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Nurture Confidence in Your Team

Originally published
Originally published: 4/7/2015

As I walked into my office, my cell phone buzzed with a text message. It was from Pami, one of my direct reports and a leader of two teams. The message was simple: "I want to resign."

We met for coffee that afternoon to discuss the situation. She looked up from her mug, her eyes watery, and said, "David, I don't think I can do this any more. I don't believe in myself."

That is a low feeling. One of your people ... one of the team members you rely on, has lost faith in herself?

What made it worse was that I completely believed in her. I had no doubt she could do the work and lead her teams. Something was missing between my belief in her and her lack of belief in herself.

Lack of confidence will cripple your team, keep them dependent on you, and prevent you from doing your own work. In contrast, effective leaders build confident teams that tackle new challenges, learn, and achieve together. These leaders nurture confidence in their teams through three key practices.

Say "You Can"

Every leader is a CBO or Chief Belief Officer. When you hear people talk about leadership vision, this is ultimately what they mean. Leaders communicate possibility and potential.

Walter Isaacson's biography popularized the idea of Steve Jobs' "reality distortion field." Although the "field" encompassed some unsavory characteristics (bending the truth, exaggerating, ignoring what Jobs did not want to deal with), it also included an almost magical ability to make the seemingly impossible happen. How did Jobs do this over and over again?

Issaacson relates the story of Jobs' visit with Corning Glass's CEO, Wendell Weeks, and how Gorilla Glass came to be used in the iPhone:
Jobs ... said he wanted as much Gorilla Glass as Corning could make within six months. "We don't have the capacity," Weeks replied. "None of our plants make the glass now."

"Don't be afraid," Jobs replied. This stunned Weeks, who was good-humored and confident but not used to Job's reality distortion field. He tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges, but that was a premise Jobs had repeatedly shown he didn't accept. He stared at Weeks unblinkingly. "Yes, you can do it," he said. "Get your mind around it. You can do it."

As Weeks retold this story, he shook his head in astonishment. "We did it in under six months," he said. "We produced a glass that had never been made."

At his best, Steve Jobs had an unwavering vision of the future and a conviction of what people could do. He transferred that belief to Weeks with the simple words, "You can do it." 

Your team needs to hear you say, "You can!"

I once had the privilege to interview Christine Aguilar, one of a small handful of female staff in a mostly male prison. With a highly diverse and contentious inmate population, she had been placed in charge of creating a clothing factory. As if those weren't enough barriers, prior attempts to open a similar factory in other state facilities had failed.

One year later, Christine's factory was out-producing the prototype operation, had an impeccable safety record, and could run itself without supervision.

When I asked Christine what made such a rapid transition possible, she said,

"It began with my belief in the people. When they came to me, they wanted to tell me about what they had done on the outside – why they were in prison. I cut them off, told them I didn't really care about who they were last year. 'This is who we are going to be in this factory and this is what we're going to do.' Most of them didn't believe it at first, but pretty quickly they responded to someone believing in them."

When you positively communicate, "You can!" to your team, your belief in your team will become their confidence. Ultimately, this is the distilled essence of leadership: transferring the belief that together we can have a better tomorrow.

Clear Expectations Paired with Training

Imagine that you're driving across the country to visit a friend. It's late at night, your phone has died so you can't consult the gps, and you think you're on the right road, but you're not sure. What would you do?

If you're like most people, you would either look for a road sign or stop to find a map. In order to restore your confidence, you needed clarity about where you were and where you're going.

After your belief in them, your team needs clarity. This is deceptively simple. When we struggle as managers, it is often because we have failed to set clear expectations.

Set Clear Expectations

I've worked with thousands of managers and team leaders and in 90% or more of those coaching conversations, the problems we're discussing result from unclear expectations.

Expectations can come from many sources: the team itself, the manager, or the organization. Regardless, if those expectations are not clear, they will not be met, and I can guarantee you will be frustrated.

You can determine if expectations are clear by asking team members, "What do you understand the expectations to be?" If they can't state them clearly, you have work to do.

Train and Equip Your Team to Meet the Expectations

After clear expectations, the next pitfall is in assuming that everyone has the knowledge or skills to meet those expectations. Ensure your team members are set up for success!

Don't take this one for granted. I've met engineers who didn't know how to use basic scheduling tools. If you're unsure if people have the skills necessary, ask for a demonstration or have them walk you through their processes.

Confident teams are clear about their expectations and have the skills they need to achieve their goals. As a leader, it's your job to make sure both of these are in place.

Coach for Growth

Managers and leaders often struggle with how to develop their people.

You might vaguely know you're supposed to ... you've heard about 'leader as coach,' but what are you actually supposed to do?

The good news is that you can do it and it doesn't take very long. In a few conversations that take a few minutes each, you can enhance a team member's ability to take responsibility, solve problems, and build their confidence.

Hero or Harassed?

When a team member asks for help, how do you respond? Do you get upset or do you dive in to "help" by offering solutions. Unfortunately, neither response gets you what you want: more time for your work and more responsibility from your team.

On the one hand, if you get upset and chastise your team for bothering you, they will stop bothering you. They'll also resent you and begin dragging their feet rather than solve problems that need attention. But hey, they're not bothering you anymore, right?

On the other hand, if you play the hero and jump in with answers, the immediate problems get solved and work continues. But next time an issue comes up, your team still can't figure it out for themselves and, worse, you've now taught them that if things get difficult, you'll just figure it out for them. Yes, you're the hero, but say goodbye to your own productivity!

The help your team really needs is not chastisement or to solve problems for them. What they really need from you in these moments are your questions.

The Power of Healthy Questions

Good questions are critical to free up your own time and increase your team's ability to think and problem solve on their own.

Poor questions place blame, dwell on failure, and are followed by an implied "you idiot!" Examples of poor questions include:

  • Who screwed up?
  • Why did you do that?
  • What were you thinking?

In contrast, healthy questions focus on learning and on the future to generate ideas and solutions. Examples include:

  • What is your goal?
  • What did you try?
  • What happened?
  • What would you do next time?

Assuming that your staff have the basic skills, training, and materials they need to do their jobs, this conversation doesn't have to take more than a few minutes. For a complex project it might take the time required to drink a cup of coffee, but it shouldn't take much longer than that.

Now, you might be wondering what to do if the person replies to one of your questions with, "I don't know."

No problem! "I don't know" can mean many things. Rarely does it mean the person has zero thoughts about the issue.

More often, "I don't know" translates to:

  • "I'm uncertain."
  • "I don't want to commit before I know where you stand."
  • "I haven't thought about it yet."
  • "I don't want to think about it."
  • "Will you please just tell me what to do?"
  • "I'm scared about getting it wrong."

Your job as a leader is to continue the dialogue – to ease the person through their anxiety and train their brain to engage. With one question you can re-engage them in the conversation and move through "I don't know" to productivity.

When someone says, "I don't know," your next question is: "What might you do if you did know?"

Try this with your children, with your co-workers, or with the person next to you in a coffee shop. In any conversation where someone says, "I don't know," respond with a gentle, "What might you do if you did know?" and watch what happens.

The person who was stymied two seconds ago will start to share ideas (usually good ones!) and move on as if they were never stuck. It's amazing and hard to believe until you try it.

It works because this question addresses the source of the person's "I don't know."  If they were anxious or fearful, it takes the pressure off by creating a hypothetical situation. If they hadn't thought about the issue or didn't want to think about it, you've lowered the perceived amount of energy they have to spend. You're not asking for a thesis on the subject, just a conversational "What might you do ... "

You'll know you're succeeding in asking healthy questions when a team member tells you: "I had a problem. I was going to come and talk it over with you, but then I thought, you're just going to ask me all these questions. So I asked myself all the questions instead and I figured it out."

Celebrate those moments and encourage them to start asking those questions of the people around them. You've just increased your team's capacity for problem solving, freed up time to focus on your work, and ... you've built a confident leader!

Confident teams are a joy to lead. They achieve amazing results, have fun along the way, and allow you to do the work you need to do. When you share your belief in people, set clear expectations, and ask questions to coach growth, you'll have a confident high-performance team before you know it!


David works with leaders, managers, and supervisors who want to build teams that get more done with fewer headaches. He tweets from @davidmdye and welcomes your LinkedIn invitation. His award-winning book, The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say is available on



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