Harold Hillman: Are you your own worst critic?

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It’s hard to convince others to back you when you don’t back yourself
Research on confidence tells us that the foundation is set early in life, certainly by the time kids enter school. Photo / iStock
Research on confidence tells us that the foundation is set early in life, certainly by the time kids enter school. Photo / iStock

We know that self-confidence is a vital component around influence and power.

People who are confident tend to get better results, especially in leadership roles.

We read a lot into the confidence that people project. We attribute much weight to a person's confidence, especially if it's backed up with experience or - in some cases - a compelling argument for why things need to change.

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Most people experience the occasional bout of wavering self-confidence, especially when asked to do something new or totally different, or to take on a challenge that surpasses any personal experiences they may have had.

It's not uncommon for people who step into a bigger role at work to feel like an impostor until they get their footing.

But for some people, the inability to back themselves is a bit more pervasive......and can have negative impact on how their careers progress, even to the point of derailment.

It Starts Early

The research on confidence tells us that the foundation is set early in life, certainly by the time kids enter school.

A person's 'explanatory style' is a psychological term that simply means how much credit we take, or don't take, for getting a desired outcome.

It should be no surprise that kids tend to mirror their parents in how they explain success and failure.

Confident kids, and then adults, are likely to tie positive outcomes more directly to their actions. It's not done in an overbearing way, but more so in a way that makes that strength 'matter of fact.' It may even be tied to aptitude, where a kid is a natural born kicker, or one of your teammates has a brain that is superb with numbers.

Kids and adults lacking confidence are more likely to attribute a positive outcome to 'luck, fate or chance.' You can hear it in the language of people who tend to explain away, or downplay the impact of their contribution. This goes beyond the normal realm of humility. There's a consistent pattern of explaining away success, or even downplaying expectations so as not to disappoint.

Two Voices

Think of the last time you pushed yourself to do something outside your comfort zone, especially at work where the pressure to 'get it right' is far greater than at home.

Perhaps you were asked to lead a high visibility project, or to lead a sensitive negotiation. Or to do something bigger than you've ever done before.

The chances are high that you heard one of two voices, if not both, chattering away in your mind's ear. These two voices grew up with you, so they know you well. This isn't like a psychosis, where you think you hear a voice that isn't really there. These two voices are real and are grounded in your life's experiences. One voice is called the Critic, the other is known as the Coach.

The Critic and Coach not only grew up with you, they grew up with each other. And although others can't hear them like you can, the evidence of their impact on you is as clear as a bell. When you're out of your comfort zone, people can tell almost immediately which voice is chattering away the loudest in your ear.

The Critic

The Critic tends to pipe up more in your ear if you struggle with vulnerability.

Vulnerability is that feeling you get when things start to grow more and more uncertain, where you have less control over how things are unfolding.

If you don't deal well with vulnerability, there's a strong chance that the Critic has been the dominant voice in your ear across most of your life.

It's important to know that the Critic is not an evil force whose purpose is to destroy you. In fact, the Critic loves you very much and, to that end, doesn't want to see you exposed or hurt. So when you push yourself into new territory, the Critic's voice is reminding you of the risks and all the potential pit-falls and things that might go wrong.

Some believe that the Critic sounds an awful lot like a doubter - where you're more inclined to think about things in terms of what's probable, perhaps overly rational, and begin to talk yourself out of doing something before it builds up steam. The Critic's rationale is: by doing nothing, you stand very little chance of exposing yourself to undue criticism or harm.

The Coach

Whereas the Critic is threatened by vulnerability, the Coach is fuelled by it.

The Coach's voice reflects a tone and sentiment that is focused on what's possible, refusing to be swayed by probability. There's an energy to the Coach's voice that encourages you to throw caution to the wind and to trust your instinct and intuition, both of which have likely served you well in life.

The Coach believes that if you are too comfortable in a protective bubble, there will be no opportunity to disrupt the status quo in your life. If you've become too ossified in the status quo that defines who you are, then you likely have little personal stretch, and ultimately little growth, in your life.

The Coach confronts you when you try to talk yourself out of doing something new, prodding you to go ahead and take the plunge.

For anyone who has done a bungee jump, you will undoubtedly remember the Coach's voice in your ear - just before you jumped - telling you to back yourself and go for it! What will be your legacy, the Coach asks - taking on new challenges or a lifetime of regrets?

Who's louder in your ear?

If you're self-aware, you'll have a feel for whether the Critic or Coach is more influential in how willing you are to back yourself. People who define themselves as perfectionists with very high standards are more likely to be governed by the Critic, whose preference is to ask for permission. As you might imagine, the Coach is more persuasive with people who are bigger risk-takers - those who are more prone to ask for forgiveness.

Both voices are necessary - ideally in balance - especially since many of life's dilemmas fall somewhere on the continuum between stability and disruption.

It is unwise to turn either voice off permanently, as is evident from the healthy debate that you have with yourself before making any important decision.

However, research is clear that one voice is typically prevalent over the other, often to the point of being dominant.

If your goal is to become a more confident person in order to influence better outcomes, you should pay more attention to what the Coach has to say - especially if you want other people to back you.

There's a different energy - often described as contagious - that emanates from someone who is determined to push through a challenge. People around you see that as confidence.

If you want to experience that positive energy first-hand, turn up the volume on the Coach's voice. And the next time someone pays you a compliment, say 'thank you' rather than dismissing or minimising your role.

Get used to hearing positive things about yourself, from others and from your inner Coach. You'll never convince other people to back you if you don't back yourself.

- NZ Herald

Harold Hillman is an executive coach and author. He has a Master's Degree in Education from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. Previous roles include Chief Learning Officer at Prudential Financial (New York). Hillman came to New Zealand in 2003 to join Fonterra and is now the MD of Sigmoid Curve Consulting Group, where he coaches business leaders and executive teams. He is the author of two books: ‘The Impostor Syndrome’ and ‘Fitting In, Standing Out.’

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