I had coffee recently with an amazing woman whom I met somewhat serendipitously a couple of months ago. After meeting her only once, I knew I wanted to stay in touch. She was magnetic: intelligent, insightful, energizing, and articulate.
So I was shocked when our conversation turned to how she sometimes struggles to connect with people. She’s received feedback to “be less direct.” She has strained relationships because some find her “intimidating.” There are situations where people find her annoying because she wants to make things better instead of moaning about what’s wrong. At first, I felt surprised by these reactions, but when I thought about it, the struggle to connect to someone who is too confident is something I’ve heard many times before.
I walked home from our coffee wrestling with this very difficult problem: to be successful as a leader, you need to be confident, capable, and solution-oriented. When you’re confident, capable, and solution-oriented, it can create distance. How does one strike that delicate balance?
Here are a few tips to try:
Let them see your vulnerability
My conversations with confident, capable people inevitably uncover insecurities, struggles, and vulnerability just like in every human being. The difference is that when you’re confident, you don’t let them dominate your thinking. It’s not that you’re trying to hide your vulnerability; you just don’t think it’s relevant (to yourself or anybody else).
You’ll be surprised how much you will get out of candidly sharing your struggles. I remember once sharing a significant challenge I was having with a client assignment and confessing that I felt like I had really screwed up an interaction. My colleague seemed to relate to me so much better after knowing I was struggling. In my head, I was thinking “of course I struggle!” but apparently I need to be more transparent about it.
Wait before you jump to solutions
It’s sad to say, but I have certainly heard people complain about others for being “too optimistic” all the time. Heard that one? The complaint isn’t that nothing ever goes wrong for you, it’s that you bounce back annoying quickly—like one of those bobo doll punching bags. The risk is that when you jump straight to making things better, people don’t feel like you empathize with them. So before you solve a problem, take a little extra time to hear how it impacted people. “I hear we just got some really tough feedback from our biggest customer. What do you make of it?”
Don’t worry; you’re not opening the floodgates. You’ll find that making room for a little emotion helps to dissipate it. After a couple of minutes of admitting to frustration, embarrassment, or bruised egos, it will feel much better when you move to “ok guys, where do we go from here?”
Ask for help and advice
Your intimidating super-person brand isn’t helped by that fact that you’re probably good at lots of things. Not only are you knowledgeable, confident, and enthusiastic, you probably also had the best act in the company talent show and you’re the one who knows the seemingly random collection of buttons to push to make the computer project on the screen in the meeting room. People are getting a little tired of you being good at everything. So what’s the antidote…ask for help.
It’s pretty darn unlikely that you’re the best at everything. So when there are things you’re not so hot at, use them as a golden opportunity to ask for help. “I’m working on a presentation for the town hall meeting. You are so good at organizing ideas, can you help me think through my outline?” Showing people that they can do you a favor will strengthen the connection between you.
It is possible that some combination of DNA, early support, good teachers, and a little fairy dust have given you a unique set of skills and perspectives that make travelling through the world just a little bit easier for you. So be kind. Suspend your judgment. Use your words and your body language to show you value others and watch how even better versions of them emerges.
It’s somewhat strange to me that I have to write a post about what to do when you’re too capable, too confident, and too enthusiastic. But I do know it’s a real issue. Try some of these tactics to make a stronger connection with people who don’t feel quite as on top of the world as you.