A reader writes:

I just had my probation review for my new job and it went well! They seem pretty happy with me and the work I’m doing. Most of the feedback was stuff I agreed with and wanted to improve on anyway, so that was really great.

But there was one thing which they kept bringing up as a consistent issue that I have no idea how to tackle. Throughout my probation, my manager brought up that I need to have “more confidence in my abilities and knowledge.”

I have no idea what this is supposed to even mean. Like, don’t get me wrong, I try to show my skills and knowledge in my field to anyone who needs it or shows some interest but how do I “get more confidence”? My mind automatically jumps to strutting around the office as The Authority on All Things Teapot but that doesn’t feel right at all.

I guess what I’m asking is what do managers mean when they say you need to improve confidence in a certain field, and most importantly, how do I do that?

The specifics will vary depending on you and your particular circumstances, but here are some of things that “have more confidence” commonly means:

* You’re asking your manager or other people for input or approval when she wants you to go ahead and make the decision on your own (and she trusts you do that and get it right — or she trusts that even if you get it wrong, it won’t be a big deal).

* You’re double-checking things with her that she knows you know.

* You immediately defer to other people’s opinions even when you have thoughts or expertise of your own to offer.

* You’re speaking or writing in a tentative way. For example, you say things like, “I’m not sure but maybe it’s X” or “This might not be the right approach, but…” or otherwise shy away from owning your ideas.

* You use a lot of words to make your point, and it’s coming across as if you think you always have to defend your ideas or explain your rationale even when you don’t — as if you don’t trust the ideas themselves to stand on their own.

* You get flustered when you don’t know an answer right away, instead of saying something like, “I’m not sure. Let me find out/think about it and get back to you.”

* Your speaking manner is coming across as nervous or uncertain — which could be anything from ending sentences with question marks when they should be declarations to rushing to fill silence instead of being comfortable with pauses.

The solution depends on exactly which of these is happening, but in general it’s about things like:

* Believe your manager if she tells you that she wants you to figure something out / be the decider / use your own judgment.

* Don’t seek reassurance from your manager or others that you’re doing something the right way, when at some level you know you’ve been over it in the past. (That doesn’t mean that you should never seek guidance, of course! Many times seeking guidances is the right thing to do. This is about if you’re doing it on the same items repeatedly, or if your boss has suggested you’re doing it too often.)

* Speak up when you have ideas or opinions, even if someone else in the discussion has suggested thinks differently. (You need to use judgment on this, of course, and factor in time/place/roles/seniority/standing. But if it’s a topic that you work with a lot of or affects you or if you’ve specifically been asked to weigh in, you have standing to speak up.)

* If you feel uncertain on exactly what decision-making authority you have, get clear about that by talking to your manager about it — so that you’re not guessing and can act with more confidence that you have the standing to take certain actions/make certain decisions on your own.

* Pay attention to what you’re conveying with your language and tone of avoid. Don’t be afraid of making declarative statements, and don’t end sentences with a question mark unless they’re truly questions. Try to get rid of fillers that undermine your point like “I’m not sure but…” and “this might not be the right approach but…” (It’s okay to use these sometimes, when you truly mean it! But don’t use them if you’re just doing it out of habit or comfort.)

And if none of this resonates or feels quite like what you think your manager would be talking about, it’s okay to ask her! Whenever you get feedback and you’re not quite clear on the meaning, it’s always better to ask than to try to guess. You can say something like, “You’ve mentioned that you’d like me to have more confidence in my abilities, and I want to make sure that I’m working on the right thing. I’m interpreting that as meaning that you want me to make more decisions without checking with you, but I want to make sure I’m getting that right.” (This one is a little tricky in that you don’t want asking the question to reinforce her worry that you need more confidence — and if the issue is that she wants you to stop double-checking things with her, it might feel a little weird to then double-check this with her. But you do need to make sure you understand the feedback. And as long as you use that kind of language — “I’m interpreting it as X” — it should be fine.)

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