Improve Engagement with the Right Confidence-to-Ability Ratio

Each summer I load my family in the car and head out of Dallas toward a cooler climate. This annual road trip takes us through St. Louis, where my kids insist we spend a day at City Museum. City Museum is difficult to describe. It is part museum, part sculpture garden, and part playground. Built in an old shoe warehouse, City Museum contains 11+ stories of grottos, tunnels, caves, and slides, all constructed of stone, wood, cement or steel. There are even a Ferris wheel and a school bus on the roof! The staff at the entrance will proudly tell you, “There are no maps and no guides. You are on your own to explore, climb and discover.” This is their open invitation to test your abilities and confidence in new ways.

CityMuseumMonsterSlideThe best way to find your way around City Museum is to follow a child – an agile, brave and adventurous child! Children have a way of trusting their instincts at City Museum, and I am convinced they have a better experience than the adults who watch and take pictures from the sidelines. I followed this approach on a visit with my son last week and had a lot more fun by mustering up some confidence and testing my own agility and strength to try the more difficult tunnels, climbs and slides. This got me thinking… how does a person’s the Confidence-to-Ability ratio hold her back from fully engaging in work and performing her best? And what can leaders and organizations do to help people develop both Confidence and Ability?

  • High Ability:Low Confidence – People with the knowledge and skills to do great work can be held back by self-doubt and fears. At City Museum, I was afraid to jump into the dark opening of a narrow slide because I couldn’t see where I would come out at the other end. For these people, doubts cloud our ability to see that we have the skills and capabilities we need. A good way to develop confidence in these folks is to recognize how they achieved past accomplishments and overcame difficult challenge. Recognition is a great motivator, especially when it targets someone’s personal behavior or aspirations. My son knew this instinctively; he saw that I was hesitant and said “Mom, don’t you want to be able to say you did the scariest slide in the museum?” He knew that appealing to my competitive nature would help overcome my fears, and used the potential of bragging rights to motivate me to overcome my doubts!
  • High Confidence:Low Ability – People risk making mistakes when their confidence skews their ability to accurately assess a situation. I saw this a few times at City Museum when people would get halfway through a steel climbing tube and realize they should have entered feet first and not head first! They had to come out, reverse positions and start over. The challenge with developing these folks is to increase their skills and abilities without squashing their confidence. It helps to define guardrails that guide them in their work and keep them from going too far too fast. For example, what decisions can they make on their own, and when do they need to get the input of others? Give them just enough space to run (or climb) and gently help them correct their course when they need it.
  • Even Confidence and Ability – It might seem like this is the “just right” mix of confidence and ability; however, people with an even mix of confidence and ability can quickly get bored with their work. After all, where is the challenge or learning? City Museum understands the need to keep people engaged and continues to add features to challenge participants. In fact, their motto is “Always Building.” In the three years since we started going to City Museum, they have added a tree house (complete with branches and root system to crawl through), a giant rolling barrel/hamster wheel, and new climbing tunnels. To keep these people engaged at work, look for projects that expose them to new areas of the business and require them to broaden their knowledge and relationships.

CityMuseumI am proud to say that I tried everything I encountered at City Museum this trip (ok, well almost everything), and that I enjoyed this year most of all for doing so! Some of the obstacles forced me to overcome my fears and doubts, while others reinforced that I had the strength and ability to master them, and I was challenged every step of the way. I cannot wait to go back next year!

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults. You can reach her at or on Twitter at @HeatherGNelson1. Sign up to receive the PeopleResults blog at Current.

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