Use Memory to Boost Self-Confidence

Self-confidence can be a game-changer for leaders, and so it comes up in Coaching. Followers expect to work with self-assured leaders. Confidence is different than a “know-it-all” attitude: It’s more about feeling strong in your abilities. In every workplace, it’s not just about what you know that demonstrates leadership –  it’s how confidently you lead when you don’t know.

For example, M. has taken on a new job, after being downsized from a 20-year career in a completely different industry. He has demonstrated skills in leading successful operations, but not in this business. A few weeks in, and already he can feel that his new team is wary of his entry and testing his ability to lead them. He’s discouraged about the extra hours he’s logging just trying to “learn the ropes.”

P. is also struggling to show more confidence at work. She’s been at home with her children for a few years, and although she kept up-to-date with her licencing, it is a big transition to re-enter the field. Some days she is almost paralyzed by uncertainty, and her decision-making is becoming slower and more tentative as issues ramp up.

W. recently got promoted to supervisor from a technical position on a team. This is his first formal leadership role and he’s getting push-back from his former peers. They’ve let him know that they still see him as “one of the team” and he can feel his confidence in leading is eroding.

All three leaders want to increase their confidence, for different reasons. As we Coach, I remark that we are all competent in ways we cannot easily see. Leaders are very good at problem-solving and gap analysis. When we turn this critical eye on ourselves, it’s easy to see what we can’t do. Couple this attention to “what’s-not-working” with a period of career transition, and you have a recipe for low confidence.

Here’s a solution: The memory of competency. According to research, its not just being competent right now that gives us self-confidence – it’s also the memory of our competency. Here’s an example. I’m a runner who can easily run 5KM and, with hard work, 10KM. Running is a skill that makes me feel strong and capable. But the memory of being able to run 5km is enough to bring on a feeling of confidence, even when I am not running. I learned this driving to a meeting that I was anxious about. As I passed a highway sign that said, “Exit 5 km” I inadvertently thought “I can run 5km!”  Then, as I realized just how far that is – even in a speeding car – my self-confidence was boosted.

So, what can M., P., W., and you do to increase self-confidence? Remember what they have already achieved. M. starts to remember how good he is at learning under pressure.  P. too recalls her previous work successes, and notices that she has demonstrated resilience, compassion and tenacity during her at-home parenting period. W. recalls the way he successfully coached kid’s soccer, and other times in his life when he comfortably took the lead.

  • Recall times when you felt strong, competent and confident.
  • Keep those stories near to you, and take a moment to remember this whenever you feel unsure.
  • If there is a physical reminder, keep it nearby as a visual cue.

I have the running medals I have earned hanging in my office. P.’s family photo on her desk has taken on a new meaning – a reminder of how competent she is. Your visual cue could be a diploma on the wall or the suit jacket you are wearing that you won the deal in.

There is a lot more to leadership than self-confidence. But positive psychology puts “self-efficacy” high on the list of traits for healthy living. When we ask others to trust us as leaders, it helps if we first trust ourselves.

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