When Confidence is Scarce

A leader’s job is to help people trust in themselves

Since becoming a manager, I’ve been piecing together a philosophy that’s turned out to be something like micro-finance meets Brené Brown; where the resource at stake isn’t money, it’s self-efficacy, the confidence in yourself that you’ll be able to do what’s needed to perform when it matters. I call it confidence micro-loans because it centers around frequent small–stakes interactions with the folks whose careers I have the privilege of helping nurture. These interactions give me the opportunity to understand, calibrate, and invest in their intuition so they can walk away feeling ready to act boldly.

Credit: Allie Smith

I have a theory that the root of virtually all workplace interpersonal conflict can be traced back to self-doubt; to wondering whether your capability, intellect, or integrity might be in question.

What do these three attributes have to do with self-efficacy? Well, if you believe that others in your tribe might doubt whether you’re fundamentally capable, smart enough, or can be trusted to keep your word; where can you go from there? It can feel like an attack on something essential about your value as a person. It taps into deep worries about whether you belong; whether you deserve to be where you are; whether you’re worth a damn. And considering the evidence that the threat of “un-belonging” is experienced by our bodies as though we’re facing physical harm, I think it’s incumbent on every person in a leadership role to get more tuned-in to the often unspoken dynamics of belongingness.

When you allow yourself to legitimately entertain the possibility that your capability, intellect, or integrity may be in doubt, it represents a dangerous scarcity of confidence. And when something is scarce, it has the tragic effect of turning those who are already struggling against each other in a fight over the scraps, while those with a surplus tend to be sheltered by their privilege, wondering why all these people aren’t “playing the long game” or pulling themselves up by their bootstraps or whatever.

Scarcity of self-efficacy can creep up at any time. Maybe you’re anchoring a big 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 another 1:1. 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 you’re not able to confidently act with my wind at your sails, then how can I expect you to challenge the default assumptions that so frequently stifle progress? If you’re not able to speak your truth, then how can I expect you to bring the benefits of your uniqueness to others on the team? If you’re not able to dust yourself off when you fall, how can I expect you to flourish under the pressure that will invariably come with greater responsibility?

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 recalibrate each other 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 others the opportunity to demonstrate their potential.
  2. Refusing to calibrate. (Because while progress requires movement, movement isn’t always progress)

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.

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

Josh leads design for Ethics & Society at Microsoft, guiding technical and experience innovation towards ethical, responsible, and sustainable outcomes.

Head of Design for Ethics & Society at Microsoft / Formerly People + AI Research at Google / paradoxtheory.com

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