A few years ago, I wrote an article for Success Magazine, called 7 Ways to Build Your Employees Confidence. Highlights include:
- Start with a foundation of deep respect.
- Be specific about what they are doing well.
- Give them an opportunity to teach others.
- Scaffold behaviors as they learn.
- Celebrate incremental achievements.
- Encourage them through mistakes and setbacks.
- And, my favorite, help them to fully prepare.
“Nothing builds confidence more than being the ‘smartest’ guy in the room. The truth is, nine times out of ten, the ‘smartest’ guy in the room is really the most prepared. Let them know that and ensure they do their homework by role playing the scenarios they’re most likely to face. The next time it will be easier.”
These seven ideas are foundational for building confidence. And now, after several years of working with leaders around the world to have more confidence and influence, I realize there’s another vital element to consider: Navigating the tricky “Because I’m a _______” mindset.
Start Here to Build Confidence
“So can you talk about how to use this technique if you are a woman?”
What a fascinating question—particularly since I (a woman) was leading this particular part of the program. I was demonstrating how to give feedback to David (a man).
Our approach teaches managers to help the employee they are coaching to reflect and find their own path to change the behavior that’s reducing their effectiveness. This technique should work as well (if not better) for a woman as for a man. We’ve been using it for years and have taught many women and men who are using it successfully. The short answer to her question is, “There’s no reason to modify this because you’re a woman. It should work just fine.”
But I also knew her question was more complicated.
What I heard in her question was an unspoken, underlying concern:
“How do I have a tough feedback conversation if I’m not sure I can pull it off?”
My mind immediately raced to all the times I’ve seen managers (more women than men) apologize for the feedback they were about to give. Or ending their feedback phrases with an intonation that sounds more like a question, “This behavior is unacceptable?” And the myriad of ways people sabotage their influence with pre-apologies, “This is probably a dumb idea.” All behaviors triggered by a lack of confidence which undermines their influence and results.
So here’s where it gets really tricky. It’s certainly possible that Jana is dealing with a complicated circumstance where having a tough conversation is more difficult because she’s a woman. I’ve certainly had times in my career that felt like that.
It’s also quite possible that Jana is telling herself a self-perpetuating story that difficult conversations are always harder because she’s a woman, which diminishes her confidence, and impacts the way she’s showing up. When she shows up unsure, her influence diminishes and reinforces her deeply held belief that it’s harder because she’s a woman. It’s hard to know.
So if you have a Jana on your team, how do you help?
Of course, we all need to be on a vigilant lookout for discrimination, micro-aggressions, bullying and other toxic behaviors that hold people back, destroy confidence and diminish their contribution. That crap is real, and it’s hard to know if someone is experiencing it now or has scar tissues from the past. If they tell you those stories, believe them and do everything you can to help them find a healthy way forward.
What also breaks my heart, and is even more frequent, is when people let one or two bad experiences over-shadow all the positive ones and reach the conclusion that they won’t be successful at something “Because they’re _______ (a woman, a white man, a person of color, fat, short …),” and that lack of confidence makes that story true. I see it all the time.
And many managers back away from this conversation — for fear of aggravating the situation. Or label them “a victim,” and write them off as low-potential. So the employee stays stuck in a tragic story of lost potential.
Questions to Help Build Confidence and See a Broader Picture
The best way I’ve found to help employees who are stuck in a limiting “Because I’m a ____” story, is to ask some provocative open-ended questions framed in the spirit of Appreciatiive Inquiry to help them view the situation more broadly.
- Tell me about a time you were really effective at _______ (insert area where they are lacking confidence). What was the circumstance? How did it turn out? What did you notice about yourself in that situation?
- Awesome. Can you think of another time? And another time? What do notice about yourself in all of these situations? How can you bring more of that behavior or approach the next time?
- Who are the ______ (insert the affinity group they think makes this hard, e.g. women) who you see doing this particularly well? What do you notice about their behavior that makes them so successful?
- Tell me about the next time you think you will have a chance to do ________ (insert area they are lacking confidence)? What would success look like in that interaction? What’s one behavior you could do that would make that success more likely?
- Now imagine you’ve been successful in that interaction. What do you notice about yourself? How does that feel?
In our current environment, it’s easy to shy away from these conversations—and of course, they can only be held in the context of deep trust. But, it’s a tragedy to avoid them. Please don’t let one or two failed attempts discourage you from trying again. We need more people in the world navigating these conversations well to grow more confident leaders, using their gifts, to make a greater impact.