01st March 2021

Self-confidence Paradox

Coaching self-confidence with the people I work with is my new mission. Creating teams of people who thrive because they feel understood, appreciated, and confident enough to productively contribute even when they’re not sure how.

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read by Kashif Hasan

At work, what makes self-confident people, self-confident?

I don’t know.

It occurred to me that the more self-confidence we possess, the more comfortable we are in saying those three words, ‘I don’t know’. Often, hard to say - they can make us feel vulnerable. They pinch the raw nerve of any lurking sense of imposter-syndrome. Because - let’s be honest - whatever stage of career we may be at, it’s hard to shake the impulse to imply we’re infallible, smashing our A-game, on the daily.    

However, we’ve all been in situations where we've not known what to do. I think it's fair to say we've all been in situations where our lack of knowledge (or experience) has been conflated with a lack of competence. We’ve all experienced it, being called out by a boss, a teacher, or even a well-meaning parent – usually tacitly, which tends to make it harder to process. To some extent, great or small, in those moments, we’ve been wounded by the humiliation. Perhaps, the degree to which this has happened to us, is a clue to the self-confidence we exhibit today.

Three truths...

  • None of us know (for sure) what the best thing to do is, ever.
  • We all hate feeling like we’ve let ourselves, or our side down.
  • Instinctively, we know sharing problems and working them out together, is healthy, productive, and enjoyable. We’re social animals, right?

Yet, culturally and socially, we’re hardwired to think that smart, successful people do somehow know, all the time. So, it’s no surprise that when we feel unsure about something, we try to protect ourselves. And so, it seems we’ve developed defensive strategies to avoid being, (at least worst) misunderstood and, (most worst) humiliated. Thinking about it, I’ve noticed these defensive strategies roll up into three different types. 

  • Dormouse Mentality. When we seek shelter in the middle of the herd. Keeping a low profile, blending in, not offering a point of view. Trying not to draw fire. Doing what’s asked of us. Nose clean, but often no more. Only when the sh*t hits the fan do we offer up ideas about how things could’ve been done differently. Wash-up sessions are important, of course, but, if it’s true that problems could have been avoided (through more proactive, assertive, collaborative behaviour) why did we let the train derail?
  • Scared to Ship. Sometimes we resist sharing work in progress - don’t we? Early drafts, strawman sketches… We may even run the clock down to the 11th hour, in the hope that whatever we have, will have to be good enough, and we’ll just move on – assuming we’ll be too busy to post-mortem.
  • Devil’s Advocate. Or, another way of framing this is, ‘Attack is the best form of Defence’. The Devil’s Advocate nit-picks, nay-says, focusses on the blockers rather than the opportunities. It’s a negative energy and, I get it, we’ve grown-up hearing that smart people don’t accept things at face value. They ask questions. They challenge conventions, and of course, there’s truth in this. So it makes sense to want to mimic these reflexes. Lest we look like anybody's fool - easily led, quick to roll-over. But, these 'assertive' characteristics are only productive when anchored in the good judgement that comes from skill, insight, experience and the comfort of knowing your team won’t judge you poorly for being unsure of how to solve the problems on the table, here and now.

These behaviours are amplified when our self-confidence is low. They rarely present in isolation, and of course they belie complex nuance. However, I can recognise them in myself and in the social groups I’ve been part of since… well, since I tentatively first stepped foot in nursery, aged four. They are everywhere, and I'd argue, are nearly always obstacles to harmony, to unlocking potential, to innovation, to going fast and doing great work.

To overcome them, we’re going to need a little corporate kumbaya, as in, ‘oh lord, kumbaya’. In my humble view, it starts with an intention to be humble. Without humility, how can we show the patience necessary to empathise, to consider what our peers need, to feel like the playing field is indeed level. Without humility how can we make that leap of faith required to be vulnerable enough to say, ‘I don’t know, but I feel sure we can work in out’. The confidence to be vulnerable.   

If this feels like flakey wokeism, I’m minded that the opposite of ‘woke’ is to be asleep, and I for one want to be alive to the idea that self-confidence is a group responsibility - a new personal priority. I’m no psychology expert, these are opinions. By sharing them with you, I hope I’ll be able to nurture them.  

Let me speak more clearly. Fostering and coaching self-confidence with the people I work with is my new mission, creating teams of people who thrive because they feel understood, appreciated, and confident enough to productively contribute even when they’re not sure how.

Does writing this article make me feel vulnerable? Yes. Ship.