When Confidence is Scarce

Credit: Allie Smith

I have a theory that when people in the workplace find themselves stuck, blocked, or otherwise disgruntled with the state of decision-making and decision-makers, the root cause is almost always self-doubt… traceable to moments when people were made to wonder whether their capability, intellect, or integrity might be in question.

It’s a theory drawn from a scattered mix of sources: something like micro-finance meets Brené Brown, where the commodity at stake is self-efficacy, the confidence in oneself that you’ll be able to do what’s needed to perform when it matters.

Why does self-efficacy matter so much? Well, if you believe that others in your group might doubt whether you’re fundamentally capable, smart enough, or can be trusted; where can you realistically go from there? Such sentiments can feel like an attack on something essential about your value as a person. They may tap into deep worries about whether you deserve to be where you are. And considering the evidence that the threat of “un-belonging” is experienced by our bodies as though we’re facing a physical threat, I think it’s incumbent on every person in a leadership role to get more tuned-in to the often unspoken dynamics of belonging.

When people allow themselves to legitimately entertain the possibility that their capability, intellect, or integrity may be in doubt by members of their group, it can lead to a dangerous scarcity of confidence. Dangerous because when something is scarce, it has the tragic effect of turning the have-not’s against one another in a fight over the scraps, while those with a surplus tend to be sheltered by their privilege.

Scarcity of self-efficacy can creep up at any time. Maybe you’re preparing for a presentation that feels like it’s “make or break” for your product or your team. Maybe it’s performance review season and you’re wondering if a promotion is in the cards. Maybe your manager rescheduled yet another 1:1 on short notice. Maybe you got talked over in a meeting for the third time this week.

As a manager, I’ve learned that letting self-doubt go unaddressed is both unnecessary and counter-productive. If someone isn’t able to confidently act with their manager’s wind at their sails, then how can they be expected to push the boundaries of conventional thinking? Or put differently, if members of a team aren’t comfortable speaking their truths, then the benefits of diversity are effectively nullified.

This means leaning in to tension, not away from it, and growing to appreciate disagreement as an expression of curiosity, not doubt.

The approach I’ve adopted is something I call “confidence micro-loans”. Frequent, small–stakes interactions with the folks whose careers I have the privilege of helping nurture, where my goal is to understand what they’re going through, calibrate a shared hunch about desirable outcomes, and then invest in their intuition so they can walk away feeling ready to act boldly.

The most challenging experiences I’ve had as a manager have been when people tried to guess what they think I want instead of co-creating a shared definition of “impact”. This is because guessing — which often manifests as gossiping or crowdsourcing — undermines the essence of belongingness.

So I tell everyone on my team the same thing: it’s my job to help you trust in your own intuition. That doesn’t mean I expect you to be right all the time. Far from it. Instead, it’s a contract:

  1. I expect you to operate with the confidence that if we get out of sync (about strategy, approach, outcomes, impact, etc.), we’ll be able to find each other and recalibrate through transparent, genuine, and respectful dialogue.
  2. I expect you to check-in with me if you’re ever feeling like your self-efficacy is wavering for whatever reason; to ask for a confidence micro-loan.
  3. I promise to earn the right to expect #1 and #2.

Conversely, failure under this system has two modes:

  1. Not giving people the opportunity to demonstrate their potential.
  2. Refusing to entertain the possibility that there might be a better way of doing things.

To belong is to be wanted. To be wanted is to let others see who you really are. And to share your genuine self requires honesty and the expectation of reciprocity. And above all, that requires vulnerability. Which takes us right back to where we started. With an opportunity to choose abundance over scarcity.

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Designing for the expression of values. Privacy & Data Protection Office @Google. paradoxtheory.com

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Josh Lovejoy

Josh Lovejoy

Designing for the expression of values. Privacy & Data Protection Office @Google. paradoxtheory.com

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