Close up of small boy looking smug!
Business writing,  Confidence,  Humanising business,  Leadership,  Organisational change,  Personal Reflections,  Purpose,  Storytelling,  Women

Rethinking Confidence

Some days I don’t have the first idea what I’m doing.  I eat cake for breakfast and shout at the children, and my hair looks crap. Some days I look at the length of my to do list, the unanswered emails, the state of my kitchen, and realise I am profoundly unqualified for the role of Living My Own Life. 

Some days, the sound of my own voice, the words coming out of my mouth, horrify me. Who am I to influence people in this way? To lead? To make decisions? What do I know? 

Some days I mishandle meetings, speak too much or too little, offend someone, fail to check my privilege, defend and deflect, miss opportunities to listen, learn and grow. I make mistakes, misunderstand, misrepresent, micromanage, try too hard or not hard enough, care too little or much too much.

On those days, I wish for confidence, the way I would wish for a golden elixir in a little stoppered vial. I wish for a cure for my disease – for my dis-ease. It’s as though I believe that confidence is a commodity – something that the loud, successful, shiny people have; something that we can have more of if we just try a bit harder, and say the right affirmations in the mirror every morning.

I don’t believe I’m alone in any of this. Article after article speaks of the damage wrought by our isolation from one another this past year, the absence of the little micro-affirmations we all seek to check we’re on track, the way that ongoing uncertainty keeps our animal brains firing fear-fear-fear. And the counter articles –  loudly declaiming we’re going to ‘Build Back Better’. Online courses on ‘ten tricks for self-confidence’. The golden vial. 

Oh, who wouldn’t wish to be confident in the face of change? If we can be confident in ourselves and lead our teams and organisations with confidence through periods of uncertainty, the advantages are enormous:

  • Confidence helps us to transcend and include, rather than to defend the status quo. We can celebrate and embrace a wide variety of ideas and find new, better ways to do things …
  • It helps us to play, and experiment and try new things …
  • Confidence helps us to approach challenges con brio– making swift, bold and principled decisions … 
  • It helps us to hold our nerve when things don’t go to plan, and to handle conflict well when people don’t agree.

So, if there’s no golden vial – and I have come to believe there is no golden vial – how can we get us some confidence? It turns out, the clue is in the question.

The root of the word confidence is con fides– with faith. This means that the idea of confidence carries, right inside it, the idea of taking a risk. 

It also means that confidence is inherently relational. Confidence lives in the space between us – between you and me, between a leader and a team, between team members, between people and an organisation. Even self-confidence is about my relationship with myself. 

Confidence grows where trust is. Research shows that I will generally trust you if three things are true: if, over time, your judgment and reasoning and expertise has proven to be sound, if you show up in a way that is authentic so that I feel like I am seeing the real you, and if I believe that you have my best interests at heart.

If those pre-conditions are there, if there is trust between us, then confidence grows. Not confidence inside me, or confidence inside you, so much as an atmosphere, an ecosystem of confidence, from which we can all benefit. So, what can we do, as leaders, to help to build confidence in our teams? A few ideas:

  • We can frame things, and sense make. We can be deliberate and intentional in the language we use, and draw on our individual and collective expertise to help craft possible ways forward. Adam Grant talks about leaders having a compass rather than a map in times of uncertainty – we don’t know every step, but we do know what we need to move towards.
  • We can build a cairn. Spoken like a true Scottish girl with mountains in her blood, and I’ve written about the niceties of this metaphor before – but in essence what I mean is that we can help our team members to remember all that they’ve achieved as individuals and as a team in the past – telling those stories and bearing witness to their skills and experience – demonstrating our love for them,  our pride and investment in them, and thus building trust.
  • We can stay rooted in what matters. Fidelity to who we are – as an individual, as a leader, as a team – keeps us rooted and able to feel confident amidst uncertainty. We can always show up for our team, even when it feels hard. We can always go first – take a punt, put it out there, be willing to fail – even when it feels awkward. We can always be brave, always be kind. We can tell the stories that remind us of our purpose and what we’re here to do. 
  • We can create space – let people speak, create space to play and listen and imagine, give things time to emerge and evolve, give people time to develop and grow. Give space for mistakes and correction and learning. For cake for breakfasts and overly long to-do lists. For all of us to be our messy human selves, but held safe in the space that confidence creates between us and around us.

You can download more practical tips for leaders to build confidence in their teams here