Q I have a fairly junior person on my team. She really knows her stuff but is easily intimidated in meetings if someone challenges her — or even just asks questions. How can I help her build her confidence?
A: Preparation and support can help develop her self-assurance.
To prepare to mentor her on this, start by understanding your reactions to this behavior. Some reactions, such as over-protectiveness or irritation, could get in the way. If you have responses that could interfere, think them through, understanding their sources. For example, you may have been similar — or very different — early in your career, which may color your reaction now.
Then put yourself in her place; what is it like for her to work in your organization? In particular, look at communication styles. If she is soft-spoken and collaborative, a blunt, "cut to the chase" organization may be intimidating. If she tends toward introversion, she just may need a few moments to organize her thoughts, which may not be forthcoming in an extroverted organization.
Now, consider the ways you could provide support and assistance to her. These may include spending your time with her or finding company or external resources to help her.
First, share your perspective and develop a shared understanding of the situation. In a one-on-one meeting, outline your observations, possible outcomes and an invitation to work through it. It may go something like this: "I've noticed in meetings that you back down when someone asks you questions, even when you're right. You're very knowledgeable, but this could undermine your credibility. I'd like to focus on this together as part of your professional development plan, so let's discuss how to proceed."
Her response could go a couple of different ways. She may not acknowledge what you're saying — either because she isn't aware of it or because she's not comfortable discussing it. Or she could be defensive. You'll need specifics for illustration, but will also want to use a light touch on this, especially if she's sensitive about it.
She may be relieved to hear you bring it up and be eager to engage. In this case, you can immediately focus on developing her skills.
In terms of tactics, focus on meeting preparation. Before meetings where she is likely to be asked questions, meet with her to practice. Ask the questions that are likely to come up, having her furnish the questions that she most dreads so that she can be ready for them. If communication style is a factor, develop ways for her to get the thinking time she needs: Phrases like "let me think about that for a moment" are a great tool for an introvert.
After meetings, give her feedback, reinforcing the steps that worked, and talking through challenging areas.
Encourage her to develop this as part of her own meeting prep so that it becomes a skill she integrates, not a process that is dependent on you. This skill will also help in other situations in which she becomes tongue-tied.
Self-awareness, preparation and support will help this young employee effectively share her knowledge with your organization.
Liz Reyer is a credentialed coach with more than 20 years of business experience. Her company, Reyer Coaching & Consulting, offers services for organizations of all sizes.