You want to give a member of your team a stretch assignment, but she tells you she’s just “not ready yet” — she’d like to get more experience before taking it on.
You offer to make a valuable introduction for someone you mentor. He seemed excited about it at first, but doesn’t follow up. Later, you discover that he felt intimidated, like he’d have nothing to say.
As managers and mentors, we frequently encounter situations like these, when we come up against the limiting voices of self-doubt in the people we support.
The negative impact of that voice is tremendous. If someone on your team is hampered by a harsh inner critic, they’re likely to talk themselves out of sharing their ideas and insights. Held back by self-doubt, some of your most talented people will shy away from leading projects or teams, or put off going for the big opportunities
new clients, new business lines, innovative moves – that could help your business grow.
As a manager or mentor, one of the most powerful ways you can unlock your people’s potential is to give them a toolkit for managing self-doubt.
The Manager’s Common Mistake
Typically, managers and mentors make a mistake. They think their job is to encourage, compliment, or cheerlead when their people are struggling with self-doubt. They say things like, “You really can do this!” Or “I have complete confidence in you. I wouldn’t have given you this role if I didn’t think you had the capability to do it.”
In the coaching field, this is known as “arguing with the inner critic.” It’s the dialogue between someone’s voice of self-doubt (“I can’t do that, I don’t have what it takes,” etc.) and the affirming words of a supportive person who has a different perspective (“Yes you can! You are great!”).
Coaches-in-training are taught, “Never, never argue with the client’s inner critic.” It’s understood that such arguments are usually a waste of everyone’s time, for two reasons.
First, such reassurance rarely is convincing. The inner critic’s view is not based in data, but in instinctual, over-reactive fears of vulnerability and failure. Hearing another individual say something along the lines of “No, you’re great at that!” often doesn’t speak to those underlying fears. In fact, it can add to the stressful feelings of being an imposter, as in, “No one around me realizes that I really don’t know what I’m doing, and they are all counting on me, thinking I can pull this off – but I can’t!”
Second, if you help team members and mentees through their self-doubt through compliments or reassurances, the solution requires you or someone like you. You’re giving them a fish, but you aren’t teaching your people how to fish. You haven’t given them tools to navigate self-doubt on their own. That’s what they really need, because they will make most of their inner-critic driven decisions quickly, in their own heads, without talking to anyone.
An Alternative Approach
The alternative is to take the conversation up a level. Instead of arguing with your team members’ inner critics, you can introduce a conversation about self-doubt – what it is, why it shows up for each of us, and how it can impact what you achieve as a team. You can start to do this with a couple steps.
1. Introduce the idea of the “inner critic.” You might choose to call it imposter syndrome, the voice of self-doubt, monkey mind, or another term you feel is appropriate for your work context.
What’s key is to introduce the concept of a voice in all of our heads that does not reflect realistic thinking, and that anxiously and irrationally underestimates our own capabilities. Use this list of common qualities of the inner critic’s voice to help your people identify their critics. You can also use the chart below to talk about the difference between the inner critic and more realistic thinking.
2. Ask your team members to start developing the skill of managing their inner critics. Clarify that you understand that fears and self-doubts will naturally come up when your team members or mentees grow into new roles, take on greater responsibility, or speak up. The goal you want to them to work toward is not unfailing confidence, but rather, more skillful management of their own limiting beliefs and self-doubts.
In doing this, you are introducing a powerful new idea: that readiness for advancement and leadership does not depend on an innate quality of confidence, but rather, on building the skill of managing one’s own self-doubts.
To do this, they should practice noticing when they’re hearing their critic, and to name the critic thoughts as such when they occur. That’s as simple as noting to oneself, “I’m hearing my inner critic’s worries about this again.”
Typically, once someone understands the fear-based roots of the critic’s voice and is conscious of when it’s speaking up, they can choose to not take direction from it, and to take direction from more resourceful and rational parts of themselves instead.
One woman in my course, a manager at a telecommunications company, brought a small group of her colleagues together for this conversation. One colleague told her afterward, “I knew I had a little, mean, nagging voice inside my head, but until now I hadn’t really appreciated how much impact it had on the choices I make.” Another realized she was not applying for an available promotion largely because of inner critic. After the discussion, she applied for the job – and got it.
Grace, an executive at a professional services firm, worked with a manager who was dealing with major changes in the scope of her role, activating the manager’s inner critic. “In addition to encouraging her,” Grace said, “we spent time digging through how the changes had triggered her inner critic. We made a clear plan for what she needed to accomplish. Many milestones were reached (and celebrated) but when things didn’t go to plan, we explored whether/how the manager’s inner critic was factoring in. As time went on, the manager learned to better predict when her inner critic might kick in, and how it could be quieted. She gained a tool she can rely upon, and navigated challenging times of change with flying colors.
You want your people to do all that they are capable of, to keep saying “yes” to being on their growing edge. That means they’ll frequently feel self-doubt. You can empower them by addressing the inner critic head-on, and you can give them tools to become skillful responders to their own self-doubt.