How to Manage an Underconfident Person
Building Higher Levels of Self-Belief in Others
"That was an amazing presentation, Noah. Well done!" says Kat. Noah sighs and shrugs his shoulders.
"It went badly. I messed up and nobody was even listening," he replies. "It was a complete disaster."
"Are you kidding?" Kat says, in disbelief. "Everyone was riveted. You captivated the audience – you could have heard a pin drop. Didn't you notice?"
"You're just saying that," replies Noah, eyes to the floor. "I'm just terrible at presentations."
Some people limit themselves at work because of their extreme lack of confidence, no matter how talented they are. And there's nothing more frustrating for a manager than knowing how much potential a team member has, but feeling powerless to bring it out.
Self-confidence is extremely important in almost every aspect of our lives, helping us to achieve more and to find success. Yet so many of us struggle with it. Sadly, this can become a vicious circle: people who lack self-confidence can find it difficult to become successful, which can diminish their confidence levels even more.
In this article, we'll define "underconfidence," consider the ways that it can manifest itself at work, and then look at the steps that managers can take to support team members in building their self-belief.
What Does Underconfidence Mean?
Self-confidence is the term used to describe a person's perceived capability to perform at a certain level. When you have confidence in yourself, you know what you're good at and the value that you add to your team, department or organization. Moreover, you consistently behave in a way that conveys this to others.
Conversely, underconfidence is when you have low trust or faith in your abilities, irrespective of the results that you achieve. People who have very little self-confidence often also have low self-esteem, which compounds the issue even further.
Self-confidence and self-esteem can have a significant impact on a person's performance. Various studies show that team members who feel good about their abilities tend to have higher levels of creativity and job satisfaction, and are more motivated to succeed.
We're all prone to periods of self-doubt, especially when we're having a difficult time at work or in our personal lives. However, extreme low confidence, or underconfidence, can be more deep rooted, and is not necessarily based on fact or reason. This makes it particularly difficult to manage, as the cause may not be immediately obvious or directly related to the working environment.
Team members who have particularly low levels of self-confidence tend to have a poor view of themselves, and are particularly critical of their own work. They typically use negative language about themselves, rarely trust their own judgment, and believe that success is the result of luck rather than of their own efforts.
Underconfident people often see more risks than opportunities in their lives, and can prefer to stay in their comfort zones in case they get "found out." As a result, they're less likely to volunteer for new projects or to speak out in meetings, for fear of failure. And, because they often worry about what others think, they have a tendency to procrastinate, and they struggle to make effective decisions.
Pros and Cons
If team members lack confidence, they'll perform below their potential, no matter how gifted they are. This lack of self-belief can cause them to self-sabotage, resulting in feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy or anger. This can impact team morale negatively.
People who have extremely low confidence can also drain their manager's time and energy, particularly if they need a lot of encouragement and support. Equally, co-workers might find that underconfident colleagues are energy sappers and can be hard to work with, especially if they have to take on extra work because their underconfident colleague has failed to make a decision or complete a project on time.
However, people with low self-confidence can bring some benefit to teams. For example, they can become highly competent in a particular field if they set themselves high expectations and constantly seek ways to improve.
On rare occasions, an apparent chronic lack of confidence and need for reassurance can be a sign of controlling or manipulative behavior, or an aspect of a victim mentality. Use objective criteria to judge the situation fairly for everyone on the team.
Get the Best From an Underconfident Team Member
Even the most confident employee may suffer from self-doubt at some point in his or her career. And while it's your team member's responsibility to develop his own sense of worth, good management can help the process greatly.
Follow these eight steps to get the best from your underconfident team member.
1. Develop a Coaching Relationship
If you're planning to help one of your team to build her confidence, you need to get beneath the surface to understand what's really going on. Initially, you may find that an underconfident team member instinctively resists confiding in you, so establish a good coaching relationship to encourage her to open up.
To have an effective conversation, start simply and talk about things that you have in common (such as a work event or project, or a shared sporting interest). Demonstrate that you are reliable and that you take a sincere interest in your people's wellbeing, to help you to develop trust with her.
Work through the six levels of rapport – environment, behavior, capability, beliefs, identity, and spirit – to establish the intimacy that you need to be able to ask the right kind of questions.
2. Identify the Cause
During your conversation, actively listen for any verbal cues that he gives about his lack of self-confidence (such as being overly self-critical). Gently use a technique such as the 5 Whys to get to the root of the issue.
Explore the situations that make him lack confidence, so that he can develop the knowledge or skills he needs to feel more at ease. Work together to identify strategies that he can use to take back control in those scenarios. Role play, for example, can be a useful exercise for practicing dealing with, and then succeeding in, difficult situations.
Feelings of low self-worth can be deep-seated, and are not always based on logic or fact. If you see that your team member is very stressed, depressed or anxious, encourage him to seek professional help.
3. Challenge Negative Thinking
You may find that your underconfident team member frequently puts herself down without any good reason or evidence to justify it. Talking negatively about yourself is an easy trap to fall into, but it can be unhealthy if it becomes a habit.
Thought awareness is an important first step to managing negative thinking. Every time your team member talks badly about herself, challenge her to find an alternative way of assessing the situation. If she insists that she can't do something, ask her to describe a time when she successfully overcame a similar challenge. This will help her to put the task into perspective.
4. Focus on Strengths, Not Weaknesses
Although it's important to acknowledge areas that require development, it's often better to spend more time focusing on underconfident people's strengths. If you help your team member to develop skills in areas that he naturally excels in, he's more likely to start believing in his own ability.
Use a personal SWOT analysis to identify his key strengths, and align his work more closely to them. And, if he shows real expertise in certain areas, look at ways that he can share his knowledge with others (such as small-scale presentations) to develop his confidence further. Remember not to push him too hard if he initially resists. Gentle encouragement is a better approach.
Again, encourage him to use a journal to record and reflect on his successes.
5. Set Incremental Goals
People gain confidence from successfully completing tasks and projects, from developing their skills and knowledge, and from recognizing this as a success. We learn that, when we work hard, we succeed. This leads us to accept more difficult challenges, and to persist in the face of setbacks.
To develop her competence, help your team member to identify small and achievable goals. Make sure that these are realistic, so that you can gradually increase the challenge every time she successfully completes one. Her belief in her own abilities will increase with every step, if she takes the time to notice her successes.
As your team member learns new skills, she'll likely go through a range of different emotions. Use the Conscious Competence Ladder to help her to progress.
6. Empower by Delegating
Whenever you can, delegate small but important tasks to your underconfident team member. Giving him extra responsibility will allow him to develop new capabilities and to grow in confidence, by succeeding with unfamiliar tasks.
Be aware, however, that he may resist at first: after all, he'll probably be daunted and doubt his ability to make the right decisions. So, if he pushes back, tell him that you have confidence in his judgment, and that you will guide him if necessary.
If your team member relies on you too much, show him how he could be more independent. This will encourage him to think for himself, instead of automatically asking for help.
7. Support Through Mistakes
When a team member lacks confidence, the slightest mistake can reaffirm her feelings of inadequacy and that she simply can't do what is being asked of her. But the process of falling down, getting back up again, and working hard is how we develop resilience – a key trait in successful people.
Managing an underconfident team member can be a drain on your own emotional resources and time. Make sure that you take care of your own wellbeing, and that you are able to get your own work done. Take a look at our Avoiding Burnout and Coping Under Pressure articles for help in dealing with the situation.
According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, people with "fixed mindsets" consider setbacks as proof that they're not up to the job. But a more healthy approach, she argues, is to adopt a "growth mindset," where you treat "problems" as opportunities to develop and improve.
Help your team member to challenge any fixed mindset by encouraging her if she makes mistakes. Remind her that she can choose how to react. Also, emphasize that, as long as there's a solid rationale for her decisions and she's trying her best, you will support her.
8. Recognize Small Achievements
When you are helping someone to build his confidence, it's important to give him regular positive feedback, and to celebrate his achievements, no matter how small. Recognition is a great morale booster so, whenever you notice your team member's good work, congratulate him.
When you do, be specific about what he did right. For instance, rather than using broad, sweeping statements such as, "You're doing great," try saying, "Your report was virtually free of mistakes, and exactly what I asked for. Well done!" Otherwise, your words will likely fall on deaf ears, as he could feel that you're merely offering platitudes.
Underconfident people have unrealistically low faith in their abilities, which can hinder their progress at work, and drain their manager's and co-workers' energy.
Use the techniques in this article to challenge unhelpful or negative thinking and to focus on your underconfident team member's strengths, rather than her weaknesses.
Help her to build her confidence by developing a coaching relationship with her, to try to identify the root cause of her lack of self-belief. Help her to set small achievable goals, and then empower her by delegating tasks to her. Provide her with further support by encouraging her when she makes mistakes and recognizing her achievements, no matter how small.