a struggle, with plenty of question marks.  And second, because of the amount of ongoing change, I hear more uncertainty, about whether the job can even be done, let alone one’s own capability to do it.  So, as people feel more exposed by the constant onslaught of change, coupled with tentativeness about the job itself, their performance expectations still continue to rise. Metaphorically, people question how they can possibly run faster, when the track has turned to quicksand.

We all know that confidence is an important factor in delivering outstanding performance. Top performers may not be 100% certain about closing the big deal, or winning the championship game, but they are genuinely confident in their abilities to always be in a good position to win. Likewise, the very best leaders are those who act with confidence, while staring in the face of uncertainly, which there seems to be plenty of in the crazy world today.

Fortunately there are a couple of things you as a leader can do to combat the growing self-doubt in others. One, pay close attention to your peoples’ (and your own for that matter) feelings of self-confidence. Do not assume it is still high, just because it once was. Check in with them occasionally to see how they are doing. Because of its importance, you should monitor levels of confidence as closely as you do many of your other strategic assets.

And two, Encourage, Encourage, Encourage, and Encourage some more. This may be the leader behavior of highest leverage. We learned from our work with Motorola years ago about the impact of recognition during change. Greg William, a VP in the semi-conductor division at that time, did his homework and proclaimed during a video documentary that the reason change was much slower to take root in some areas compared to others, was because of a lack of recognition. From research and personal experiences, we also know that one of the key failures of change is the failure to finish. The key culprit in this failure is the lack of recognition of progress, and reinforcement of skill or performance improvement. Encouragement works.

Research aside, let me close with a recent, real-world example. A young woman with whom I work was doubting herself for the first time in her career. When I asked why, she said her boss never, ever acknowledges her efforts in any way. That vacuum of validation has left her wondering – is she living up to expectations or not. Is her worth in the company going down? Should she be concerned about her future there? Thus, the seed of doubt has been planted in a previously very confident and solid performer. Think about the amount of turmoil in her head, and the impact it could have on her results. Sadly, it was not uncontrollable external changes that upended this woman’s belief in herself, it was the completely controllable (and disabling) behavior of her boss.

So leaders, remember how powerful encouragement is in building confidence, and at the same time, never lose sight of how detrimental the absence of it can be. Finally, commit yourself to make strengthening the self-confidence of others an intentional part of your leadership agenda. Helping your people through the quicksand of doubt might be one of your most essential roles this year.

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