This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once said: "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts."
While I doubt you would characterize any of the people you work with as 'fools and fanatics' – it's a good reminder that, at times, confidence is baffling. How is it that someone can be so over-confident in their abilities, while highly competent people are wracked with doubt and uncertainty? Why is it that no matter how much praise we provide to some employees they just can't see their own ability?
These questions are never more pressing than in September when a class of new recruits comes walking through the door – some meek as mice, and others decidedly overconfident. Most leaders intuitively know that confidence is vital to performance, and yet many aren't quite sure how to manage it. What we need is a plan.
Confidence and ability: A (sometimes) missing link
In a perfect world, ability and confidence would go hand-in-hand. Anyone who has managed people, however, knows that this is far from a universal truth. There is a whole body of literature on the 'imposter syndrome' that plagues even the most highly skilled among us, and no less than Roger Federer recently confessed to Sports Illustrated that he suffered a loss of confidence last year that lead to below average performances for him. This is something we see all the time in our own work with elite athletes and coaches.
Any incoming class is likely to include individuals with all possible combinations of confidence and ability. Sure, you will have highly coachable people with low ability and the confidence to match, and stars who possess both high ability and confidence – but you can also expect people with low ability and high confidence, and some with high ability who lack confidence.
With this in mind, I present five ideas for managing the confidence of your team members.
Pre-brief to debrief
Debriefing is vital for improving competence. When it comes to confidence, however, debriefs alone aren't enough. Overconfident people will tend to focus on what went right and discount constructive feedback, while those with less confidence are busy listing everything they could have done better – even if things went incredibly well.
The key? Sit down beforehand and have the performer lay out both what an exceptional performance and what an acceptable performance will look like. Having them describe this in advance provides for a much richer debrief.
When your under-confident team member zooms immediately to the things they did wrong, you can gently remind them that – by their own description before the event – they delivered an exceptional performance. With the overconfident performer, on the other hand, it allows you to highlight the gap between what was expected compared with what occurred and ask, 'what do you think happened?'
Conversations like this will also help you identify where the lack in confidence is centred. Many people are confident in their ability, but lack confidence in some other aspect of their personality, appearance, or social and other skills. Knowing the source of their doubts helps you target your coaching.
Use mentor pairings
Acting as a mentor to someone else can help under-confident people begin to recognize the extent of their capabilities. Praise from a peer or mentee can have a lasting impact on confidence, and help them 'see' knowledge and abilities that they may have taken for granted.
Mentoring can also benefit the over-confident. Being mentored by, or even simply observing, a true expert can help them begin to see some of the gaps in their skill set and be more open to coaching. This was my experience during my tenure as a management consultant when, as a new and highly confident associate partner, I spent time working closely with a highly competent senior partner and saw how much I had to learn to effectively run client relationships.
Take sandwiches off the menu
Many of us are familiar with the 'sandwich' approach to feedback – for example, positive-constructive-positive. Organizations still train managers to do this. When it comes to confidence this approach is not a good one.
What do the over-confident hear? The bread. What do under-confident people hear? The meat. In either case, it can serve to exacerbate the underlying confidence issue. You are much better off simply providing unvarnished feedback delivered in a respectful way that either reinforces behaviour you want more of or corrects behaviour you want less of.
Make progress visible
In her terrific book The Progress Principle, Harvard professor Theresa Amabile showed that the most satisfying markers of progress come from the work itself – not from managers providing praise.
What does this mean for managers? The more you are able to break tasks down into manageable and measurable performance goals, the better job you will do at building confidence. Providing milestones that let people know they are progressing provides proof of their competence.
Resist the urge to 'take them down a peg'
With an overconfident performer, especially someone who is new, it can be tempting to 'take them down a peg.'
My recommendation is to fight this urge. Why? Because if you follow through you'll have three problems where you used to have one: not only will your team member still lack skill, they will also lack trust in you and confidence in themselves.
Help them realistically assess what they still need to learn. Encourage and reinforce humility. Destroying confidence is rarely a good strategy.