Building My Confidence – Step 4: Knowing your own strengths

This is the fourth post in the series about building my confidence:

Step 1: How confidence works
Step 2: Improving my public speaking
Step 3: Becoming more assertive and speaking up in meetings
Step 4: Knowing our own strengths – self-esteem and self-efficacy
Step 5: Facing our Fears
Step 6: Making Confident Decisions
Step 7: Finding my Vocation

The good news we learned in Steps 1-3 is that our degree of confidence is neither predestined, nor permanent. It’s a skill rooted in a set of behaviours we can learn, and there are practical steps we can take to build habits which help us become progressively more confident.

Three things sit behind and drive our confidence: If we look over our shoulder and reach back into the past, sensing our self esteem and knowing our strengths are the past ingredients that make us who we are. When we reach out in front of us and step into the future, we find that our confidence develops through future action – becoming good at things develops our self-efficacy.

1. Our confidence comes from knowing our own strengths

I sometimes wonder why, in my first session coaching school leaders, I spend so much time helping them to think about and identify their strengths, and then to describe them in detail. I say little – the purpose is to help me listen as each person articulates their own strengths without interruption. I may replay these; echoing, paraphrasing or summarising. We may start with three but then diverge their thinking to ten, and then converge back to three. But by this time this might be a slightly different three (their USP if you like).

Really knowing our strengths is so important, and yet talented leaders often cannot describe their strengths accurately. They can usually see what needs fixing, know how to craft a development plan or when to build others up, but they are often only vaguely aware of what they are really good at, and how this is helping their teams. They can rarely describe their gifts and abilities in a way which is specific enough to help build their confidence for the long term. Knowing vaguely that I had good interpersonal skills wasn’t particularly helpful. What moved me forwards was when someone said to me, “Ian, you are a really focused listener.” This springboard of specific feedback pointed me towards taking a coaching qualification.

Understanding what it is that we think, say and do better than others is key to holding inner confidence.

Selecting the right message: How we process information is intriguing, and there are a great many messages in the world shouting for our attention. We’ve all received negative words that we unhelpfully internalise. Or listened to the praise and criticism of those too close to us, which we interpret as objective feedback, adjusting our course accordingly. Reaction to our disasters we hear loud, while comments about our successes seem whispered. It is like the problem with hearing aids, which are indiscriminate and cannot select the sounds we should be focusing on, or distinguish the signal from the noise. All sounds are magnified, leaving us to deal with an overload of tinny feedback. This is the reason, of course, why so many people turn them off. How do we select the right message from a forest of noise?

Hearing the right feedback: So the feedback that we hear from those around us is rarely a true reflection of who we really are. It often does not help us truly understand ourselves, or help us make good decisions. As Marshall Goldsmith says, “the jam can’t read the label on the jar.” Sweet, sticky jam inside the pot and ready to eaten, cannot see the label stuck to the exterior of the glass facing outwards, to know whether it is blackcurrant or strawberry, plum or apricot.

Leaders need to know the unique skills and strengths they bring, because without this knowledge we cannot know how to build up those around us, how we will be able to support others, and when interviewing for our team, what skillsets in others are needed to fill the gaps in our own. And here’s the key thing: because we cannot see this ourselves, discovering this knowledge normally requires outside help. We require a listener who is not too close, who listens without judgement, who brings no baggage, and who asks questions which get to the truth. Of course, we also require the humility to know that seeing ourselves is difficult, and so listening intently for feedback will accelerate our personal journey and development as leaders.

Here are a five simple questions we could start with, to begin to get to the route of your strengths:

  • What are my three best strengths and how have I used these in my role at a leader?
  • What do I do better than most colleagues?
  • What have I been complimented on?
  • What am I most proud of professionally?
  • How am I seen by others (by my work team and beyond my job)? Is this different?

Committing proper, uninterrupted time and real, intent listening will ensure that this is a more fruitful exercise. Most of our day-to-day conversational listening is a combination of listening for the speaker’s hesitation so we can interrupt, and thinking about what we will say next. In other words, we rarely pay proper attention to the words of the speaker. Real listening, what Brene Brown calls ‘extreme listening’, can often brings unexpected revelations.

The confidence paradox: Does confidence come first or last? Somebody I coached once said, “I want to feel the confidence to take the step before doing so, but I know my confidence will only grow if I take this step!” This is the confidence-paradox, and cognitive-behavioural therapists will tell you that confidence develops through our actions, not prior to them. In other words, should I rely on my self-esteem or my self-efficacy to give me confidence? To understand this, we need to understand the difference between these two drivers.

2. Self-esteem is where it starts
is the general sense that we will cope, that we deserve to be happy, and that people we know like us. Liking ourselves (self-love) is key to our well-being. We may not be able to control it, and if we experienced a lot of criticism in the past, our self-esteem may have shrunk.

Our self-esteem grows as we become more effective, but there are two other factors which we can’t change but matter to us. Firstly, how our peer group is doing – we don’t compare ourselves against all of those who are better off than us, we only look at our peer group – those of our own age, those grew up with or now work with. Secondly, self-esteem is linked to the love we received in childhood. For some of us, our nurturing was conditional upon getting good grades, which has led to chasing approval in our adult life. For others showered with unconditional love, we know that, while future setbacks may bruise us, they won’t destroy us. Perhaps this explains how some people with unglamorous jobs, normal bodies and a small circle of friends can experience high levels of self-esteem, while others with giant salaries, impressive waistlines and who overflow with followers can be self-critical and unhappy? It would seem we have much more control over our self-efficacy than our self-esteem.

Parents who were successful themselves can sometimes fill their grown up children with a low, fixed view of themselves because of their attitude to failure. Our adult success and subsequent confidence comes about through a combination of successes and failures, and we learn from both. But often, clinical psychologist Fiona O’Doherty tells us, parents can ‘hide the ladder’ of past difficulties, and some children grow up believing that their parents’ success is an inherent, fixed part of them. So children see no visible ladder with which to climb past the rungs of disappointment towards success.

Faith can, for many people, create a deep-seated confidence that, while we may not always see it, there is purpose in what we do, that our lives are not a random series of events, and that we will one day be able to look back and discern the hand of God in the trajectory of our lives: ‘You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.’ (Psalm 139:13).

3. Our confidence grows through becoming good at things (self efficacy)

Confidence is the colloquial term for self-efficacy – the belief that you can successfully master something. We gain a sense of self-efficacy when we see ourselves mastering skills and achieving goals. Research by Mark and Campbell show that people with high efficacy are more likely to view difficult tasks as something exciting to be mastered, while weak efficacy usually means avoidance. Self-efficacy helps people to accept difficult challenges and to keep going when there are setbacks.

“It is easier to act yourself into a new way of feeling than feel yourself into a new way of acting.”

This from psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan is an example of taking the first step. This is not positive thinking, but making a plan to act. This link between confidence and action is important, and this is why confidence is so different from self-esteem (how good you feel about yourself) or optimism (the belief that things will be OK). When you believe that your actions can master the challenge ahead, you anticipate success and your brain releases dopamine – fuelling reward and pleasure.

I remember the time when I saw my eldest son visibly developing confidence. He was 13 and I was watching him trying out a tricky intro on a new piece on the piano. He tried to play it and failed. Then he stopped for a moment, before practicing with his left hand over and over, getting the rhythm of the bass notes slowly at first and then more quickly until he’d mastered it. And then he began on the right hand. And only then did he bring them together. It wasn’t that overnight he became some sort of child prodigy, just that he had internalised his routine of doing things, his own way of practicing which he knew worked, and would, with a little time, create an enjoyable sound. It was more about a series of actions than telling himself he could do it. He had found his sweet spot.

There is a sweet spot for all of us in how we set our sights: too tricky and we shy away from the fear of getting it wrong, too straightforward and we become bored. Confidence helps us direct our attention at the right things, gives us the belief that we will master them, and the knowledge that if we spend just a little more time on them then we will get there. Which helps us to do them better, and so in turn this builds more confidence.

Deborah Gruenfeld (Director for Women Leaders at Stanford School of Business), says the best way to build confidence in an area is to invest energy in it and work hard at it. Many of us give up (see kicking perfectionism) if we think we are not good at it. We need to remember that deliberate practice always beats natural aptitude. Confident people know when they need help, acknowledge they can’t know everything, but also don’t present this as false modesty. They realise their value to others, are confident of their mastery one particular skill they have been blessed with and have practiced hard at. When this is true, then confidence is no longer about promoting themselves, it’s about finding purpose.

Malcolm Gladwell’s essay The Talent Myth asks, ‘What if smart people are over-rated?’ He recognises that while one of the first things we look at in the recruitment process is academic background, this intelligence must be matched by hidden qualities which we use the interview to unearth. By recognising that anyone can make exceptional progress, the focus of our attention moves to finding candidates who are motivated and willing to practice and work hard. The recent move of some leaders to email out interview questions before the day is a message saying it’s your depth of thought, not your speed of response that we are looking for. Perhaps this brings us closer to people’s real self-efficacy that slick responses in the heat of the interview room.

In the next piece I’ll take a look at how we can more confidently face our fears.

3 thoughts on “Building My Confidence – Step 4: Knowing your own strengths

  1. Pingback: Building my Confidence – Step 1: how confidence works | ianfrosteducation

  2. Pingback: Building my Confidence – Step 2: improving my public speaking | ianfrosteducation

  3. Pingback: Building my Confidence – Step 3: Becoming more assertive and speaking up in meetings | ianfrosteducation

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