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4 surefire signs you lack self-confidence

These are the not-so-subtle cues that express ‘I don’t believe in myself’ to everyone around you.

4 surefire signs you lack self-confidence
[Photo: Miriam Espacio/Pexels]

Your role as a leader is more than what you do every day. It’s a statement about who you are. Being in a formal position of leadership is no joke. It can be stressful, and amazing, and confusing enough to make you want to quit—all within the same day! And there might be several days in a row when you’ll have to dive into your “kudos” email folder (don’t you have a “kudos” email folder?) just to be reminded of what you DO get right.

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But on the worst days, even the “kudos” folder won’t work. It’s tough going. I get it. I live it.

It’s hard to demonstrate good followership to a formal leader who lacks confidence. We don’t need our leaders to be perfect. We actually don’t want them to be perfect; we want authenticity. And to be authentic, leadership needs to be connected to confidence—a connection that is sorely overlooked in conversations about effective leadership.

It’s hard for your team to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. And here’s the plot twist: Confidence looks a lot more like curiosity and questions and a lot less like advice and answers. 

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Every leader (myself included) offers up sometimes not-so-subtle cues that express “I don’t believe in myself.” The bad news? These cues have a compounded negative impact. First, there’s the uncertainty people feel about following a leader who doesn’t trust themselves. Second, that leader’s lack of confidence can feel like they don’t have trust and confidence in their team.

That’s right. Your rush to give advice, guidance, and helpful answers is actually perpetuating a cycle of low esteem and engagement in your direct reports, and what Michael Bungay Stanier calls an unhealthy cycle of overdependence. And it all creates more overwhelm for you!


Related: Resist the urge to fix everything

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Here are four things to look out for. While some offer only whispers of insecurity, others scream it. If you’re doing one or all of them, chances are their impact is greater than you know.

And if you’re not even aware that you’re doing them, it’s time to get curious. Be brave and ask. True leadership development cannot happen without (sometimes) excruciating vulnerability.

Micromanagement

Little else broadcasts to others that a leader lacks confidence than micromanaging. As Dan Pink says, hire great people and leave them alone. Onboard them properly. Trust them to do good work. End of story.

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The impact of micromanagement is sorely minimized, and what it actually looks like is definitely misunderstood. If you’re thinking, I don’t literally walk around telling people what to do or offering nonstop feedback all day long. I’m not a micromanager! then you’re thinking too narrowly about micromanaging.

Your micromanaging might look like wanting to be right, wanting to “save the day,” or wanting to control the situation in some way. It can even happen via questions! This can look like: “Have you ever thought about [fill in the blank with your micromanaging great idea]?”

Micromanaging tells everyone around you that you don’t have confidence in yourself or in your team. It’s the antithesis to employee engagement. 

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Best-case scenario, your highly intelligent and capable employees stick around but check out. They wait to be told what to do. They hold back their great ideas. They stop taking initiative. They don’t feel invested in the organization or their work because they know that you’re just going to be looking over their shoulder and telling them what to do anyway. 

Worst-case scenario? They leave.

Visible (or Explicit) Arrogance

Remember, we want leadership confidence, not arrogance. Rather than leading a team, an arrogant leader focuses on anything that’s “wrong” with others, or on anything that makes them look “right.”

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An arrogant leader can’t share the spotlight. They’ll say, “Here’s what I think” not “What do you think?” They’ll say, “I had that idea last night!” rather than “Nice! And what else?” They’ll “know what the problem is” instead of asking “What’s the real challenge here for you?” They’ll take the recognition for someone else’s ideas (because, ironically, their arrogance is compensation for missing confidence).

A leader’s inability to let someone else shine, contribute, be right, and be seen reveals their low confidence and completely disengages people.

Bullying Behavior

Using your position of leadership to make someone else feel bad so that you can feel better or smarter (whether you’re conscious of it or not) screams a lack of confidence. Unfortunately, many on the receiving end of bullying leaders are so traumatized by the experience that they are unable to see where the problem actually lies. But it’s obvious to others!

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If bullying behaviors like railroading, humiliation, and threats—or more subtle behaviors like diversion, undermining, and blame projecting—are part of your leadership tool kit, then it’s time for a long and humble look in the mirror. It’s time to get curious with yourself. And it’s time to make some apologies.

Wavering Support

While this one isn’t as obvious as the other three examples, it’s still there under the surface. You might not even notice it at first, then you start to see a pattern. It goes something like this: An employee makes a suggestion. The leader isn’t on board. Time goes by. Someone higher up makes the same suggestion and the leader is suddenly on board. Sound familiar?

A leader with low confidence may have trouble putting their full support behind ideas, especially those that might make another person look amazing! They’ll back an idea only if it comes from someone with more power and influence. If they’re also a micromanaging and arrogant leader, they’re much less likely to slow down and ask the necessary questions to build out a good idea with an employee.

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Effective leadership is crucial to an organization’s ability to achieve its goals. It’s my genuine belief that almost all leaders who demonstrate these behaviors actually want more for themselves and either don’t even realize they’re behaving this way or they do but don’t know what the alternatives are. 

Take some deep breaths. Be candid with yourself. Ask your employees and colleagues for their feedback. Do the work. Your leadership depends on it.


Dr. Chantal Thorn is the director of program development for Box of Crayons, a leadership and development company that helps organizations transform from advice-driven to curiosity-led.

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