In the latest in this column for leaders who coach, Lynn Scott explores the common issue of self-doubt in leadership clients. It starts with exploring what confidence means to the client – and not your definition of it


In your ‘leader as coach’ role, I’m pretty sure you’ve coached team members who say they want to be more confident.

Sometimes this can feel a bit scary at first – particularly if you don’t feel too confident as a leader or coach (when that pesky inner dialogue arises saying ‘who am I to coach someone on confidence when I don’t feel very confident myself right now?’).

People often come to me for leadership coaching because they feel they’re not as confident in some situations as they’d like to be. Or they want to change something about their work but don’t feel confident. Or they’ve had a big promotion and have got an attack of what they tend to call Impostor Syndrome. What I’ve learned is that seniority doesn’t make this ‘lack of confidence’ go away. We can get the wobbles whoever we are and wherever we’ve got to.


No one-size-fits-all

There are many ways to help people develop their confidence and self-belief but in this short article I want to share a few ways that I might work with this very common issue. Because there’s most definitely not a ‘one-size-fits-all’.

First, we need to be clear on what the person we’re coaching means by the word ‘confidence’ – because we might assume one thing when they mean something else. I can’t stress enough how important this is.

I love to explore this word with them – what’s your definition of confidence? Where and with whom do you feel confident? Where and with whom or in what situations do you feel less confident and what changes for you as a result? What would a ‘confident’ you look like, sound like? What would other people see, hear and feel in the presence of a more confident you?

You might ask them how confident they feel in this particular situation on a scale of one to ten. If they say ‘5’ you can ask them to say what it would take to get to a ‘6’.

These questions can be explored in a number of ways – of course it can be a coaching conversation but you could also ask the person you’re coaching to draw ‘a more confident me’. One client of mine talked about a big confidence ‘barrier’ she wanted to knock down and she was able to explore the metaphorical barrier in a number of ways by moving around the room – walking behind the metaphorical barrier, under it and finally climbing over it. (And, yes, we were on a Zoom call at the time!).


Long-held beliefs

I also like to explore how long they’ve felt this way – is it something recent or long-standing (I remember one of my clients telling me he lost all his self-confidence at work when his wonderful line manager was replaced by someone with a completely different leadership style and set of values). The change in him was palpable.

Many of us will experience that wobble in our confidence when we’re promoted or step up in some way. I remember feeling it when I got my first senior leadership role and also when I coached my first CEO client many years ago. (‘Who am I to coach a CEO?’ was the script playing on a loop in my head).

It’s important, too, to understand people’s internal scripts and beliefs and how these impact our feelings of lack of confidence. One of my clients remembers very strongly being told she should never ‘show off’ as a child – thus she was always wary of speaking up or being in the limelight, even 30 years later.

Helping people explore their beliefs: what we often call their ‘shoulds, musts or oughts’, is an enlightening experience for us and them. The messages they picked up growing up about how life ‘should’ be or how they ‘should’ behave (these are often implicit rather than explicit) often need unpicking and re-examining. These beliefs come from a number of different places – parents, early care givers, schools, communities and so on.

Of course, we need to do this sensitively and clearly understand our ethical boundaries as coaches around these conversations. Always take your concerns to supervision if you think you’re out of your depth or going into territory that you’re ill-equipped to explore or handle.


Starting blocks

So, when it comes to working with confidence issues, do take the time to explore and raise awareness rather than rushing in to help with tools and techniques.

Giving feedback ‘in the moment’ can be a helpful way of holding up the mirror. One client of mine was struggling to be taken seriously in board meetings. And yet she constantly referred to herself as ‘little old me’. That wasn’t helping her at all!

I often ask clients to think of someone who does something really well and see what they can learn from them. This means paying attention and watching them forensically – not so they can become a clone of that person, but so they can pick up some ideas and tips. One client learned a lot by watching her CEO who had a great way of responding to questions in meetings and whose body language was always open but authoritative.

I’m a strong believer in the phrase “action leads to confidence, not the other way round” so I’ll often ask my client to tell me what they think might be the first action they could take this week to build their confidence in a particular area.

It can be something small to get them off the starting blocks: eg, I’ll ask a question in the meeting rather than staying silent. Or I’ll be the first one to answer a question instead of waiting until last.


Or something bigger:

I’ll put myself forward to speak at the next conference

I’ll start to look at jobs outside my sector rather than assuming I won’t be qualified enough

I’ll apply for that senior role


Finally, I think it’s really important to ask this question:

‘How is this belief about your lack of confidence serving you?’

Because there will be ‘benefits’ to ‘not being confident.’ Telling ourselves ‘I’m not confident enough’ in many ways keeps us safe: ‘If I tell myself this, I don’t have to put my head above the parapet, I won’t be involved in any conflict and there will be no risk of humiliation or failure.’

So gently exploring the ‘benefits’ that this belief has will also raise awareness of what’s really going on in their world.

As always, first seek to understand and start from there.


Lynn Scott is an ICF Master Certified Coach (MCC), director of Lynn Scott Coaching and founder of The Effortless Leader Revolution. She’s a leadership and team coach, coach supervisor and ICF Coach Mentor.


You can join her free Facebook group for leaders and managers, The Effortless Leader Revolution, for more leadership tips and resources that work in the real world. www.facebook.com/groups/effortlessleaders

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