by Sabina Nawaz, June 21, 2021
Recently promoted to her outgoing manager’s job, Rhianna often compares herself to her new peers — five women she looks up to. She wonders if she belongs in this room of senior executives, but there is no doubt in her manager’s mind about her qualifications. Rhianna has a PhD, has won awards in her field, has built a strong team, and is loved by her clients. Nevertheless, she is filled with self-doubt. When left unchecked, her thoughts devolve into demons of imaginary disasters.
Recently, Rhianna suggested a new idea during a leadership team meeting. No one responded. The conversation moved on. But Rhianna remained stuck in place, telling herself she wasn’t smart enough, her idea was insipid, and wasn’t this the case with all her contributions? They weren’t interesting or strategic enough to impress her colleagues. Such thoughts made her remain silent for the rest of the meeting and hesitant to speak up thereafter.
Many of my clients — successful executives in positions of authority — mask their inner scripts of doubt and fear. Their internal lashing is often the result of being overly calibrated to others’ reactions or too frequently comparing themselves to what they see of others. As a result, they edit their contributions, robbing themselves and the team of ideas and hiding their true feelings, which fester into further doubts and resentment.
Self-doubt can afflict anyone. Successful strategies to confront it need to help no matter the cause or context. On the basis of my work with Rhianna and other clients, I’ve identified four strategic ways to sidestep self-doubt in the moment and make your contributions count in meetings.
Claim space with an announcement. It’s easy to go unnoticed when everyone is excited about a topic. Owing to her natural diffidence, Rhianna would start speaking either too softly or too fast and lose her audience before she completed the first sentence. To avoid that pitfall, announce your contribution before launching into your subject. For example, you might ask, “Can we pause to look at this from the customer’s perspective?” “Let’s step back and take a longer-term view of these metrics,” or “How might we think differently about our actions if we viewed them in the context of market microtrends?” We create a drumroll by first announcing what we’re going to cover – it turns people’s attention our way, and they don’t miss the initial sentences of our idea. By framing the concept, we not only claim space for our contribution but also help focus the discussion.
Name your idea. Before sharing your thoughts, give your point of view a name. Because she wasn’t convinced of her own value, Rhianna shied away from taking up space; her body language, infrequency of speaking up, and paucity of words when she did made her blend into the background. Rhianna has since adopted techniques to name her thoughts, such as reviewing meeting notes for patterns. She looks for underlying themes and tries to come up with an acronym or find a wordplay on a common phrase. During a recent meeting, phrases like “North America only,” “cultural blindness,” and “high-growth markets” allowed her to name her underlying idea “ROW together,” standing for “Rest of the world together.” Use the name to anchor yourself — or if you want to, share it. Speak it out loud, and for wordplay like “ROW together,” present it with a little humor to alleviate your tenseness. It’s not always easy to do on the spot, but naming your thought will define it better, give it more weight, and allow it to take up more space.
Explain your idea. Articulate only the skeleton of your proposal once you have announced and named it. Like a frame around a painting, this focuses your audience’s attention where you want it. Then, as you flesh out the thought, explain why it is important, and why now. Every idea vies with our calendars. Amid busy schedules, why should we care about this topic? One of Rhianna’s ideas that she had not yet articulated related to the return to a hybrid work environment. Her company is debating various options, and her contribution, if acted on immediately, would address a common employee concern. Without a sense of timeliness, expect a polite golf clap but no momentum. When your audience is convinced that they need to act now, your suggestion will receive more attention.
Entertain feedback. When we doubt ourselves, we yield to our colleagues’ cues if they don’t follow up on what we’ve said. That was certainly true of Rhianna. The lack of response from others confirmed her worst fears: that her suggestions weren’t interesting and she wasn’t smart enough. Before you relinquish the floor, offer a hook to involve others. Explicitly ask for feedback with questions like, “How many of you feel this way?” “What are your thoughts on this topic?” or “What stands out to you?” When you issue an invitation with an open-ended question, others can pause to appreciate and think more deeply about what you just shared.
As Rhianna has practiced these strategies, she’s been surprised. Even before examining her underlying fears more deeply, she says she’s found her voice. She’s no longer afraid to propose ideas and speak up in meetings and finds greater success when she does. By implementing techniques to land her perspectives, she’s found first-hand evidence that it wasn’t her ideas that lacked stickiness; it was her delivery, shaded by her self-confidence. After altering how she presented her thoughts, she gained greater purchase on self-worth. Once colleagues adopted her proposals, she naturally adopted a more confident stance.
When we doubt our own minds, digging deeper inside exposes more of the same faulty logic. By taking external action, we can liberate ourselves from the web of self-castigation and clear space for our creativity and that of our audience.