Why Leaders Should Build Confidence in Those They Lead

When I joined a construction company as the head of their new human resources department, I was full of confidence. I had successfully built an HR department earlier in my career and had just finished a stint at a top consulting firm that gave me exposure to cutting-edge tools and practices. I was brimming with ideas and enthusiasm.

A few years later, I left that company completely demoralized, my confidence and my work performance at an all-time low. What happened during that time? My boss systematically destroyed my confidence. He blamed me for problems, rubbed my nose in my mistakes, raised his voice at me, reduced my decision-making scope, and never complimented my work or recognized my contributions. My self-confidence began to erode, which triggered a vicious cycle of low performance and even lower confidence, each reinforcing the other. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right, so I focused on trying not to make any mistakes, which, of course, increased the mistakes I made and took my focus off of producing results. I would overthink assignments, miss deadlines, speak timidly, and generally appeared incompetent, which reinforced my boss’s belief that I was incompetent.

Have you ever felt like that?

Could you be causing someone who reports to you to feel like that?

Whenever you notice repeated poor performance in yourself or others, there’s a good chance that low confidence is a contributing factor.

True Confidence: The Ultimate Performance Enhancer

Confidence is your belief about your chance of successfully completing a task. Confidence is not the same as self-esteem. Self-esteem is how much value you place on yourself. Unlike confidence, self-esteem isn’t necessarily based on any valid criteria and is not the cure for society’s problems, as it was once thought to be.

Confidence, on the other hand, usually comes from successfully completing a certain task. Past success supplies your brain with hard proof that you are good at something. This knowledge motivates you to set higher goals and continue to improve that ability, even in the face of adversity and setbacks. This means a little confidence can lead to greater success and even more confidence, igniting a virtuous cycle of high performance.

Believing you are good at something is the single greatest predictor of success after ability. Studies have consistently shown that knowing you are good at something increases your odds of success in that activity and that, conversely, proven skills can be overruled by self-doubt. Confident people outperform insecure people in virtually every context, including chess tournaments, on sports fields, on sales teams, and in management decision-making.

True confidence is based on self-awareness and a desire to improve. When you know what you are good at and want to get even better, you tend to be more willing to acknowledge your weaknesses and admit mistakes, which, ironically, is the surest path to even greater success. In fact, only confident people can accept critical feedback and acknowledge their mistakes without it shattering their self-esteem.

Conversely, overconfidence is having an unfounded or inflated belief in your ability to accomplish a certain task. Overconfidence is usually detrimental to performance because an inaccurate view of our abilities leads us to make unwise decisions, such as under preparing for challenges or taking foolish risks.

Leaders Elevate Others

Throughout my career of helping managers become better leaders, I’ve heard numerous managers say something like, “I don’t want to give too much positive feedback to my staff because I don’t want them to get a big head and ask for a raise.” This is one of the dumbest things a manager can think or say given what we know about how confidence affects performance.

Of course, we don’t want to produce more narcissistic egomaniacs than we already have in the world. However, leaders build true confidence in those they lead and improve their performance by doing the following four things.

       1. Resist the Urge to Blame When Things Go Wrong

Doctors understand the responsibility that society entrusts to them, so they take the Hippocratic Oath to “first do no harm.” Unfortunately, managers do not take a similar oath to care for and elevate those they lead, but they should. Many managers unwittingly destroy their employees’ confidence and subsequent performance by the way they respond to problems.

Nothing kills confidence, initiative, and trust faster than blame. Our brains interpret blame the same way they interpret a physical attack, focusing all our energy on defending ourselves instead of on solving problems.

Leaders can address problems directly without blaming by asking, “Where did the process break down?” This question implies that most problems are caused by several factors, including flawed processes, and makes it far more likely that others will acknowledge their role in the problem.

       2. Delegate Like It’s Your Most Important Job, Because It Is

Because managers are so busy, we tend to delegate in a hurry and frequently forget to communicate important information and provide sufficient support. When the completed assignment doesn’t meet our expectations, we often fail to notice how our sloppy delegating set the delegate up to fail. Failure hurts self-confidence, damages trust between managers and subordinates, and leads to even worse performance. This is one of the most common sources of fractured employment relationships and turnover.

Delegation is the essence of leadership and should be regarded as a manager’s most important responsibility. There are certain tried and true steps of effective delegation, including clearly defining the desired results, providing resources such as templates and checklists, and meeting regularly to review progress and to provide coaching and encouragement.

Effective delegators encourage those they lead to make decisions by clarifying the types of decisions they should make on their own and the types of decisions they should discuss first. If they don’t, delegates are likely to assume they can’t make any decisions. Great delegators regularly ask, “What do you think we should do?”, to help others build their decision-making skills and confidence.

      3. Align Work with Strengths

Effective leaders learn the strengths of the people on their team and do their best to tailor work assignments to leverage people’s strengths and work around their weaknesses. When managers create a strengths-based work environment, they don’t try to shoehorn employees into rigid, static job descriptions; they modify job descriptions to fit each team member’s strengths.

This is precisely what sports coaches do—organize players to maximize individual talents and compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

Nobody wants to go to work to fail, but that’s exactly what managers set their people up to do if they don’t take the time to uncover their strengths and align their work to their abilities.

      4. Foster a Culture of Learning

The belief in your ability to learn and grow is the only reliable and sustainable source of confidence. When your confidence is based on how smart you are or how good you are at something, it will be shattered the moment you are proven wrong or fail. However, when your confidence is based on your ability to learn, your mistakes and failures make you stronger and wiser, and you know it.

Unfortunately, many corporate cultures stifle learning by focusing exclusively on “hitting the numbers” and treating failure as a career death sentence. Consequently, studies and experience show that employees hide their mistakes, making it impossible for them or others to learn from them and improve.

The most powerful way to foster a culture of learning is for leaders to share corrective feedback that they have received or mistakes they have made and how it helped them. Only truly confident leaders do this. Not only does doing so make it safe for others to accept critical feedback and admit mistakes, it also showcases how feedback and mistakes can lead to higher achievement.

Great leaders and organizations institutionalize learning by implementing lessons-learned debriefs at regular intervals or at the conclusion of every project. The purpose of debriefs is to extract lessons learned to identify what went well and why, and discuss what didn’t go well and why. These lessons can then be infused into the organization’s DNA by sharing them with the rest of the organization and by changing standard operating procedures to increase the odds of future success and reduce the chance of errors.

Be the Leader You Wish You Had

True confidence is the quiet assurance that comes from knowing your strengths and being determined to learn from your mistakes to become even stronger.

If you want to increase the confidence and performance of those you lead, set them up for success when delegating an assignment, align their work with their strengths, and create an environment that fosters learning. But first, avoid damaging their trust and confidence by resisting the urge to blame.

As you help those you lead build their confidence, their performance will increase, they will find greater success, and they will become more willing to learn from their mistakes and find even greater success.

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