Unpacking the Confidence Code, Part 4 – Instilling Confidence in Others

One of the key messages in Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s book The Confidence Code is that, while each of us may begin with higher or lower levels of confidence due to gender, genetics, and nurture, the concept of neuroplasticity means that anyone’s confidence levels can increase.

The book suggests a couple of things:

Confidence is only part science, however. The other part is art. And how people live their lives ends up having a surprisingly big impact on their original confidence framework. The newest research shows that we can literally change our brains in ways that affect our thoughts and behavior at any age. And so, fortunately, a substantial part of the confidence code is what psychologists call volitional: our choice. With diligent effort, we can all choose to expand our confidence.


Fairly simple brain training, […] or methods of thinking, can carve new pathways in our adult brains, pathways that encourage resilience, or confident thinking, and that then become part of our hard-wiring.

Previously in this series, we’ve discussed how somebody can grow their own confidence. But what can you do to help a colleague, friend, mentee, or employee who seems like they could use a boost in this area?

Here are some ways to encourage confidence in others, gleaned from The Confidence Code and from our book club discussion (link “book club discussion” back to the original post).

Create Opportunities for Others to Have Mastery

In Chapter 2, titled “Do More, Think Less,” the authors discuss the link between mastery and confidence. One conclusion that they draw is that achieving mastery over a task creates confidence in the person doing it, and that mastery in one area of life can spill over into other areas.

“The resonance of mastery is in the process and progress. It is about work, and learning to develop an appetite for challenge. Mastery inevitably means encountering hurdles; you won’t always overcome them, but you won’t let them stop you from trying […] The confidence you get from mastery is contagious. It spreads. It doesn’t even really matter what you master: For a child, it can be as simple as tying a shoe. What matters is that mastering one thing gives you the confidence to try something else.”
The Confidence Code, p. 40

Creating an opportunity for your colleague, mentee, or employee to experience mastery can be a valuable way for them to build confidence. Because confidence is linked to doing things, you will be giving them the ability to say, “I did it once, and I can do it again,” or, “I did x; I think I can probably do y, too!”

One book club participant had this to say:

“If I’m ever in a position to match another woman’s talents to an opportunity, I try to make a point to do so. It’s a reminder to continually look for the unique abilities in each person in hopes of lifting them up to be successful in that way. When I can’t do that, I try to make a point of just letting them know what I see.”
– Taylor Vandenhoek, Software Designer at AO

Help Smash Anxiety

If having confidence means taking action, then overthinking is one of the biggest barriers to confidence—and it’s also something women tend to do more than men. Says the book:

Women spend far too much time undermining themselves with tortured cycles of useless self-recrimination. It is the opposite of taking action, that cornerstone of confidence. There is a formal word for it: ruminating. We do a lot more ruminating than men, and we have to get out of our heads if we want to build confidence. […] Mike Thibault, the [Washington] Mystics’ coach, sees: “Men tend to let things go, slide off their backs. Women tend to be more self-reflective: ‘What did I do wrong?’ as opposed to thinking it’s just a bad set of circumstances and so let’s move on.”
The Confidence Code, p. 103

The book goes on to explain the biology of why women may be more prone to rumination than men—in a nutshell, men’s brains have more grey matter, which is useful for isolating problems, and women’s brains have more white matter, which is critical for integrating information.

How can you help somebody break through the “tortured cycles of useless self-recrimination”? One book club participant had this great advice:

With my close friends, if it’s appropriate at the time, I’ll often resort to simply chanting, “You can do it!” Sometimes an external reminder that you’re capable of doing something can be enough of a push to get started. Or, I’ll offer to help them work through the “what’s the worst that could happen?” scenarios, especially if anxiety seems to be contributing to a hesitation in taking action.
— Laura Robb

Taking the time to help somebody voice their anxiety and walk through worst-case scenarios can be a powerful tool to help them recognize their abilities and realize that the consequences of failure might not be as scary as they seem.

Praise Progress, Not Perfection

This is actually the title of a section from the book about instilling confidence in children, but I think it can be applied just as easily to our friends and colleagues. Just substitute “person” for “child” in the following quote:

Teaching a child to accept and even embrace struggle, rather than shy away from it, is a crucial step along the path toward instilling confidence. You are showing the person that it’s possible to make progress without being perfect.
The Confidence Code, p. 169

To build a person’s confidence, praise needs to be meaningful and genuine, and that means it needs to be honest. Generic praise like, “You did great!” leaves a lot of room for the recipient to tell themselves, “Yes, but I could have done better with x, y, and z.” (Back to that rumination concept again.) Specific praise about efforts made and progress observed leaves much less room for interpretation. Our book club participants agree.

I try to be forthcoming with praise whenever I can. I think it’s important to be very specific. If I notice a colleague struggling with something, or overcoming a big challenge, I praise her when she succeeds and for the work she put in to get there, loudly and publicly.
— Rachael McQuater

I try to express specific positive feedback where it is due, such as, “You were very articulate during that presentation. I could tell you were working hard to slow down and speak carefully.” As others have done for me, I try to empower people by letting them know I think they are competent and capable to do the thing.
— Brittany Hunter

A big part of fostering confidence in a colleague is through reassurance. If your colleague did a good job speaking up in a meeting or gave an eloquent presentation, tell them. A month or so after a project had ended, a colleague that I had worked with told me that he was really impressed with my ability to read a room in a client meeting, collect my thoughts, and share them with the team. Without that information, I thought that I was a poor consultant for not saying much in meetings with clients and that everyone else in the room was thinking that too.
— Molly Alger

Ultimately, developing confidence is rooted in personal responsibility. But creating opportunities, working through anxieties, and praising progress are three effective ways to help build confidence in another person, especially if it’s an area they’re already working on.

Do you have other suggestions for how to help others build their confidence? Please share them in the comments or use the #confidencecode hashtag to join in the conversation via your own blog or social media platform. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

This series explores The Confidence Code through reflections and stories from women at Atomic Object.

  1. Developing Confidence Together
  2. Exploring the Confdence Gap
  3. Defining Confidence
  4. Instilling Confidence in Others
  5. Growing in Confidence

We hope you’ll join us for the whole series.