Stop telling people to 'be more confident' (and do this instead)

Stop telling people to ‘be more confident’ (and do this instead)

Megumi Miki
When an audience of women are asked whether they have ever been told to “be more confident”, anywhere between 40 and 60 per cent of hands go up.

When asked to keep their hands up if they feel more confident after having been told to “be more confident”, the hands often go down.

While well-intended, the “be more confident” advice is based on some unhelpful, if not dangerous, assumptions that need challenging.

Some of those who may appear quiet to others may indeed lack confidence, but others are comfortable with silence, and choose their words carefully and speak quietly and thoughtfully. They don’t feel the need to attract attention because they are confident inside. On the flipside, those who talk regularly and appear ‘louder’ to others may not be all that confident at all.

You may have seen people who appear confident but become defensive when they receive corrective feedback. That’s an example where the external appearance does not match the inner confidence levels. The danger of leaders who appear confident and are not so confident inside is that the insecurities leak out, or they try to cover it up in various ways to keep up the appearance of confidence. You may have seen examples of leaders powering over others, not listening, blaming others or taking credit rather than giving credit to others.

Confidence = competence = leader-like

Our minds are often subject to the “awestruck effect”, where we can fail to think rationally and get fooled by charismatic, confident types. In addition, psychologists warn us of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where poor performers overestimate their abilities while high performers underestimate their abilities. When we don’t test our assumptions about people who appear confident as competent and leader-like, we pay the price of hiring, promotion, even investment mistakes.

You may sometimes hear yourself or others say, “I’m not confident enough to do xxx.” Such statements assume that you need to be confident in order to take action. This is back to front. You need to take action, then confidence builds. If you don’t take action, you’ll lose confidence even more.

People need to be encouraged to be brave and take action, rather than being told to try and be confident.

Another problem with being told to “be more confident” is that it causes people to be more anxious that they are not coming across as confident. And that anxiety turns into an interfering inner critic, making people doubt themselves even more.

So what should you do instead?

Based on personal conversations with many “quiet” professionals, coaching clients, and interviews with leaders who use their quiet nature as their leadership strength, here are three suggestions.

Check your assumptions first

Check how you are determining whether someone is confident or not. Just because someone is not speaking much or appears anxious, does not necessarily mean they lack confidence. Most of us are also confident in some things and not everything. Challenge how you and others may be over-valuing confidence over competence, and try valuing humility instead.

Focus on specific behaviours and skills

Rather than giving feedback on ‘being more confident’, which is subjective and could be based on assumptions, support people to work on specific behaviours and skills. For example, you might suggest to some that they could make more eye contact or develop skills in speaking to groups. Other people’s confidence is an internal, subjective feeling, meaning you are not always the best judge.

Encourage people to choose ‘courage over comfort’

If people say that they lack confidence, support them to take an experimental approach – start small, go just outside of their comfort zone, reflect and learn, then keep stretching. It is especially helpful to focus on tasks that are meaningful to them. Psychology professor Dr Brian Little talks about “Free trait theory”, and says that people can do things out of character for things they deeply care about.

Quietly powerful leaders – highly successful leaders who have a quieter style – are quietly confident and humble. They can therefore be present with people and focus on their purpose rather than on whether they appear confident. To find and develop more of these leaders, we need to challenge our assumptions about appearing confident and what good leadership looks, sounds and feels like.

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