My boss thinks I need more self confidence
January 14, 2019 4:47 PM   Subscribe

We had a one on one catch up and my boss let me know he thinks i need more self confidence. I did not say it to his face (was rather surprised and a bit upset) but I disagree. I used to get this comment a lot when I was younger but no one has said it in ages.

It’s true i don’t speak much in meetings but we only have them rarely and to be honest I am not really interested in my job at all (don’t worry I did not say that to my boss!) I do my work to the best of my ability despite not being well suited to it (it is international engagement and finance) and I stopped putting myself down years ago. I get along well with the team, am not being bullied so I’m a bit puzzled what else I can do to show that my self confidence is actually fine. I have a bit of a reserved introverted personality but I still attend the work social functions even when they are optional.

So my question is: what can I do to show I have good self confidence at work?
Bonus question: how do you actually improve your self confidence (I have been trying for years and thought I had succeeded til I had this conversation with my boss...)

Thank you!
posted by EatMyHat to Human Relations (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You need to reframe your boss's statement. He is making intrusive guesses in lieu of providing you with actual, actionable feedback. In other words, he is seeing certain behavior and assumes that the reason for them is low self-confidence and that if you had more self-confidence the behavior would change automatically.

So do his job for him and translate what he said into what he means. (Or ask him to do that.)

What is the behavior that he would like to see changed? Maybe he wants you to speak up more in meetings? In that case, he trying to tell you that not speaking up has been noticed and that speaking up more will improve your performance. That is valid feedback - you can decide if you care enough about the job to change but at least you know what he is wants.

If you aren't sure what he means, it's appropriate to ask him to clarify: Hey boss. I don't get why you think I have low self-confidence. I don't think self-confidence is the problem but obviously there is something you think I should work on - could you give some specific examples of what you think I might want to change?"
posted by metahawk at 5:04 PM on January 14, 2019 [26 favorites]

What's the dynamic/demographics here? You say "he" about the boss, are you a female-perceived person by any chance? Or in any case, not a textbook white male alpha dude?

Because that shit's a really common management bullying tactic employers do to women or marginalized people, and/or the kind of thing men in management tend to think up (and think they thought it up) and therefore it's a great idea to say. And he probably thinks he can use it later to justify not giving you expected pay increases, opportunities etc. It maybe wasn't consciously meant to make you feel less confident, but it IS the sort of thing - like commenting on appearance - managers need to take out of their mouths unless they want to pinpoint the actual problems.

I would circle back to him in email and say, "You mentioned in our discussion 1/14/19 that you think I need more self-confidence. That's such a difficult component to put a metric on, and you didn't provide any examples, so can we revisit so I can find out what that actually means? I'm not a loud person, and don't feel the need to be while still feeling quite confident about my skills and work, but if you feel I am underperforming in some aspect of my role because of a confidence issue or what you perceive to be one, I'd like to make sure that's on our radars."

A smart manager will come back to that with something like, "Actually, you're right, different personality styles are of course at play here, and blah de blah blah please don't go to HR because I said you didn't act like a dude etc etc."

It's kind of like "team player", it's weaselwords that tend to be applied in good ways to one kind of person and bad ways to others even when there's nothing different about the actual performance. In any case, one great way to show confidence is to push back.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:04 PM on January 14, 2019 [22 favorites]

Hi Lyn Never - Pretty Close about the demographics - I am a cis white female and boss is a gay white male.
posted by EatMyHat at 5:13 PM on January 14, 2019

Yep and if you develop too much ‘self comfidence’ your boss is the kind of guy who will tell you that you’re too aggressive and that co workers find you bitchy. Basically the only way you can keep him happy is if you transform into a mediocre white man. Then promotions and accolades will abound! Def push back.
posted by Jubey at 5:14 PM on January 14, 2019 [13 favorites]

I can't help but notice that in response to his comment.... you did not say anything back, even though you disagreed, but are stewing internally and asking questions on the internet instead.

I agree with the suggestions above to reach out and ask for clarification, and say explicitly you didn't think you lack confidence. That hopefully will give you something more concrete to consider, and by itself constitutes a meta-commentary on your confidence levels: the act of disagreeing itself shows confidence; and the act of asking for actionable pointers also shows confidence.
posted by Ender's Friend at 5:23 PM on January 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

if you feel I am underperforming in some aspect of my role because of a confidence issue or what you perceive to be one, I'd like to make sure that's on our radars.

Absolutely - your manager should be phrasing this in terms of expectations and not vague behavioral suggestions. How does confidence translate into expectations in your job? Are you, say, questioning yourself excessively in meetings and failing to convince clients of the value of your proposals? Or are you, as I suspect is more likely, just not as loud and obnoxious as your coworkers? You may read these as rhetorical questions - however, I think you can and should present them to your manager as specific areas for discussion.

Communication styles vary and it is up to corporate management to accommodate varying communication styles. There are very few quantifiable corporate advantages to confidence in general, so it's inappropriate in general for it to be part of your performance expectations or performance feedback. Your management should be looking for objective metrics of performance, not subjective interpretations of your personality.
posted by saeculorum at 5:25 PM on January 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

you did not say anything back, even though you disagreed, but are stewing internally and asking questions on the internet instead.

To reframe this, I view this as a behavior of an analytical person who considers multiple viewpoints before formulating a response to a challenge. I value that from my employees.
posted by saeculorum at 5:32 PM on January 14, 2019 [24 favorites]

telling you to act more confident is telling you that you have things to be confident about. nobody would say that to you if you were doing bad work. it is like being told to brag more. you don't actually have to do anything. (unless you have to do a self-evaluation and you usually rate yourself as average, and then all you have to do is start giving yourself top ratings.)

this is just like when they ask you your worst quality at a job interview and you say you're a perfectionist. it is a compliment dressed up as constructive criticism because the person giving it to you is supposed to balance good feedback with bad, even if there isn't anything particularly bad to say. there is no bullying in it unless your boss already has a history of that with you. it can sometimes be a boss's way of implying a promotion is coming if you maintain appearances and start acting like you're a more senior person already, whatever that means in your place of business.

(I used to get told to speak up more in meetings because when I did, my ideas were really good and everyone paid attention. more than one boss at more than one company told me this. I ignored them all. because the reason everybody paid so much attention when I spoke up in meetings is because I almost never did, and because I was quiet until I had a really good point to make. but I did not have an inexhaustible supply of good points! so if I had done as I was told, I would have had to start saying a bunch of bullshit just to make noise, like everybody else, and nobody would have thought I had secret brilliance hidden inside me anymore.)

so you have to know yourself. if you know what you're doing, you know what you're doing.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:54 PM on January 14, 2019 [14 favorites]

I personally think that's a nasty thing to say to a co-worker, let alone a subordinate. There is no comeback to something so vague, there is no how do you improve. It's just straight up crud.

I'd look elsewhere for another position where people appreciated me. If you can't do that, I'd call him out on it. "What do you mean by that?"
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:57 PM on January 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

You know, it's kind of a bullshit comment, so why not counter it with a harmless bullshit action? You say you don't talk a lot in meetings, so make a point of making some sort of statement in, say, every second meeting. Just one of those random repeat-back-what-someone-else-says-in-a-different-way kind of thing that blowhards do when they just feel like hearing themselves talk. Also - cultivate a "meeting voice" I find that when I talk in a lower tone than normal, people seem to pay more attention. Yes, it's stupid, but this is a stupid game he is playing so why not play it better.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:42 PM on January 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Maybe there wasn't a polite way to phrase "you're not actually invested in the work we do here and seem checked out" so he phrased it a different way instead?

If I gave this feedback to employee, it would likely mean they seem introverted and shy and potentially intimidated by people in the office.

For example, sometimes we will get free pizza in my office and the interns with less social skills will get nervous to actually eat anything until it's almost cold, even though they want some, because they have to be invited to eat a couple times before they trust that it's ok. (I am not talking about people who actually don't want pizza — I'm not harassing anyone until they eat).

They might be thinking, "I was doing my work, and I don't really like socializing with the people here, so I'm going to sit at my desk and not get any pizza until later. I'm a great worker and my self confidence is great." But as a boss, sometimes you're like, just come eat pizza with the team, that is also part of the job just as much as meeting performance goals.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:26 PM on January 14, 2019

I honestly suspect you've missed the point by viewing this feedback in self help terms instead of behavioral terms.

Your boss probably doesn't really care much about your inner life but about how you project in the office. Honestly there is a lot just in your self-description (quiet, don't like your job much, not well suited to it) that implies maybe you're probably not projecting a lot of initiative or decisiveness? That may be what he's commenting on, especially if other feedback is mostly positive.

He perhaps wants to see some behaviors such as speaking up more, taking the lead on collaborations, pushing back against poor ideas from other people, moving ahead with good ideas instead of seeking consensus--things like that (although perhaps not those things specifically.) These are all useful for a boss--it takes some of the work off of them--and if someone competent is not doing them it's natural to try and get them to change it. Whether it's worth it to you to do this extra stuff and whether the feedback was well phrased are different questions.
posted by mark k at 10:15 PM on January 14, 2019 [10 favorites]

It doesn’t matter whether you have self-confidence or not. Your boss has given you feedback that you are good at your job but need to project more confidence. This could simply mean contributing more in meetings, or it might mean showing more decisiveness. I think the best thing to do would be to ask for clarification specifically on what behaviours he would expect to see.

It sounds to me like he is misinterpreting ‘disengaged’ as ‘lacking self confidence’. I don’t think it will be helpful for you if in pushing back on the self confidence thing he ends up realising that you are simply not interested in your job. But actually I think you need to start showing the behaviour of someone who is engaged and interested.
posted by plonkee at 10:46 PM on January 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

A reserved introverted personality

gets read any way the person who doesn't understand this personality type wishes too: that is, they impose their own hang-ups, biases and agendas upon behavior that, in American culture at least, takes a backseat to the personality profile that is most favored and rewarded: gregarious extroversion. An extrovert, or an introvert sockpuppeting as a an extrovert, so to speak, is far less likely to be told they "lack confidence."

I would address this with the excellent strategies others have suggested above, and work on asserting yourself more often, in meetings and elsewhere, not only to refute your boss's remark, but to establish that when it comes to your boundaries, which his comment crossed by being personal rather than constructive, you are ready and willing to defend them.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 12:13 AM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've received feedback similar to this particularly early in my worklife, and have been in a similar place as you (introverted, not exceptionally interested in my field). It can be hurtful to hear things like this, because it's such a raw and personal piece of feedback, especially when you think it's unfair or untrue.

A senior manager once told me something that has stuck with me for a long time... It's not just about how you see yourself, but also about others' perception of you. Meaning, they can be completely wrong about your motives or capability, because they're seeing you through their own, possibly superficial, lens. Here's a really great 4 minute video that sums this up. I can tell you that as an introvert, from my own experience, just the act of speaking up often and with conviction, especially during meetings, seems to make the biggest superficial difference.

You mentioned that you're not really interested in your job at all. If this is the truth, then do you really care to make a good impression? If not, then eh, shrug it off and be ok with the idea that can't always please everyone -- what matters is what you think about yourself.

However, if you do care about the impression you're making, then yeah, you'd need to find ways to counteract your manager's perception of you. I would suggest talking to him to ask what specific actions or tasks he thinks you could improve on (ex: speak up during meetings? take on a large project? be more vocal about your career aspirations?). I'd also suggest, finding someone at work who's similar to you and is seen very competent, and emulating some of their good behaviors that might be different from your own (examples from my own experience with such people: working more with upper managers on specific projects, networking or connecting frequently with others, being a subject matter expert on certain topics that interest them, listening carefully during meetings and raising thought provoking questions when they have them, doing solid well thought through work...).
posted by watrlily at 5:08 AM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've encountered bosses that are bad at giving specific, actionable feedback. I find that SMART goals are a useful tool for getting the specific, actionable, measurable feedback that I need.
posted by jazzbaby at 5:27 AM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

We don’t have enough information and neither do you. I would ask my boss for specific examples of times when he believed I appeared to lack confidence and specific examples of what improved confidence would look like. I might or might not push back depending on the relationship and how off-base I believed him to be.
posted by bunderful at 8:39 AM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

In addition to asking your boss for specific examples of when he believed you appeared to lack confidence, you might also find it useful to describe specific examples of when you believed you were especially confident and see if that is what he means. If neither of you can recall specific examples, perhaps you can agree to keep an eye out for such examples in the future and agree to have a discussion about them when they occur.
posted by elmay at 9:13 AM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

My (female) boss has said this to me (female) when I can’t take a compliment. For example, when she commends me for a good job and I reflexively say something like, “thanks, but I needed a lot of help” or “thanks, but it took me a long time.” I think I do this because it can be a bit scary to care about a job, and to show that I can handle more responsibilities. Perhaps you are coming across as self-effacing and your boss feels it’s unnecessary. Make sure you’re not qualifying all your statements are justifying all of your actions, particularly when you know what you’re doing.
posted by girlmightlive at 10:19 AM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

to be honest I am not really interested in my job at all (don’t worry I did not say that to my boss!) I do my work to the best of my ability despite not being well suited to it

Similar to a few comments above, my immediate thought was that he is picking up on your lack of enthusiasm, and the "lack of confidence" feedback is him casting about for an appropriate professional explanation for it that is also a solvable problem.

Sure, there is more than likely some sexism in the interpretation he chose, but he may be trying to do you a kindness here by giving you an actionable way to improve the way you are perceived.
posted by desuetude at 10:22 AM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Have more self-confidence isn't an action. Next time you chat with him, ask him to help you understand what behavior/ action would be more effective.
posted by theora55 at 10:32 AM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

First of all, in the absence of more information I'm inclined to think your boss is being kind. You've written here that you are checked out from your job and disengaged with your work. ("to be honest I am not really interested in my job at all") This will surely be visible, unless you are an absolutely superb actor. From here, it looks like your boss noticed this behavior and is trying to put the kindest possible gloss on your disengagement.

You ask how you can show you have good self confidence at work, and this is challenging to answer, because you yourself have said the issue is disengagement and not self confidence. But here's what I would do in your situation:

Proactively follow up with your boss. "Hi Phineas, I wanted to follow up on our conversation last Wednesday. I have been considering your feedback about my self confidence and I wondered if you could give me some specific examples. The reason I ask is that after reflection I am not sure self confidence is the issue. However, I recognize you are signalling a perception that you and others may have and I would like to understand how I am creating that impression."

You write that you are not interested in your job and don't feel confident in it. Either you are staying because you don't have a choice because of circumstances not available to us or you do have a choice and are staying in the job on a temporary basis. If you have a choice, I would consider moving now because as a boss if I picked up this kind of disengagement in a coworker and I started to explore it in feedback sessions, it would only be a matter of time before I took a much more direct approach. Most managers do not want disengaged coworkers in the team, and I would definitely take this feedback as a first warning flag, no matter what else you do.

If you have no choice, but need to stay in this job, then I would see if you can find something about it which interests you, something you can approach with confidence. "Phineas, I've been thinking about your feedback and while I don't think I have a general self confidence problem, I realise that I'm not confident about how much I can contribute all the time given that my background is Carnival Barker and this is a finance firm. Can we talk about where I can really use skills where I feel confident in my daily tasks?" Or maybe you don't need to discuss it, but perhaps there's one part of your job where you already feel you can shine and can put more effort in that area.

There's an old consulting trick which will probably be helpful in meetings. Rule of thumb in a group meeting-- make *some* contribution every 20 minutes. It doesn't need to be an opinion or an answer-- a question is sufficient. But something. Clarifying questions go a long way to signal that you are listening and that you are supporting the conversation.

Be aware of your body language. Are you checked out and reading your phone? Are you glancing at the clock? Are you looking at each speaker or looking at the meeting table?
posted by frumiousb at 3:56 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

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