How to build up your employees' confidence

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

If you are a manager or employer faced with an underperforming employee how often do you consider lack of confidence as the source of the performance issue? Some studies indicate that confidence is virtually as important as ability when it comes to sustained performance. For the most part we either assume confidence on the part of our employees or believe that with a little bit of practice it will show up.

Webster offers several possible meanings for confidence:


  • the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something; firm trust: we had every confidence in the staff | he had gained the young man’s confidence.

  • the state of feeling certain about the truth of something: it is not possible to say with confidence how much of the increase in sea levels is due to melting glaciers.

  • a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities: she’s brimming with confidence | [ in sing.]: he would walk up those steps with a confidence he didn’t feel.

You might note that as presented in the dictionary the first two meanings of confidence refer to something environmental, not an individual characteristic. 1) Reliance on someone else, 2) belief in the value of external knowledge. And yet, we continue to assume that (from above) “self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities” is the way things ought to be.

For a few minutes at least I’d like you to think about confidence in a different manner. What if confidence is as much social as individual in nature, something that arises as a product of our interactions with others, whether in the workplace or some other endeavor?

This topic came up for me this week in a spontaneous way.

I was reflecting on experiences I have had in coaching in the workplace over the past thirty years. While there are many such instances involving confidence one stands out in particular. I was working with a woman who was struggling as a manager. She had been promoted with high hopes and after nearly a year in her new position was floundering. We spent quite a bit of time together just talking about her view of her performance, she knew it wasn’t great, and she was defensive. After several hours of conversation, she admitted to me that she was not happy in the role she was playing, especially as she considered the long term prospects. So I asked what that was all about.

She indicated that it wasn’t the job per se, it was that she had something else in mind for herself and she was putting it off. As it turned out she had taken accepted her current employment as a part of a strategy for a few years out. She had hopes of being a lawyer but after three years with her employer she hadn’t done anything about it and her own dissatisfaction was being reflected in her performance as a manager. When I asked her why she was putting off law school she said that was wasn’t sure she’d be successful in law school and her lack of confidence in herself was now being reflected in her performance.

As we talked it became obvious that she had a real passion for the law and it was being thwarted by her lack of confidence. She said her husband encouraged her but she didn’t want to make the investment of their money only to fail.

I recall asking her whether she might borrow her husband’s confidence for long enough for her own to show up. She thought about that for a while and then said it seemed like a mental trick.

I then told her that what she didn’t understand was that her husband knew her to be a very capable person, someone he would bet on. Just because she couldn’t see that didn’t mean he was wrong.  Shortly thereafter I finished my engagement with the client. The woman in my story had moved ahead and applied to law school and almost like a miracle her performance as a manager began to improve as well.

I moved away, and years past. One day when I went to my mailbox there was a card from someone whose name I did not recognize. It was a thank you card. As I read the card I realized who it was from. I’m not sure how she tracked me down but the woman who I had coached to borrow confidence from her husband was writing to let me know she had graduated from law school.  It all began she said, with those conversations we had.

Can your employees learn enough confidence to perform as needed? Are you willing to loan them your confidence or are you satisfied with a “show me” point of view?

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