transcript of “I Need More Confidence at Work” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 23)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “I Need More Confidence at Work.”

Alison: A lot of us struggle with worries that we’re not good enough at our jobs and when things go wrong, it can feel like proof of that. Plus, if you struggle with confidence, sometimes that can bleed into the way that you deal with coworkers too. Today’s guest is struggling with all of this. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi!

Alison: So in the letter that you sent me, you wrote that you work as a chef and you’re a few months into a new job, but you’re struggling with confidence – feeling like when things go wrong, even small things, you’re taking it really personally, like you failed and you’re a terrible chef and everyone must be blaming you. And then possibly related to this, you’re also finding it hard to talk to colleagues when they’re doing something that’s impacting you and you’d like them to do it differently. Did I get that right?

Guest: Absolutely, yeah. That’s pretty spot on.

Alison: Let’s talk about the confidence piece of this. Tell me more about that. You feel like even little mistakes are signs that you’re failing in a bigger way?

Guest: Yeah, I mean I think it’s tied into several different things. Just a bit of background: I trained as a chef about four years ago, and then right out of chef school I worked for a catering company for two and a half years. And when I was there, it was a small team but I really rose up and I basically started to head chef the company – not the whole thing, but the kitchen side – probably about a year in. So, it was a lot of responsibility, but for the most part I enjoyed it and took it on board. And then I left that job in December and I took two months out to travel and then I started this new job just when I got back. That’s a little bit of the background on that front.

And then the confidence thing. Basically, I think I make a lot of excuses for my job being different than that of my peers because it’s not in an office or what have you, but actually I think it really is the same in a lot of ways. With food especially, sometimes it just won’t work – you can make the same thing 10 times and just one time it just won’t work. And I can give that advice really easily, but when it’s me and somebody says to me, “Oh, this didn’t rise,” or “That dish was a little bit under-seasoned,” something really minor, it feels in that moment almost like I’m being exposed. Like, somebody has identified me as the culprit and it then spirals a little bit in my head into thinking about, “Oh, everyone’s been talking about this and everybody’s been saying you must have done it wrong and you didn’t do it right.” And in some ways I know that’s not happening, but in some ways I don’t, and I think that’s what really sticks with me.

Alison: Yeah. And did this happen to you in jobs before this one? Or is it just at this one?

Guest: I think my previous job had a lot of benefits, but it was very much a blame culture. It was very much like, if something didn’t work, it was because somebody had not done it right. It wasn’t that just sometimes things don’t work, or you had a rough day, or you had a million and one things to do that day and that thing just slipped through the crack. It was like somebody made a mistake and who was it? And I think that’s stuck with me.

Alison: Yeah, that might explain the whole thing.

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: And what about in your personal life before that job? Because I’m working on the theory that maybe that job has caused this, but I want to test that by asking – before you were in that job, did you have this trait in your personal life as well?

Guest: I think I’ve always been a bit unconfident. I think in some ways I’m really confident in certain things – I know the older I’ve got, certainly I feel the stronger that’s become – but then I think in other ways, yeah. I always have felt going into exams and things at school, I think yeah, probably my tendency was to be more along the lines of thinking, “Oh, I’m not going to pass this,” or “I need to do everything plus 50 percent in order just to make sure that I 100 percent am going to get through it, not even do well,” if that makes sense.

Alison: Yeah. It sounds like you might’ve had these tendencies lurking in you to begin with and then it may be that that last job you had really brought it out because the culture there sounds terrible with the way that they are casting blame on people for things that are just normal parts of life. I wonder, aside from that job — because I think we have to take that job out of this because they were not sending you normal, healthy signals that would allow you to assess your own performance in a realistic way — so, taking that job out of it, do you feel like you’ve seen any other signs that people around you are thinking any of these negative things about you, or is it really just your own internal fears?

Guest: Yeah, I think it’s probably the latter and where I am at now is really refreshing, because it’s kind of weird – even though I am struggling with these feelings, it’s not the same culture at all, you know? It’s very much an understanding one.

Alison: Yeah. I think it’s worth thinking about that a lot. When you’re dealing with this kind of confidence thing, it can really help to ground your thinking in paying a lot of attention to what the actual evidence is telling you. Meaning, take a look at what kind of feedback you’re getting from managers and from other people and look at all the evidence about what kind of reputation you’ve built. If you do that and you see that it doesn’t really line up with your own internal critique, sometimes that can set you on the path to building a more realistic self-assessment. It definitely takes work though, really active work. It’s not something that you can change overnight when your brain has been wired to do this. And I do think that that last job wired your brain in a pretty damaging way, and so you’re going to have to be very deliberate about rewiring it.

Guest: Yeah, I think that is probably the biggest factor involved. It just sometimes feels almost like I’m being shamed in some way. Or, I think the other nervousness I have is thinking that I’ve done some work and whatever it may be has then been tasted or served when I’m not there because I finished my shift, and then that’s when it’s gone wrong. And I’m not there to sort of defend myself, in a way. I think that’s what a lot of fear sinks in for me, thinking that I’m not even there to explain myself and they could be saying anything and that’s … yeah.

Alison: Yes. Anything can be happening. You’re not there. It could be unraveling in all kinds of crazy ways.

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: Sometimes, too, it can help to talk to other people who are in your field who are doing the same kind of work, people who you’re willing to make yourself a little vulnerable to. Because I suspect that if you do that, you will find that people who from the outside look like they have it all together are actually struggling with some degree of self-doubt too, because it really is a pretty normal thing. And sometimes realizing that other people have the same feelings, even though you can see that they’re good at their jobs, can help put your own feelings in context. It can make you realize, “Oh, some of this is just that our brains are sometimes jerks to us rather than anything that’s really rooted in reality.” Do you have anyone like that who you could talk to?

Guest: Yeah, I’m sure I do. When I did my training, I made a lot of great friends through that, and they’re all in the industry, so I’m sure I could reach out.

Alison: That may be interesting. And I wonder too, are you familiar with imposter syndrome?

Guest: I’ve heard of it. It’s one of those things that when you think about yourself, you don’t label it in that way and then you kind of read about that and you’re like, “Oh. That’s me.” (Laughs)

Alison: (Laughs) Yes. I think it might be you. It’s the feeling that you’re in a job that you’re not really good enough to be in, that somehow you have bluffed your way into this job, you don’t really deserve it, and at any moment people are going to figure that out. And it’s super common, especially among women for some reason. If you talk to any professionally accomplished woman, you will almost always hear that she has struggled with impostor syndrome at some point. And that’s true even of people in really powerful positions, sometimes even more so, because the higher up you go, the more those feelings can come out. And I think, too, if you are a conscientious person – and I suspect that you are, just listening to what you’re saying – you’re probably especially susceptible to it. And, I mean, one thing I can tell you, just based on years of reading the self-evaluations that employees have written as part of performance reviews that I’ve done, I can tell you just based on those, really conscientious people tend to give themselves lower performance ratings than what they actually deserve. And I think it’s probably because part of being conscientious is that they’re acutely aware, sometimes painfully aware, of all the ways that they could be doing better. Even if they’re doing perfectly well. And there’s actually a psychological term for this, it’s the Dunning-Kruger effect. And it’s actually kind of funny. It says that people who have lower abilities tend to think that they’re much more competent than they really are. And people who are actually good at what they do tend to underestimate their own work. And I think part of it is that a piece of being competent is that you’re very aware when you make a mistake and you’re very aware of how much there is that you could be better at and you kind of punish yourself for it. And women in particular tend to do this.

Guest: Yeah, for sure. I think that sounds pretty spot on. (Laughs)

Alison: So, it may be helpful to just know, “Oh, okay, this is very common and the fact that I feel this way isn’t a reflection of ‘Oh, I feel this way because I really am terrible.’ It can just be a reflection of the fact that I’m conscientious and I care about doing a good job.” And you don’t necessarily need to read anything more than that into it. Does any of that resonate with you?

Guest: Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s brilliant advice that you gave at the end there. It’s like, you don’t have to read into it, you can just sort of nod to it that you know it’s happening and move on.

Alison: And you know, another thing too, as an aside I will tell you, I’m giving you all the advice that I’ve given myself because, because like so many people, I struggled with this too and this is stuff that I had to figure out how to approach it. And one thing that I found really helpful is to watch other people because I bet that you see other people making mistakes, and when you do, you’re probably not as harsh on them as you are on yourself.

Guest: Yeah, absolutely.

Alison: That’s weird, right? That we have a completely different set of standards that we’re judging other people by versus ourselves. But I think sometimes when your brain is doing that to you, it can help to just say, “Okay, let’s depersonalize this. What if I saw my coworker Jane do this? What would be my take on it then? How would I react? Would I think that she was a failure, and this was horribly embarrassing for her, or would I think, ‘Oh, you know, she’s human. It’s a mistake. It’s no big deal.'”

Guest: Yeah, definitely. I definitely feel like I give the advice that I don’t take. You know, I said at the beginning that it’s food, it goes wrong, it will just go wrong sometimes and there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s not you – but don’t take that on myself. So yeah.

Alison: I think the real advice to you is to be really deliberate about keeping this stuff in the forefront of your mind, because in the moment when you’re having that reaction of shame or embarrassment, it’s really easy to forget all of these things. I think the real action step for you might just be to really be deliberate about doing this.

Guest: Yeah, definitely.

Alison: The other thing I want to mention here, and it may or may not apply to you – and I do think that it really does sound like your last job just did a number on you in terms of messing up your head about stuff because it sounds like a really toxic culture – it also does sound like maybe you had some of these tendencies beforehand. And given that, sometimes – actually, I would argue often – this kind of thing can be traced back to family of origin stuff, like lessons that you learned from your family when you were growing up. And it can be interesting to explore where those thought patterns might come from. A lot of times people who struggle with this kind of thing will realize they can trace it back to dynamics in their family. And I’m not saying this is the case for you because obviously I don’t know. But for example, sometimes it comes from a parent who was really critical or a parent who just didn’t make you feel like there was a lot of room for mistakes. Sometimes it goes even deeper than that. So, if your family dynamics were difficult in any way, it might be that that is what is producing this now and that can be worth exploring on your own or with a therapist, just sorting through it and figuring out: who put this wiring in and how do I rewire it?

Guest: Yeah, for sure.

Alison: Let’s talk about the other piece of this. You mentioned that you’re sometimes hesitant to talk to coworkers when there’s a work problem. Tell me more about that.

Guest: I think what I’m struggling with now in my current place may be tied into the fact that I’m fairly new and I don’t know my team as well as obviously I knew my other team. But it’s just when things impact my work, or my pace of work I should say, during a day, how do I communicate that effectively? For instance, I don’t want to be known as the complaining colleague. I don’t want to be unkind and I don’t want to be unobliging. I want to be a team player and I want to help. But sometimes things happen which impact my workload, the same as the same as in every job. And it’s just having the ability to say that it’s bothered me, but not in a complaining way and also not in the heat of the moment – because working in a kitchen and stuff, it is high pressure and it is hot, and people lose their temper a lot. Not so much at my work, but in general, it’s quite common to sort of lose your temper and things get said and I don’t want what I say to get swept away as, “Oh, she was upset, or she was frustrated, so don’t worry too much about it.” But then equally I don’t want to harbor those feelings for three or four or five days until I get to speak to that person again. So how do I communicate that effectively?

Alison: Yeah. When we were emailing you gave me an example about someone asking you to do a cake with not enough notice.

Guest: Yeah, it sounds trivial.

Alison: No, it doesn’t! Will you talk little bit about that one, because I think it’s so helpful to have a specific example.

Guest: Yeah. It’s usually you and a team of chefs, and you have a list that is written out every day, and that’s everything that you need to get done in that day. So, for your lunch service and your dinner service, your deadlines basically. And I arrived at work the other week and then I kind of got roped into going right into lunch service ahead of my shift time. But I was like, “Okay, you know what, I’ll help out because we’re in a tight spot and that’s fine.” So I did that and then I saw on the list “celebration cake” and I was a bit like, “Okay, well, I won’t be able to start that for another few hours. What is this? Can somebody tell me what I’m doing with this?” And it was said that the office team had sold a cake to a client, which I love to do because I love pastry – but they take me a while, they take me several hours, and I wouldn’t have been able to start that until way into the afternoon. And I had to get it finished by the end of that evening because I wasn’t in the next day and it was being collected. So just in that instance, how do I express to my management that that really frustrated me because that’s quite a massive thing just to tack onto the end of my work list, but equally I want to be obliging and I want to be helpful – does that make sense? How do I express that I want to be a team player, but equally, things like that need to be communicated to me better in advance because I can’t just turn one out really quickly? I had to stay late to do it and all the rest of it.

Alison: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Let me ask you this. Do you have the same hesitation about bringing up a work problem when it doesn’t feel personal? If you had to say, “Oh, this piece of equipment is broken,” or something else very impersonal, would you have the same hesitation?

Guest: No. (Laughs)

Alison: Yeah. Unfair of me to ask that question because I was guessing ahead of time that was likely to be the answer. I think the thing to remember is that the stuff that feels more personal, it is still really just work stuff, just like a piece of broken equipment. And I do get that it feels different, but you’re still really just saying, “Here’s a thing that’s preventing us from working as smoothly as we both want to. Can we figure out a way to fix this?” And the weird secret of doing this is that the more that your tone is very matter of fact, the more that your tone says this isn’t a big deal, this is just like any other work hiccup that we might need to fix, the more people will take it that way, because people really take their cues from you. And I know that that can be hard to really believe at a visceral level when you have a lot of worries about that. What I recommend is experimenting with it, very deliberately trying it out with things that are low stakes and seeing how it goes. So pick something that is pretty small that you aren’t that worried about raising, and raise it using that tone and watch to see how it goes. Because my hunch is that the more that you do it and you see, “Oh, it’s okay, people aren’t freaking out on me, they don’t think that I’m being presumptuous, they’re not getting angry with me,” the more it’s going to reinforce in your head that it really isn’t that big of a deal. And also, just like with my earlier advice about confidence, I think you can watch how other people handle it and what kind of response they get. Because I think if you pay attention, you will see people raising this stuff a lot and it not being a big deal.

Now, depending on who you work with and especially working in a kitchen where things get heated, you might see some examples of how not to do it. If you work with someone who’s really adversarial, that’s not the person to watch as your role model. They’re your model of what not to do. But have someone in your head who does it well, who’s pretty calm and pretty collected and use them as an example of, “Oh, that’s what it looks like, and it goes fine.” Does that make sense?

Guest: Yeah, that does make sense. Can I ask a question though? This is more of a hypothetical, but it’s my experience of people that I’ve worked with in the past: when they raise things, but they raise everything. Everything is raised constantly and that’s from such minor things that you do kind of get frustrated because it’s a bit like, “Oh, let that go.” How do you sort of strike the balance?

Alison: I think if you are seeing them doing it and you are recognizing it as annoying, I would bet that your internal meter for that is calibrated pretty well. It doesn’t sound like you are someone who is likely do that. I mean, it comes down to picking your battles – how important is this? Is it just important today because I’m really annoyed today? Or is it something that’s still going to matter in a few weeks because it speaks to a more systemic problem? Like your example of the cake is an example of that. It wasn’t just that you were annoyed because your schedule for the day got thrown off. It’s that you were identifying a broader issue, which people need to know. It’s not that anyone was doing anything wrong or intentionally being inconsiderate, I assume. It’s that people need to know that that doesn’t work well for the way that your work gets scheduled. There’s a gap between what you understand about your workflow and what they understand, and so that’s why it’s not personal. It’s not just “this really irritates me.” It’s, “Hey, the way that our workflow works for these cakes, we usually need a day’s notice, or whatever it is, to make sure that we can meet the deadline that the client needs it by.” It’s not just about that one cake. You’re identifying something that could come up again in the future and that’s a really good litmus test to tell you, “Oh, this is totally worth raising.”

Guest: Sure, yeah, that makes sense.

Alison: And I think with the cake, let’s talk about that since that’s an example that you’re wondering about – and also now I really want cake, but that’s neither here nor there (laughs). I think with the cake you could just be very matter of fact about it and you could say, “Hey, I wanted to let you know I got this order for the cake pretty late in the game. Normally to make these, it takes me a few hours and I need to fit it in with whatever else I’ve got to get done that day. So in general, I need X hours advance notice. Can we make that work?” And you’re just being really matter of fact: here’s why it works this way, here’s what the work process is, here’s what we both need to do so that we’re all getting what we need from it.

Guest: Yeah, for sure. And I think with these cakes, I love doing them and I really enjoy them, but I absolutely do not want to rush them because they take so much time in decoration and all the rest of it. I think that maybe that’s another factor. I could say I don’t want to rush it and deliver something that you and I are not happy with.

Alison: Yeah. And I love saying “I love doing these” because that really underscores this isn’t you just being negative and complaining, you like to do them. You’re not objecting to the fact that you were asked to do it. You just want to make sure that you have enough time to do it well.

Guest: Yeah, that makes so much sense.

Alison: And I think that distinction between the pieces that feel personal and the pieces that aren’t personal is so important here because when you’re feeling frustrated – and understandably you would be feeling frustrated in that situation – it can be hard to separate out the personal frustration of “oh, this is really irritating” from “in addition to being irritating, this is actually objectively a workflow problem that we need to solve.” And the more that you can look at it in that second group, the more I think you’ll see, “Oh, of course I can raise this.”

Guest: Yeah, I think that that makes complete sense. And that’s totally achievable.

Alison: So I think the takeaway for you on this is: find a way to frame it to yourself in your head as a work problem, not just a personal annoyance, and I think you’ll feel a lot more comfortable with it.

Guest: Yeah, definitely. It already makes so much more sense. Thank you.

Alison: Okay, good. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Guest: Thank you so much for having me.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.