How to Build More Confident — and Successful — Teams, According to Activist Brittany Packnett

October 31, 2019

When renowned activist and educator Brittany Packnett gave her first-ever TED talk earlier this year, she found herself following a speaker who helped discover a new galaxy. As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, the first two rows were filled with billionaires, and everyone kept asking if she was nervous. 

Brittany’s talk was all about confidence, so she wasn’t about to let anything shake her own. She strode right out in her pink power suit and delivered a talk that has since racked up nearly three million views. But finding that kind of confidence wasn’t easy. 

“This world continues to condition all of us to constantly question ourselves,” Brittany says. “We are receiving messages all the time that I am not good enough, that I am not smart enough… That all of the things that I am are simply not enough to be successful in the spaces that I enter.”

The feeling that Brittany is describing is called imposter syndrome, and it’s estimated that 70% of the U.S. population has experienced it. That’s a real problem for organizations, because when employees lack confidence, they’re not in a position to do their best work. 

“If everyone that we interact with is lacking the confidence to be their best selves and to give their best ideas,” Brittany says, “then all of us lose.”

During her breakout session at Talent Connect 2019, Brittany shared how you can build confidence in your team — and create a workplace that allows confidence to flourish. Here are some of the strategies she recommends.

1. Give people permission to be confident by showing them how it’s done 

Throughout her childhood, Brittany watched her parents talking to numerous car dealers. The dealer would direct their attention at Brittany’s dad, assuming he was the decision-maker. But when it came time to negotiate, Brittany’s mom would do all the talking — acting with such confidence that the family always got a great deal. 

“What she didn't realize,” Brittany says, “was she was giving me permission to show up fully in my confidence, no matter what the other person on the other side of the table assumes about me.”

You can set a similar example for your team by starting every performance review and one-on-one by focusing on what the other person has been doing well, showing them it’s okay to be proud of their successes. This is especially important if the person’s natural tendency is to jump to what they could have done better. 

By steering discussions in this direction, you give your team permission to gain confidence from their successes and replicate them — rather than dwelling on their mistakes. 

“I refuse to start with the red pen,” Brittany says. “Because if we don't center on what goes well, then we cannot operate from our strengths, and that’s what confidence is all about.”

2. Provide equal opportunities for people to shine and gain confidence 

Giving employees stretch opportunities can help them come into their confidence by seeing what they’re good at. But this only works if everyone on the team has access to the same opportunities. 

“People need the chance to shine,” Brittany says. “And if the chance to shine always goes to the same people for the same things, then it’s impossible for the folks who don't get those opportunities to build confidence in your space.” 

Brittany advises managers to be on the lookout for affinity bias, which may cause you to disproportionately (and unintentionally) give opportunities to the people most like yourself. This can signal to other employees that you don’t believe in them. 

“Providing equitable opportunities gives people permission to start to stretch out in their skills,” Brittany says. “It lets them know it’s okay to make a mistake, it’s okay to fail, because I am giving you permission to try something new. If somebody experiences that belief in them, they can start to have that belief in themselves.”

3. Create and showcase different models for success, because not everyone demonstrates their skills in the same way

When Brittany was a teacher, she quickly learned that every test can’t take the same format. While some students may excel at writing essays, others may struggle to communicate that way, which doesn’t mean they haven’t mastered the material. But if every test consists of an essay, that will quickly start to chip away at their confidence. 

The same principle is true in working environments.

“If there is only one way for people to be successful in your company,” Brittany says, “then you are doing it wrong. It’s impossible for people to gain confidence in that kind of environment…. There have to be many, many, many different ways that people can demonstrate what they're good at.”

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This doesn’t just apply to the way you measure your team’s accomplishments. The way managers and leaders present themselves also sends a message about what success looks like. And if everyone looks and acts exactly the same way, people who don’t fit that mold may feel like they can’t be successful at your organization. 

That’s why it’s so important to not just create a diverse and inclusive workplace, but to foster a culture of belonging — one in which every employee can bring their true self to work. As more people start doing this, demonstrating different ways to be successful in the process, others will follow their lead.

Brittany showcased a different model of success when she became the first young, black, female executive at Teach For America at the age of 26. For her first major presentation, she decided to dress in the way she feels comfortable, so she wore an orange blazer — something none of the leaders that came before her would have done. Years later, another black, female employee told her how meaningful it was to see Brittany being herself like that. 

“[She] said to me, ‘I will never forget that blazer, because it gave me permission to show up as myself,’” Brittany recalls. “Ever since that day, she started to lead differently. An orange blazer helped do that — not because I'm all that special, but because I gave her a different model of what excellence looks like.” 

4. Show your team that it’s okay to fail by being vulnerable and acknowledging your mistakes

Providing confident role models only works if those role models are fallible. Employees need to see their bosses making mistakes and recalibrating, but still retaining their confidence. Otherwise, the fear of failure will always hold them back. 

“In all of the teams that I've led,” Brittany says, “they've gotten to know me not just through my successes, not through my confidence necessarily, but through all of the things that I've gotten wrong, to help them have permission to get things wrong too.” 

As a manager, acknowledging your mistakes is not a sign of weakness. Showing that you can apply what you’ve learned moving forward is a sign of strength — and your whole team will be stronger for it. 

“They can see me as a part of their community,” Brittany says. “Not sitting in a seat of judgment, but sitting in a seat of support.

5. Create focused affinity groups to provide safe spaces for underrepresented employees to practice and gain confidence 

Even after employees feel they have permission to be confident in their true selves, that confidence needs to be constantly bolstered and reaffirmed in order to become habit. Brittany says that building a community of trusted advisors makes that possible. 

“Community engenders confidence,” she explains. “You need folks to fall back on when you fail. You need folks to help you know that you are safe, and that you're not going to lose everything when things don't quite go as planned.”

Employee resource groups (ERGs) and affinity groups can help create this sense of community and psychological safety for employees. But Brittany argues that while it’s useful to have groups built around common interests, creating groups specifically designed to support underrepresented identities is essential. Since these employees face more systemic barriers to confidence than others, it’s important to create safe spaces for them to practice confidence and foster it in their peers. 

While Brittany was at Teach For America, she made it a priority to dedicate more resources to these affinity groups compared to the ones that people could opt into. She also made sure that everyone at the organization understood why these groups were a focus area.

“Those affinity groups matter,” Brittany says, “because if you do not have the space where you can be yourself bravely — where you can practice your confidence before you go out into mixed company — then you're going to lack the skills and the safety to be your most confident self.”

6. Encourage your team to be curious and responsible for their own personal growth

Earlier in her career, Brittany hosted an event at her organization that went horribly wrong. But when her manager pulled her aside to talk about it, she didn’t yell at Brittany. Instead, she asked, “What were your intentions?”

“What she was asking me to do,” Brittany says, “was to be curious about what went wrong, so that I can learn the lessons for myself and be responsible for my own learning. She was also showing me, I'm not here to punish you. I'm here to help you grow.” 

By asking open-ended questions rather than making assumptions or telling them what they could have done better, you encourage employees to reflect on their actions and figure out the lesson for themselves. This can make them more invested in their growth and development. 

“It helps people put down their defenses and engage in their own learning,” Brittany says. “We learn best not when other people give us the lesson, but when we learn it ourselves”

Confidence isn’t a fluffy idea — it’s a crucial ingredient of success

No matter how good your team is, they will never reach their full potential if they lack confidence. And as a manager, it’s your responsibility to help them build it — and to build it in yourself. 

“Confidence is the main ingredient,” Brittany says. “It is the spark before everything else. It is not a nice-to-have — it is a must-have.”

For more tips about building confidence and fostering it in others, watch Brittany’s full talk from Talent Connect 2019.

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