How do you know a leader when you see one?
When people look at you, do they see a leader?
The way you carry yourself, present yourself, and express yourself matter a lot more than you probably realize, when you’re a manager. Your confidence relates directly to your ability to lead people. The version of you that you present to your team will impact their ability to trust and follow you, which is what your job is as a leader.
If you’ve had your confidence shaken recently, or you’re a new manager still looking for your footing, it is your job to build your confidence back up as soon as possible. It’s not just your work or your ideas that matter; it is how they are received by the people you work with. Here is how to be confident, and inspire confidence, as a leader.
Why your confidence matters
As a manager, the people on your team will always assume you know more than they do — even if you don’t.
That means that the way you present yourself means a lot. People are reading their managers all the time, for secret clues about what’s “really” going on. Think about it: have you ever been worried that there might be layoffs or that a big project might be cancelled? Suddenly every move your boss makes becomes a clue to what might be going on.
Since you, as a manager, have insight into things the people on your team don’t, they can only assume how much you know. And people are always inclined to think that their have all the answers.
The signals you send your team will affect their collaboration, their output, and their productivity. What if it looks like you don’t like someone on the team? What if your sullen demeanor makes everyone think they’re about to be fired?
You are kidding yourself if you think the way you carry yourself doesn’t correlate to better or worse work from your team.
On top of that, as a leader, it is your job to instill trust in the people on your team. They have to feel like they can trust you; after all, it can often feel like the manager is holding everyone’s careers in their hands. You can hire, fire, promote, and give out work — do people trust you to run your team effectively?
The more you bumble, question yourself, go back on what you say, or avoid questions, the less people will be able to trust you. So you have to assert confidence.
The curse of too much transparency
When you’re not feeling confident, it sucks. But resist the urge to confide your doubt in the people on your team.
When you don’t know the answer to something, the way you say “I don’t know” really matters. An exasperated “I have no idea!” might make you feel like you’re commiserating about a tough situation and bonding with the people on your team, but what you’re really doing is undermining your leadership. It is your job to know; plus, commiserating with the people on your team is a big no-no. It is your job to lead, not to bond over how much work sucks.
Similarly, being overly transparent about how up-in-the-air a situation is can be bad too. If you say “Well this could happen, or this, or this…” then you risk alarming the people on your team unnecessarily. Don’t forget, everyone will assume you know more than you do, so things you think of as “just thinking out loud” might get taken quite seriously.
When you don’t know or you’re faced with a difficult question, the best way to answer it is truthfully and focused on action. If you don’t know the answer, say “I don’t know.” Then follow up with, “But I will check with [the right person who might know the answer] and circle back with you once I know more.”
If you’re asked a hypothetical, or a question where there are a number of possibilities that you don’t know for certain about, say that. Instead of listing every possible solution, try engaging the person instead. Find out why they’re asking and talk to them about that instead.
That’s much more productive than spinning a worry cycle for that person. Talk to them about their concerns, let them know you’ll look into things where you can, and focus on things you do know. You may not be able to say 100% that this project won’t get cancelled, but you can say that their work on it has helped you generate X number of sales and how great and appreciated the company that is.
How to be more confident as a leader
Confidence can be a self-perpetuating bad cycle. If you’ve got low confidence, it can be hard to imagine yourself as a successful confident leader — because your low confidence is making that seem impossible!
But if you are a leader, you need to accept that your confidence is an important part of your job. It matters, just like your ability to run a meeting or interview candidates.
So if you want to work on your confidence, here are some areas to start with that can help you get on the right track.
Identify where your low confidence comes from.
When you’re a new manager, low confidence is common because you’re in this new role with new responsibilities that you’re not 100% sure you’ll succeed at. If you’re coming off a failure or speed bump as a leader, your low confidence might be coming from a negative performance review. Whatever the source, identify it. The more you know what is working against you, the better focused your attack against it can be.
So if you’re worried that you’re not a good public speaker, or you’ve heard that your project management skills caused a big problem on a recent project, you know where to start. Tackle the areas that are making you insecure first; it will help you make the most progress possible right away, and that momentum will help keep you going in a positive direction.
Think before you speak.
When you’re nervous or unsure, it’s easy to put your foot in your mouth or say the wrong thing. It can be so helpful to just think for a moment before you answer any question or respond to any complaint. Make your first reaction to any news be to ask a question. Not only does it buy you time to think, but it helps you get more information so that you can create a thoughtful, valuable response.
Strive to make everything you say something you are proud of. Words are powerful, and deserve your attention. Don’t be afraid to pause and be sure what you want to say.
Define what success in your role looks like.
It’s easy to feel like you’re less-than when you’re not measuring your successes. If you always feel like you’re falling behind, it’s hard to feel very confident. Leaders today are encouraged to always keep improving and to take all the blame for failures on their team, but that can be really tough on self-confidence, if you are always seeing yourself as the problem.
It gets easier to absorb the challenges of leadership when you know you are being successful overall. And you can only know that when you are measuring what success in your role looks like. So what does “success” mean for you and your team?
When you’re doing the work that matters, you can be sure that you are succeeding. When your time is spent well, it’s impossible to argue with great results and confidence will come naturally.
If you’re not sure, ask your boss. Trust me, they would rather have you ask and know for sure, than to struggle in silence.
Improve your skills.
When I feel like I’m lacking a skill, I tend to avoid it. (Running away is not great for instilling confidence in people, though.) So what areas are you lacking in? What are you avoiding? Where do you make excuses?
If your skill level is holding you back from stepping confidently into your role, a simple fix is just improving that skill. Your boss might even be willing to help pay for it if it will mean a more productive, outstanding team under your leadership.
Talk to your peers.
If you’re struggling with low confidence, you’re not alone. Instead of commiserating with your team, you should start connecting with your peers. Sharing stories about your experience can help you see you’re not alone in struggling, and they might even have some great ideas of their own.
Don’t see your peers as the competition; they are your new community. Set up regular coffee meetings with the people on your level in the organization. Not only will their advice help, but knowing you have a supportive network often makes it easier to be confident in your own abilities.
Reframing your leadership situation can work wonders for your confidence. If you’re seeing yourself as a struggling manager, your struggles will seem inevitable and just reinforce your negative narrative. However, what if you saw yourself as unstoppable? What if you imagined yourself as someone so determined and empowered that every mistake just made you smarter and better at your job?
If that sounds too cheesy (though I highly recommend it — your mind is a powerful thing), then keep it practical. Think about what you *are* good at. Write a list of your greatest strengths, and then seek out opportunities to use those strengths. While you may not run great meetings yet, maybe you’re amazing 1:1 with the people on your team. Think about ways to harness what makes you great 1:1 and apply those strengths to the areas where you struggle.
Practice makes perfect.
I remember being on a call with KateM recently where she gave someone leadership advice, and the person said, “When you say it like that it sounds so obvious.” And Kate replied, “Well, I’ve had a lot of practice.”
It gets easier to see the right thing to do and the best way to present something, the more you practice at it. So don’t shy away from opportunities to step up and act like a leader. The more you do it, the more you’ll learn — and that’s the only way to get better.
Have you ever struggled with self-confidence at work? Or have you had a boss who didn’t believe in themselves? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on the impact of confidence (or a lack thereof) in leaders.