There are several basic areas of study that, as we study them, we can become more effective coaches and leaders. This long list includes both human behavior and learning. The psychological concept I want to talk about today comes from the intersection of these two fields of study.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to go all academic on you. With a simple web search, however, you could find lots of scholarly work on this topic for yourself.

The Confidence/Competence Loop

We all recognize that our success accelerates when we are confident. The reason is simple. Without confidence, we revert to fear. And when we are fearful, we don’t take any action. We get tentative, we delay, and we procrastinate. When we let go of out fear, we take action more quickly and easily.

This is all well and good, but the practical question remains – How do I become more confident? The simplest answer is to become more competent. As we become more skilled at a task, our fear shrinks and our confidence grows. This is the crux of the confidence/competence loop. And as our confidence grows, we get better (more competent). So these two critical factors for our success at anything (including any skill at work), are forever joined. Not all that dissimilar from the philosophical "chicken and egg" quandary.

Here’s an example.

Let’s take a task you likely know how to do well – like riding a bicycle. Are you afraid to ride a bike? Likely not – because you know how to do it. So if I give you a bicycle and invite you to ride, you likely will do it right away. There is no reason to delay, there is no real fear, you just ride. If I gave you a unicycle instead, fear would well up, just as it would for most people. Few would even get on the seat.

So how do we get started?

We put our butt in the seat.

Action overcomes fear. And with action, we have the starting point of competence. Because we can’t get good at anything until we try it. There is a famous book from the 1980's called, “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.” It is a great title, but even better advice. If you want to start the confidence/competence loop, you must get started

And . . .

Once you start doing things with confidence that used to scare you, your confidence increases. And once you try, you build skills. When you notice your skills improving, you get more confident. More confidence in your skills makes it easier to improve them even more.

And so on, and so on.

While the research calls this a loop, I like to think of it as an upward spiral.

Confidence, competence, confidence, competence.

The Application

Hopefully, the application of this for us personally is obvious. But I want to talk about how we can inform, inspire, and ignite this loop for those we lead. Here is a short course on how to do that as a leader and coach:

  1. Believe that people can ultimately succeed (and let them know you believe in them).
  2. Urge them to try (and give them a safety net to reduce the fear factor).
  3. Encourage the effort (further spurring confidence).
  4. Give people resources to speed competence (training, coaching, and more).
  5. Help them see their budding skills (and encourage them to loop it again).

This is a simple and powerful way to use the confidence/competence loop to create higher and higher levels of performance.

Try it for yourself and try it for your team.

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Kevin Eikenberry is a recognized world expert on leadership development and learning and is the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group ( He has spent nearly 30 years helping organizations across North America, and leaders from around the world, on leadership, learning, teams and teamwork, communication and more.
Twice he has been named by as one of the top 100 Leadership and Management Experts in the World and has been included in many other similar lists.

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  1. Kevin, how true these words are. And yet ones that we fail to see clearly. Thanks for this coaching post. I sure will put this in practice the 1st time I recognize myself delaying things out of fear.

  2. The timing on your message today couldn’t have been better. It was a message that coincided with how I was mentored and how I can pass along my experiences to another that needs some help.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. I love this topic Kevin! Another way to build confidence is to allow people to have small failures and let them fix it themselves. Once we have made a mistake and picked ourselves up, we build confidence for next time. A good coach knows the right time to coach for confidence and when to coach for competence.

  4. “Urge them to try”. Yes, and sometimes this is one of the hardest hurdles to overcome. Even those who rationally believe that it will be better in the long run have difficulty turning that into execution.

    Another tool that is available is visualization. Recent fMRI research indicates that visualization is ‘training’ our brains to accept a novel condition as more normal, easing fear and anxiety. I referenced a book, “Your Brain and Business” in my blog post here:

  5. Thanks for the post. I agree and I would also add that healthy self-acceptance/self-esteem goes a long, long way toward confident action-taking and being willing to be vulnerable enough to learn and grow. There’s an internal and an external dynamic to improving performance that is sustainable.

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