As an intent observer of human behavior, two merging observations have led me to detect a dip in the level of self-confidence people have these days. First, I hear very few people describe their work as a slam dunk (or another similar term). Work these days is a struggle, with plenty of question marks. And as a result of the amount of ongoing change that is impacting our lives, I also hear greater uncertainty about whether the job can even be done, let alone one’s own capability to do it. The end result is that while people are feeling more exposed by the constant onslaught of change, coupled with tentativeness about the job itself, their performance expectations still continue to rise. Metaphorically, people question how they can possibly run faster, when the track has turned to quicksand.
We all know that confidence is an important factor in delivering outstanding performance. Top performers may not be 100% certain about closing the big deal or winning the championship game, but they are genuinely confident in their abilities to always be in a good position to win. Likewise, the very best leaders are those who act with confidence even while staring in the face of uncertainly (which there seems to be plenty of in the crazy world today).
Fortunately there are a couple of things we all can do as leaders to combat the growing self-doubt in others (and in ourselves, for that matter).
First, pay close attention to your own and others’ feelings of self-confidence. Don’t assume it is still high just because it once was. Check in occasionally to see how others are doing. Because of its importance, you should monitor levels of confidence as closely as you do many of your other strategic assets.
My second suggestion: Encourage, Encourage, Encourage. And then, Encourage some more. This may be the leader behavior with the greatest leverage. At International Leadership Associates, we learned from our work with Motorola years ago about the impact of recognition during change. Greg William, a VP in the semi-conductor division at that time, did his homework and proclaimed during a video documentary that the reason change was much slower to take root in some areas compared to others was because of a lack of recognition. From research and personal experiences, we also know that one of the key failures of change is the failure to finish. The key culprit in this failure is the lack of recognition of progress, and reinforcement of skill or performance improvement. Encouragement works.
In addition to research, the most powerful examples are often right with us in our everyday world. For example, I began sensing a great deal of self-doubt in a young woman with whom I work—for the first time in her career. When I approached her about what I was observing she said her boss never, ever acknowledged her efforts in any way. And that vacuum of validation left her wondering…Is she living up to expectations? Is her worth in the company going down? Should she be concerned about her future there? The seed of doubt was planted in a previously very confident and solid performer. Think about the amount of turmoil in her head, and the impact it could have on her results. Sadly, it was not uncontrollable external changes that upended this woman’s belief in herself; it was the completely controllable (and disabling) behavior of her boss.
So, remember how powerful encouragement is in building confidence and how detrimental the absence of it can be, and make strengthening the self-confidence of others an intentional part of your leadership agenda. Helping your people through the quicksand of doubt might be one of your most essential roles you will play this year.
Steve Coats, a Leadership Challenge® Certified Master, is a managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a Platinum Sponsor of The Leadership Challenge Forum 2013. For 25 years, Steve has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers around the world in leadership development, team development, personal growth, change, and business strategy. Steve can be reached at email@example.com or meet him at Forum 2013 and say hello.