Self-Doubt & Decision Making in Coaching

Coaches crave three things that truly do not universally exist in the world of human performance: control, predictability & respect.

Much has been made in recent years about decision making. Specifically, people reference the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Both are legends, and considered pioneers in their own right, as they should be for their contributions.

My brief take here is not about them, nor is it in any manner aimed at discrediting their work, for me to try to do that would not only be disingenuous, but also silly considering all their research has taught me.

This prose is aimed at a different audience, those who believe that self-doubt has no place in the world of effective coaching and/or leadership; those who value the veil of “expertise” above all else. I’ve stated the following before and a future article will continue to build off of the statement: predictability and feigned certainty is overrated.

Only the counterfeit innovator is supremely confident.

Today’s coaching landscape is about learning how to operate in and around chaos & conflict, just as it is the technical abilities we must develop. Dealing with human beings and their various agendas is as messy as trying to predict the price of oil in the next 10 years- so why do we keep fighting this battle?

In part, because coaches crave three things that truly do not universally exist in the world of human performance: control, predictability & respect. This craving leads to a multitude of behaviors that are the result of intense impression management techniques, overt influence tactics and even proposed theories of leadership that may be married in well-meaning intentions and structure, but are divorced from pragmatism.

One of my previous articles provided an example of the Wright Brothers and just how similar our previous attempts at improving coach development are to their previous attempts at flight, (hint: aiming for stability and manufactured environments didn’t work so well).

Just as we have aimed for stability and predictability we have negated the role that emotions play in our work. For any leader, the role of emotion is only dangerous if you’re not aware of how it may negatively impact what you do. The fact is that emotion is not always entropy, it must join our work- it just cannot be the sole guide.

As it pertains to emotions such as self-doubt, I’d argue that it is not only an indelible aspect of human nature- but also one that is an excellent asset for self-improvement. Self-doubt is not a drain, but rather a fuel source that compels us to want to learn more and do better. Sure, just like passion, if taken too far self-doubt can paralyze one in their own thoughts and actions, but it is far more likely to do so if someone is trying to live up to a false expectation of perfection for the sake of being viewed favorably by a stakeholder.

Enter impression management. A topic that will be explored and discussed far more in depth within my doctoral work, but for now is something we will touch on briefly. Impression management tactics are a type of influence tactic that are intended to influence people to like the change agent (coach in this case), and/or to have a favorable impression or evaluation of the change agent. The aforementioned aspects of impression management are examples of both an ingratiation method as well as one of self-promotion (Yukl, 2008).

One of the more prominent methods of impression management is self-presentation. Self-presentational behavior is any behavior intended to create, modify, or maintain an impression of ourselves in the minds of others (Alexander & Knight, 1971), and despite the fact that you may like to think you don’t engage in this sort of behavior, according to this definition, whenever we are attempting to lead people to think of us in a particular way, we are engaging in self-presentation.

Yes, this includes when you clean up your house when your in-laws are coming over, and it also applies to the clothes you decide to wear when you walk outside (assuming you wear clothes). Even for the most “devil may care” of you out there who claim not to worry about what others think, that too is a form of self-presentation. As a matter of fact, this is related to work done by Amos Tversky and his paper “Features of Similarity” where he stated, “Similarity increases with the addition of common features and/or deletion of distinctive features.”

In other words, just as the absence of a feature is a feature, the concerted effort of one to not care what others think, shows they care what others think.

This isn’t a flaw however, at least- not unless you consider all of us being born with a posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) a flaw. Without going into a long-winded anatomy lesson, you can think of the PCC as the impressionable co-pilot of the amygdala. Amongst its many roles and functions, the PCC is intensely involved with autobiographical memory (especially successfully recall), and also mediates the interactions between emotion and memory. This in part best explains several aspects of the working relationships between the two structures.

So what is the relevance of the PCC to impression management? Now that we have a laid a bit of contextual groundwork- we can dive into that.

Think about the first time you met a fellow coach you had heard quite a bit about. Maybe they are the head coach at an extremely successful University, maybe they have a large social media following, or perhaps someone just told you that this coach is one of the best they had ever met. From the moment you lay eyes on this individual, and throughout that introductory handshake, your PCC is as active as it would be had you been looking at the price-tag for a brand new car, house or set of golf-clubs. Why? Because big words and brain structures non-withstanding, part of the function of the PCC is to help assess and assign “value” to an object, person, place or thing.

Given this, we should all have a deeper appreciation of the importance of first-impressions, as well as the fact that whether we like it or not, whether it is our athlete, our colleagues, our superiors or even a foreign audience we are speaking to, we are all being continuously audited in some way, shape or form. People may act polite, but social comparison is both natural and steadfast, so it is best to find ways to meet people where they are. This even ties into the great work done by Dr. Robyn Jones who states, “…coaching relies less on the mechanics of how or what to coach and more on who is coaching, their perception of how coaches ought to act, and the relationships they have with those being coached (Jones et al. 2004).” Yes, stigma is involved- and perhaps most ironically of all, to coach in general means to risk exposure of being perceived a fraud. To borrow a term from Dr. Jones, more than ever before our audiences are hyper-expectant, assessing every move & quirk. I for one think this is a good thing since it helps us to sharpen our focus, and become more self-aware in the moment.

What’s perhaps even more intriguing is that it is not so much our personal or physical features themselves that stand out to others, but rather the context in which they were first perceived or presented in. This is also why we may sometimes feel resentment towards someone who we hear is amongst the “best” at what they do, especially if they are presented as an expert in the very field, or area of specialty in which we operate. Getting caught up in this cascade of emotions is a often a fast-track to Schadenfreude and stigma that is hard to shake.

But How Does This All Relate to the Importance of Self-Doubt?

Ah yes, back to that. Aside from the fact that many of us are raised to believe in ourselves, act confidently during times of stress, and brush off any harsh words or criticism- the fact is that the majority of us wear it on our sleeve.

And that is OK.

As a matter of fact, it is better than OK- for a coach, it should be expected. Do you think those you lead are able to relate to a “superior” who seems flawless? More importantly, do you really think that is what they are looking for? Researchers have spent so much time focusing on leadership traits within the literature, they’ve largely negated the perception of the “follower.”

Avolio (2007) stated that, “if the accumulated science of leadership had produced a periodic table of relevant elements . . . one might conclude that leadership studies had focused too narrowly on a limited set of elements, primarily highlighting the leader yet overlooking many other potentially relevant elements of leadership such as the follower and context”

I think this statement is absolutely spot on! After all, all it takes is for one influential “follower” to do nothing, or not buy-in to a proposed change for leadership to fail flat on its face.

It may very well even point to the reality that it is the followers who teach leadership to the leaders. As well as to the question, if so- are the leaders even paying attention?

When you consider this, it seems even sillier for us as coaches to try to live up to this impression of an idealized self. Are we really doing it for our athletes, or is it “face work” that allows us to self-identify with other coaches and a proposed culture that has been crafted before we arrived?

This is also a subtle nod to the work of Erving Goffman who posited that the central feature of a stigmatized individual’s situation in life is to gain acceptance and respect; which- ironically is precisely what the stigma itself puts at risk.

Take Homes

Stigma, self-presentation, and self-doubt are all unique areas that need to be explored more within the coaching literature. All play a role not only within the ACT of coaching, but also within the ART of coaching which I define as “the ability to identify, analyze and influence variables that impact human performance.” This definition builds off of the work previously done by Cross and Ellice (1997), where they state their views of what actions they believe to be central to effective coaching.

The word “influence” was chosen purposefully on my part because it also deserves its due credit within the literature. I chose this word simply because of the fact that we as coaches are the primary “change agents” within the leadership context. Terms such as power, authority and influence have been degraded, demonized and used in so many different ways, by so many different writers that we have largely omitted their study due to an emotional reaction to the verbiage- much to our own chagrin.

Influence simply breaks down to the use of power to bring about change, and it comes in many forms. The discussion of which are outside the scope of this immediate article, but the point you need to know is that regardless of what the media or others would like you to believe, influence is not some boogey-man term that means or aligns with any sort of selling. True leaders use influence to optimize action and outcomes, not to sway or swindle!

Just as almost every person on this planet will experience some form of self-doubt, almost every social exchange between people involves some level of influence. What’s more, regardless of your current perceived (or actual) leadership ability, cause for optimism should be high given that while most may believe it is only the most confident of us that would make for great leaders, it is actually those of us who have experienced a shared sense of loss, difficulty or hardship that most can identify with, and want to follow.

Fear of failure and uncertainty should no longer be considered a flaw, but rather, fodder.

More to come on this subject! My challenge to you- after reading this, list 10 ways you knowingly or unknowingly use forms of impression management when interacting with others. For more visit https://artofcoaching.com/

References

Alexander, N. C., & Knight, G. W. (1971). Situated identities and social psychological experimentation. Sociometry, 34, 65–82.

Avolio, B. J. (2007). Promoting more integrative strategies for leadership theory-building. American Psychologist, 62(1), 25–33.

Cross, N., & Ellice, C. (1997). Coaching effectiveness and the coaching process: Field Hockey revisited. Scottish Journal of Physical Education, 25(3), 19–33.

Jones, R.L., Armour, K.M., & Potrac, P. (2004). Sport coaching cultures: from practice to theory. London: Routledge.

Yukl, G. A. (2008). Leadership in organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.