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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Workplace Doctor: How do I convince a staff member they are up to the job?

Despite repeated praise, one member appears to have much less confidence in their own ability

Workplace Doctor Yolande Basson unravels managers' dilemmas. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Workplace Doctor Yolande Basson unravels managers' dilemmas. Chris Whiteoak / The National

I manage a group of very capable people involved in the tourism industry, specifically corporate tourism. However, despite repeated praise, one member appears to have much less confidence in their own ability than I and others think they should have. This individual is reluctant to take on challenges I believe are appropriate to their level, experience and ability and will sometimes engineer situations that mean I have to pass the task to someone else. I don’t want to lose or reprimand this person, I just want them to realise they can do what I would like them to do. How can I convince them of that?

RS, Dubai

As a manager, part of enabling people to grow and perform is helping them to realise that new, difficult and different assignments are both necessary and valuable – we don’t grow by doing more of the same, but rather by stretching ourselves out of our comfort zones.

Essentially, it is important to attain a balance between giving people challenges that are aligned to their level and responsibilities, while providing sufficient support to ensure that they are able to succeed. Continuous challenge on its own can become destructive, whereas continuous support on its own may not provide the essential impetus for the person to push themselves forward.

So what might be underlying this person’s hesitation? Self-doubt and a lack of confidence can be an issue, even with the support and encouragement that you and others are willing to offer.

There may be several possible reasons behind this. It could be something in the person’s belief system that tells them that they are not good enough, ready enough or skilled enough to take on challenges. A fear of failure can prevent the person from giving it a go, where they would rather not attempt it at all than risk the possibility of not succeeding. He/she may feel threatened by their colleagues’ experience and skills, or perceive them as critical and judgmental, so they don’t want to risk potential ridicule or embarrassment. A previous harsh experience could also make someone unconsciously cautious. He/she may have a "perfectionist" driver, leading to the expectation that everything should be done correctly to the highest possible standard, thus avoiding tasks for fear of imperfection. Furthermore, it is also worth considering whether the person is actually side-stepping responsibility - by continuously deferring tasks, they are either ensuring low risk for themselves or, a slightly more cynical possibility, a lighter work load. It is important therefore to try and ascertain this person’s specific mind-set or perspective so that you can decide on the most appropriate intervention or support required to shift their behaviour.

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According to Professor Lazar Stankov who has worked at Australia's Institute for Positive Psychology & Education, confidence is a strong predictor of achievement, and the good news is that confidence is a trait that can be developed. Support, which you are already providing, is a great first step.

Saying that, the person will need to be self-aware and committed to their own improvement and development. Building trust, being accessible and having regular development discussions are equally important. This can be done by focusing on the person’s strengths and looking at their achievements to date, as well as helping them identify key areas of their role where they may need to expand into and start making incremental progress.

For the more challenging and complex aspects of their role, they may need specific skill training as part of a personal learning plan. Learning will enhance their capabilities, which in turn will increase their confidence – and it has been shown that the more confident we are the more effectively we learn.

Related to confidence is self-efficacy, which refers to a person’s belief in their capabilities to learn and perform new behaviours. Research shows that people with higher self-efficacy are more persistent at working on difficult tasks. As it is unlikely that all will go smoothly without any mistakes, this person should be encouraged not give up at the first hurdle, as once they get going it will become easier and easier and will boost their confidence further.

Doctor’s Prescription:

Having a clear understanding of what informs this person’s mind-set would be a great starting point. Help expand this person’s perspective by letting them understand that challenges are healthy and necessary whilst providing an opportunity to both grow and learn. Encourage him/her to get out of their comfort zone, ensure that the appropriate support structures are in place and let them know that they have your support. If the person is not willing to step up and progress, you may want to consider moving him/her to a less demanding role.