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Before Competence


I finally got around to reading Before Happiness by Shawn Achor over the holidays. It’s an insightful book that describes how we must learn to see the world through a more positive lens which allows us to summon the motivation, emotion, and intelligence necessary to achieve happiness and success. The reading prompted me to begin considering the precursors of other fundamental success-driving factors… like competence.

Competence is essential to workplace (or any-place) success. The ability to perform well and efficiently, proficiency, mastery, and expertise – it all lays a solid foundation for accomplishment and results. But competence doesn’t spontaneously appear; it unfolds in the presence of something even more powerful: confidence.

Based upon my field research and 20+ years of experience helping leaders and employees build new skills to improve their effectiveness, confidence is the precursor of competence. Certainly there are times when we’ve all surprised ourselves by being able to do something we never thought possible. But, in the vast majority of cases, that achievement is preceded by a belief, trust, or faith that it could be done. In the vast majority of cases, confidence comes before competence.

As a result, building worker confidence may be today’s most under-rated leadership priority. What steps do we take to inspire sufficient faith in one’s ability to perform well? Try any combination of this dynamic dozen of confidence-coaxing strategies.

  1. Feedback: Regular, balanced feedback provides a safety net, allowing others to try new things and act more boldly because they know they can count on you to offer constructive observations that will help them calibrate their efforts.
  2. Strengths: Tapping into areas of strength naturally activates confidence. So, find ways to encourage others to leverage what they are already good at to discover new abilities.
  3. Goals: Confidence is harder to muster if the endgame is unclear. If one’s not sure what success looks like, it’s hard to believe that it’s possible. So make the future less foggy by supporting others in clarifying their goals. Once we paint a picture of success, we can start to paint ourselves into it.
  4. Coaching: Engage in facilitative conversations that help others consider their methods, processes, and results. Ask about what’s motivating, challenging, confusing. If you stick to the questions, they must come up with the answers. And the mere act of doing that, builds confidence.
  5. Learning: Provide the training or development experiences required to be successful.
  6. Rehearsal: And give others a chance to practice and hone new abilities in a safe setting before ‘going live’ under greater performance pressure. Whether it’s working out the kinks of new skills in a workshop or role-playing a challenging interaction, success in these artificial settings builds confidence in one’s ability to excel.
  7. Accountability: Conferring responsibility to others communicates your confidence in their ability to perform well while providing the opportunity for them to take their own confidence-building actions.
  8. Recognition: Catch others doing things right. Provide on-the-spot acknowledgement of skills and abilities. Express appreciation. And, don’t forget to spotlight effort as well as results… since the road to achievement can sometimes be quite long. This supports persistence, which in turn supports greater confidence.
  9. Network: Encourage those around you to connect with others. Build strong bridges among individuals. Engineer collaboration and cooperation. A broader network provides greater perspective and support which make trying new things less risky and more comfortable.
  10. Reflection: Be a sounding board and offer opportunities for those around you to give serious thought and consideration to topics important to their success. Insightful, juicy, significant questions about what’s most important, past successes and failures, new lessons, concerns, and stumbling blocks (both internal and external) allow others to become grounded, better understand who they are and what they’re capable of… and tap that inner confidence.
  11. New experiences: Offering novel opportunities telegraphs your confidence in the abilities of others while providing a playground in which to apply strengths and skills in new ways… more or less successfully. But either way, simply taking action and trying builds grit and greater comfort stepping into new realms.
  12. Mistakes: Allow them. Encourage them. Cherish them. Genuine confidence comes from the deep inner belief that one is capable of dealing with the outcomes of their efforts… good and not so good. So, create the space where people can fail. Help them reframe errors and opportunities to generate new awarenesses. Facilitate conversations that allow others to milk their mistakes for all they’re worth. There’s nothing quite like surviving (and even thriving in the face of) failure to build a very profound and abiding sense of confidence.

So, before competence, there’s confidence. But before confidence, there’s frequently a leader who understands the connection between the two and is willing and able to take steps to help others build trust, faith, and belief in their ability to succeed. It all comes down to coaxing confidence then watching competence unfold.



  1. Love this post…and will buy the book before the week is up.

    I totally agree that leaders need to understand that there is a direct connection between if they “think” they can do it and actually doing it. And in order to build their confidence, they must engage with them in a multiple of ways.

    Keep up the good work! Thanks for posting.

    • You’re so sweet, Heather. Thanks for your comment. And I agree… leaders who approach this with a range of flexible, nimble tools will inspire and enable others to achieve much. Hope 2014 is a great year for you!

  2. Hi Julie


    Good one. The late Dr. Garry Shirts (yep 2 r’s) used to tell me motivation follows action. Hence your idea of doing something we never thought possible. Confidence can come from first “knowing” (skills assessment) and then “doing”, but I suspect when we are young we trip into competence without fear of trying – and then become confident when we learn we are good at it. Fascinating topic worth exploration. Love your 12 points – sounds like a formula for raising good kids!


    PS Your share button on the full article directs me to your profile versus allowing me to repost your article. Just FYI

    • HNY to you to John. So great to hear from you. Ah… to be back there where fear of failure/trying wasn’t even a passing thought. I guess it doesn’t matter which comes first… as long as both confidence and competence eventually emerge, huh? Here’s hoping our paths cross this year!

      PS – We’ll check out that broken link… thanks for the heads up.

  3. Good point Julie: ” . . . building worker confidence may be today’s most under-rated leadership priority.” This is a leadership skill that is rarely addressed. Thanks for helping to assure that building worker confidence remains alive the leadership conversation.

    • You’re right, Jeff. I guess that leadership is such a big responsibility (and skill set) that many important dimension fail to get the attention deserved. Thank YOU for keeping the leadership conversation alive. I value you and your input!

  4. This is a powerful and robust list. Thanks so much for sharing. I totally agree… investing in employees confidence as well as competence can have a powerful impact on results… and nothing fuels confidence better than accomplishment so it becomes a powerful and positive cycle.


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