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How's Your Confidence Today?

As a manager you're in the spotlight. Who is watching to see if you will fly or flop? How's your confidence in this fishbowl? It's hard to be sure of yourself in a complex, rapidly changing world. Much easier to feel uncertain, to duck key decisions or to blame slip-ups on others.

Reasons for Low Self Confidence

We all have our own reasons for lacking confidence, but here are four reasons that may not be so commonly recognized:

1.    Discounting your strengths

Suppose someone compliments you for exhibiting a particular strength. Do you look surprised, shrug your shoulders and say "That's just my job?" Or do you ask: "Doesn't everybody do that?" These responses are very common; we discount our strengths and worry about one or two weaknesses. The things we are good at come easy to us so we don't rate them. How could something so effortless, you feel, be a strength?

Focusing on weaknesses is a cancer for confidence. The fact that mistakes get more attention than successes reinforces your unbalanced self-perception. Accurate feedback on your strengths helps. But you can go a lot further: when reviewing progress against targets with your boss, start with what has gone well since you last met. This forces a discussion of positives, vitally important since most managerial meetings focus on gaps, what has gone wrong or what needs to be fixed.

When planning your week, note whatever progress you made last week, however small. Regular celebrations of success can work wonders for your confidence.

2.    Basing confidence on having answers

Most managers are solution generators, goal scorers: having the answers and calling the shots. This mindset is encouraged by a strong emphasis on accountability. The need for one person to have all the answers is a problem in an age of complexity and rapid change.

It's not just the fault of organizational cultures. Your success is based on your ability to come up with great ideas. But it's self-defeating to think you can continue in this mode if you are managing knowledge workers. To enhance your confidence consider basing it on question asking, variations on "What do you think?" Draw solutions out of others by asking them what they see as the  issue, what solutions they would propose and what they see as the pros and cons of their preferred solution. This means reframing your role so that stakeholders see you as a catalyst and facilitator, not just a solution generator.

It is much easier to base your confidence on the ability to ask engaging questions than it is to base it on having the answers. Most managers ask questions to gather facts to develop their own conclusions. Engaging questions seek the input of others, not information, to foster shared ownership, generate better solutions and fully engage others.

Maybe you delegate a lot, but developing solutions is mental work and, whenever you are doing it, you are not managing. Delegating is useful for getting tasks done, but managers need to get mental work done through others too. This means drawing solutions out of them. You don't think you're primarily a solution generator? What about the last time you offered very few suggestions in a meeting?Those who say little in meetings tend to feel that they don't know enough about the subject to contribute anything. But this proves that they recognize only one way of contributing - offering new content which, of course, means better solutions than others. Taking the role of facilitator rarely occurs to them as a valid way of contributing to a meeting.

Asking engaging questions helps others think more broadly and can enhance your confidence more than just sitting there. You don't need to know anything about the content to ask someone, who is promoting a particular solution, about the possible downsides, implications for other things, risks or costs. This is easy because anyone promoting an idea will usually focus only on the reasons for going ahead. You could also ask what other options there are or who else might be consulted or what others in the meeting see as pluses and minuses. 

The main point here is that you can ask many of the same facilitative questions regardless of the content. You don't have to know much about the content or even be prepared. This is such a better basis for confidence than expecting yourself to contribute good content all the time and worrying yourself to death because you haven't done enough preparation for an upcoming meeting.

3.    Excessive ownership

Do you feel a greater weight of responsibility than your team members? It's not that you're inherently more conscientious than they are. Naturally you want to prove yourself, but you may assume more ownership than is healthy, both for you and the organization. With so much riding on your shoulders, it's hard to feel confident that you can meet so many demands, so you work harder- a vicious circle of your own making. The way out is again to reframe your role to that of a catalyst and facilitator, not that you stop generating solutions altogether. It's about getting the balance right. The best way to foster shared ownership is to involve your team and other stakeholders in key decisions and plans. You may be tempted to continue being the hero by proposing your own solutions in meetings and then asking for feedback, but this approach might just generate rubber stamp responses from others in the meeting, especially if others see you as a particularly authoritative person. Try resisting this temptation and, instead, state the issue and ask others to suggest solutions before you offer yours. If this approach seems wildly different from your usual style, position it by saying that you are changing the emphasis of your style, from primary decision maker to facilitator or catalyst. You can explain this by saying that you want to start developing others by encouraging them to do more thinking and problem solving. Shared decision making is a great first step to fostering wider shared ownership for outcomes, thus taking some of the pressure off of your shoulders. You can then base your confidence more on a total team effort and less on yourself.

4.    The manufacturing mindset

To prove yourself, you don't your boss to have to tell you how to do your job. So YOU decide for yourself what's important, what your priorities should be. Given that your boss is your most important customer, the fact that YOU decide what is important to him or her means that you're operating with a manufacturing mindset. A business is guilty of the manufacturing mindset when it decides what products customers should want. The marketing mindset means making more effort to find out what customers want.

In the manufacturing mindset you are throwing darts in the dark. How confident can you be of hitting the target if you're in the dark? So, to improve your confidence in this situation, start thinking of your boss as a customer. Instead of avoiding your boss, proactively seek more of this critical customer's time, within reason. Go beyond asking what those priorities are to ask deeper analytical questions to diagnose needs that your boss might not be aware of. Such questions might also help your boss think more broadly about issues too. Getting such regular updates on your boss's changing needs can enable you to gain a sharper focus on critical priorities which could enhance your confidence.


There is a common theme underlying all of these causes of low self confidence and that is the tendency for managers to be autonomous decision makers, the need to prove their worth by generating solutions and wanting to call the shots. This problem is partly driven by the drives of individuals and partly by organizational culture.

Further Thoughts

Another big reason for our lack of confidence is the sheer amount of negative feedback we get. Why is this the case? Because of the principle known as "management by exception" which tells us to pay attention only to exceptions to our expectations. This works well with non-human processes, as in quality control, but it is devastating for human motivation and confidence. We all follow this principle because we rely on habits or routines to make best use of our time.

A habit or routine implies an expectation that things will work out as expected. So, any mistake violates our expectations and disrupts our flow. Also, no one likes to be embarrassed and mistakes are embarrassing. When an employee lets us down, we react emotionally. So, we jump on violations to our expectations and we put some emotional force behind it because we are annoyed at being let down. Positive things people do are expected so we just take them for granted instead of recognizing them, unless they do something really out of the ordinary, positive beyond our expectations that is.

We also have a natural tendency to look for someone to blame when things go wrong, so we jump on people to absolve ourselves, not caring about the blow to their confidence. Finally, there is also the fact that we have a tendency to take pleasure out of seeing people make a mistake because it makes us feel less stupid.

One thing everyone can do to build and maintain stronger confidence is to apply a discipline of regularly documenting and celebrating successes, both personally and in all management meetings. See Celebrating Your Success for more on this theme.

Be realistic: no one is confident all the time. it's a bit like mood, it fluctuates up and down. Even the best professional athletes have bouts of low confidence. While we can raise our overall confidence, we have to ride the roller coaster of highs and lows, not expecting ourselves to feel totally confident all the time in all situations.

Original version published in The Canadian Manager, May 2010.

See How to be More Effective at Work on how to balance self-reliance and interdependence.

See alsoA Hero at Work - how we undermine our confidence by being too individualistic. See also: Engage Yourself, Should You Always Play to Your Strengths?

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