How do you navigate the tricky balance between apprehension and confidence?

Navigating towards Confidence
October 10, 2012

With walls still lined with flip chart pages, the meeting participants stood to congratulate each other on churning through a list of thirty-seven priorities and coming to consensus on the top three to pursue. “We were on fire and ready to get to work,” said the client.  But then, with the end in sight, two participants expressed some doubts and asked that they stop and re-visit the list one more time.  “It was like they threw a bucket of water on the fire, and the energy just went up in smoke.”
This moment illustrates the tricky balance between confidence and apprehension – and how, in an instant, one can obscure the other.
Contrast that to another recent meeting I witnessed where a management team likewise had to make big decisions.  I had been coaching Jill, the CEO, on building her facilitation skills, and we had arrived at the point where she could design and lead the meetings on her own with minimal guidance from me.   She opened the meeting by posing this question – “talk about a recent time you had to make a tough decision and what personal value guided you through that process.”  
Using this smart opener, she managed to shift the tone of the room. Her approach opened the way for participants to become more thoughtful, grounded, and unifed.  Jill also provided just the right amount of information through a short PowerPoint presentation.  She left time for clarifying questions and brought participants along so that they could engage in making an informed decision. By writing five options on notecards and sorting them out for consensus, the group arrived at its the top three options.
Jill checked in with her team by asking each of them to rank where s/he stood on an apprehension-confidence scale (1-5).  Ranging anywhere from 2-4, the average was around 3.5.  Jill asked them what they need to know to move further up the scale and what they need to do to get that information.  Her step-by-step approach left everyone confident and hopeful that they could achieve a good resolution within the week even if they felt a bit daunted by the weight of the decision.
Over the next few days, Jill checked in with her team to see where they were on the scale.  If she noticed someone was slipping, she gave a few words of encouragement.  One manager sent encouraging text messages and another made cookies to keep the momentum going. When they met the following week, the team was grounded and confident enough to make a solid decision, and they began to set the systems in place for implementation.
Navigating the space between apprehension and confidence asks a leader to: 1) help everyone get grounded; 2) provide just the right amount of unbiased information; 3) check in often and provide encouragement as needed; and 4) when the situation tips toward confidence, let that momentum do the work.
One of my mentors explained the art of navigating this space by holding up her hands. “The system”, she said, “will get you to here. But reality can be some distance from where the system will take you.” I looked at the other hand and saw what she meant. “We need to remember the words of the poet Audre Lorde - When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.  Our work is about building the confidence and hope in people that will enable them to cross that divide. That’s where the art in leading comes in.”


Elemental Partners cultivates healthy and prosperous organizations through clarity of purpose, alignment of principles, and integration of systems.

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Kevin will be working with several community-based organizations on "Collaboration and Bringing Down the Fences," in Biloxi, MS on October 10, 2012.

Kevin will be facilitating "What's Worth Saving?" - a session with Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit on October 13, 2012.

Kevin will be leading a session on "The Both/And Approach to Equity and Healing," with the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance in Detroit on October 14, 2012.

Kevin will be facilitating a strategic planning retreat for the Japanese Community Youth Council in San Francisco on October 20, 2012.
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