August 17, 2015

Did anyone out there wake up this morning convinced that today was “The Day?”

The day they discovered you don’t know what you’re talking about?

I did.

Fact is, I wake up on many mornings feeling that way. And I’m not alone. Whenever I ask a group of managers whether they ever start their day with a crisis of confidence, they overwhelmingly say yes.

And when I ask them what they would most like to take home from the seminar or workshop, increasing numbers of them — no matter how experienced they are — say they would like to be more confident.

Ah, insecurity. It isn’t enough that managers have to deal, every day, with unpredictable news developments and wave after wave of change. They also have to deal with that little voice inside their heads that say, “You’re going to mess this up.”

One way to deal with the fear is to just live with it, taking comfort that many creative people suffer from insecurity. Even John Lennon said he threw up before concerts.

But I think there’s an alternative. While I’m not sure you can ever make insecurity go away, I’m not convinced that you should want to. What if, instead, you built a healthy relationship with your doubts? Put them in their place, so to speak.

Think about it: Sometimes insecurity can be paralyzing, causing us to put off decisions for hours—or days. On other occasions, insecurity can be helpful; a caution signal urging you to pause, think for a bit, and then act.

Act with confidence.

That’s the relationship I want with my insecurity. But how do I get it?

Here are four ideas:

1.  Stop relying on instinct. The best managers I know approach their work with their heads, not their guts. Yes, they pay attention to that feeling in their stomach, but only as a prompt that they need to do some thinking.

What do they think about?

What’s my goal here? When have I faced this decision before? What did I do? What resulted? How is this decision different? How do I need to adjust my approach in order to address that difference?

The answers to those questions can help you build what we’ll call a leadership database, which you either can write down or file in your head. In either case, you are collecting reference material to help you make decisions based on real-life experiences. If your prior approach was successful, you can replicate it. If it did not produce the outcome you wanted, you can adjust that approach or take a different tack.  

The point is to develop this important habit:

Pause… and think.

The crafts of leadership and journalism have in common an important struggle: speed versus quality. A quick decision that turns out badly benefits no one. And over time, taking an intellectual approach to leadership not only will help you counter your insecurity—and the resulting paralysis—it will make you a more efficient decision-maker.

2.  Rediscover reporting. When do you feel most insecure? For me, it often happens when I lack information—or believe that I do.

Maybe I’m facing a difficult conversation with a staffer over performance, and I realize that I don’t know much at all about how this person does her job. So while my goal is to help this staffer perform better, I lack insights into how she could approach her job in a different way, and hopefully, achieve better results.

I need to ask her some questions.

Or maybe I have a hire to make and several departments are arguing to add an employee. Making a good decision requires me to understand how this additional person will help the company hit its goals—and that requires me to really understand the differences between the roles this person would play in each department.

I need to ask my department heads some questions.

Or maybe you have one reporter available and need to choose which of three stories to assign him. (Yes, I know bosses who would assign that reporter to all three, but I’m holding out for quality.) To make the right choice, I might need to know more about the potential of the three stories—or whether other ways exist to cover them.

I need my reporter to ask some questions for me.

Whether the decision involves personnel, operations or news judgment, feeling that you have the information you need increases your ability to move ahead confidently. Notice what it was that made you aware that you need to ask more questions—your insecurity.

Now, of course, you face a choice:

Will you ask them?

3. Know your strengths. When I feel insecure, I have no trouble bringing to mind my weaknesses. When I face a tough conversation, I can quickly summon memories of confrontations I handled badly. When I face a tough news judgment, I can anticipate the ways my colleagues will criticize my choice.

And the insecurity deepens.

In order to act with confidence, I need to be equally aware of my strengths, the tools I have to work with—the things I do well. I might shy from confrontation, but I’m a good listener. I find it easy to be empathetic. I often can identify alternatives to the “yes or no” options that our choices are usually reduced to.

That “leadership database” we created above must include both strengths and weaknesses, and it needs to be up-to-date. Some managers hang on to their own weaknesses, refusing to acknowledge growth, just as they refuse to let go of the negative reputations assigned to some staff members. Our staff deserves the opportunity to grow out of old reputations; managers, if they are going to be effective, have to give themselves credit for improving, too. To do that, we need to go beyond our own assessment of our work and seek input from those whom our work affects.

Which brings us to Idea 4.

4. Reach out. Insecurity often hits me hardest when I feel like I’m in this fight alone. One advantage of working in a newsroom is the presence of colleagues who can help you, both by giving you feedback on your work and by collaborating with you on the decisions you feel most insecure about.

It’s not a matter of turning to a colleague and, voice trembling, asking, “What should I do?” It’s turning to someone you trust, who has a familiarity with the situation and the players, and asking their reaction to the approach you are considering.

Maybe you tell them the choices you face, and ask them what questions they would want to have answered. Maybe you share the decision you are considering and ask them to help you anticipate possible consequences. Maybe you ask for their ideas.

Notice again the presence of “the pause.” Every time you turn to a trusted colleague and ask for counsel, you slow down the process—as you move beyond gut instinct and engage in thinking. In this case, you literally are choosing the value of two heads over one.

Asking for feedback from a colleague—whether it’s your boss, a peer or a direct report—also is a vote for the value of collaboration. Sure, I can evaluate my own work, sometimes with brutal honesty. But the perspective of someone else, someone who doesn’t have my “you’re a fraud” voice in her head, can help me make sure my leadership database is both current and complete.

None of these ideas guarantee that your decisions will always produce the results you desire. Nor will they make that nagging voice in your head go away forever. They will, however, help you move ahead with the confidence you need to make potentially better decisions.

And besides, it’s a fine line between confident and cocky. Hanging on to a healthy dose of insecurity helps us stay on the right side of that line.



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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
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