It’s a paradox, isn’t it, that most highly-educated, accomplished people working in professional services such as law and finance struggle with confidence?

It’s one of the top issues that people come to therapy and coaching to talk about.

Well-meaning supervisors often try to help by urging their juniors to “have more faith in yourself” and “believe in yourself a bit more”.

That’s OK but it doesn’t deal with the inherent problem: that academic overachievers usually have an external locus of evaluation.

What on earth is that?

Well, if you’ve gone through life striving to attain certain accolades or goals, then you start to attach your worth to those external achievements. And when you enter into a competitive profession, that tendency becomes even more pronounced.

In contrast, those with an internal locus of evaluation have an instinct or an inner compass, which guides them as to what is “good enough”. When to down tools on a piece of work. When to say no to a request.

Take law for example. Starting a pupillage or a training contract is a bit like asking a really decent home cook to suddenly become a master Japanese sushi chef. Everything you do is picked apart. You are retrained in how to think, how to analyse and how to present.

After going through this process, how could your locus of evaluation be anything other than external? You’ve been given the message that the old ways in which you worked “PL” (pre-law) were wrong. But didn’t these ways get you pretty far in life “PL”, through a good university education etc? So how could you be anything other than a little confused by this messaging?

This process, albeit essential, causes people to lose their bearings. How do they know what is “good” and what isn’t anymore?

What we say and what we hear

And then we tell them to “be more confident” in appraisals.

If you tell someone who’s lacking in confidence to “be more confident” the danger is that all they hear is more criticism.

You mean to say “you’re good enough”.

But what they hear is “you’re not good enough” (because your lack of confidence is inhibiting your performance).

And a comment that was intended to be helpful has a shaming effect, which then entrenches the very problem you were trying to help them with!

So what can you say/do that’s helpful?

Asking the right questions

Instead of telling your junior to “be more confident”, ask them: “how are you confident?”, “in what settings do you feel most confident?” and “when do you feel less confident?”. That leads to a more nuanced conversation.

Confidence isn’t binary. What you want to do is to work with your juniors to harness the latent confidence they already have that only comes out in certain settings. You want to help them to bring it to the fore in the scenarios where it’s less present.

Creating ‘safe’ environments

Acknowledge that the “confidence” issue is not all on the junior; it’s a systemic issue.

The requirement for excellence of client service in professional services has come at the cost of creating teaching and learning environments.

So, juniors don’t feel safe to offer ideas in a client meeting or call. Or to contribute during team get-togethers.

I know it creates more work for you, the supervisor. But ask the junior beforehand what could help them to contribute in client or team settings. Or offer them some ideas.

They might like to take on a discrete aspect of the task that they feel comfortable with and to lead on discussions with the client about that.

They might want you to give them a prompt early on in a meeting to raise something (it’s much easier to contribute later on in a meeting if you’ve said something early on, however small).

This might sound like spoon-feeding. But it will help you, the supervisor in the long run if your juniors are not cowed by such situations.

Tricks of the trade

Share with your juniors the confidence tricks you’ve learnt along the way.

We all have them.

Take public speaking for example. Many professionals learn tricks such as carrying a notebook or pen to help them do something with their hands and still their nerves during presentations.

Or they arrange conference rooms so they’re sat at a table/desk rather than having to stand while they speak (reducing the risk of ‘jelly leg syndrome).

None of us are supremely confident. So let’s show and teach our juniors the tricks we’ve learnt along the way.

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