FANNING: How you can always be confident even without the answers

By Ben Fanning, contributing editor  |  I was so confident my shirt was about to bust open.  My chest was out with head held high.

Then I boldly marched to the front of the room and grabbed the laser pointer.  In the moment, I was cloaked in so much confidence I swatted down arguments with ease and led the group to an excellent outcome.  People even thanked me afterwards for stepping up.  Why was I so confident?

I had the answers.

Being the expert gives you confidence


When you’re the only one in the room with the answer to a problem, it gives you a massive amount of confidence.

I recognized this early on in my career with my very first boss: Gary.  He always seemed to have the answers.  He was like an encyclopedia of company history, manufacturing knowledge, and technological expertise.

Gary was so busy as the Company Yoda, you could hardly get him to attend your meeting; but if you did, he’d stride in with this amazing confidence and swagger.  He usually already had the answer to your problem which made the rest of your meeting a waste of time…you should’ve just asked Gary in the first place.

The down side of needing the answer

For years I tried to emulate Gary’s style, but I had limited success.  When my confidence became reliant on knowing the answer, problems started to appear like:

  • I needed to know before I spoke, before I inquired, and before I made a move.
  • I began over thinking and hesitating…which I still struggle with even today.
  • I frequently got stuck in analysis paralysis.
  • I found myself feeling weakened in situations where I didn’t have the answer.

I couldn’t prepare enough to have all the answers plus the knowledge I tended to absorb was wide across various disciplines and not deep enough to frequently be “the expert” in the room.

The dark side of confidence as an expert

When you reach “expert level” there can be a real dark side.  Like:

  • Boredom – Learning deeper and more detailed information but missing out on variety.
  • Getting stereotyped – Narrowing your niche at the office and getting left out of the “fun stuff.”
  • Being pigeonholed – Pigeonholing yourself into a position and career.

Maybe it even eventually makes you irrelevant.  It can become a crutch that can be kicked out at any moment and leave your confidence lying flat on the floor.

13 tips for more confidence

The good news here is that you don’t have to be the expert in the room to have confidence.

If you’ve been working in Corporate for a while, some of these tips may be a bit counter-intuitive because corporate life is traditionally geared as a know-it-all-game.

But the truth is that there is so much information is readily available via your phone or computer that having a boat load of knowledge is becoming less important than having the skill set for leveraging that knowledge.

Here are the tips to have the swagger without being the expert:

  1. Admit upfront you don’t have all the answers.  This admission usually shocks people and opens up the conversation for others to feel more comfortable participating.
  2. Do.  Unlock confidence by rolling up your sleeves and digging into the details. Just “thinking” about it is the slow road to confidence.
  3. Clarify your role. Use “facilitator” or “leader”…avoid “subject matter expert (SME)”, “boss, or “Jedi.”
  4. Translate.  Seek out cross-functional exposure and learn to speak the language of other functions in your organization.
  5. Build alliances before big meetings and on important projects, so you’ve got support or at least know where other people stand.
  6. Practice the art of making mistakes without letting them tarnish your self-perceived worth.
  7. Show your openness to different perspectives by repeating back someone’s comment in a non-judgmental way.
  8. Hold back on offering your hunches first.  Wait until you’ve heard from everyone in the room.
  9. Make the conversation about them instead of about what you’re doing and what you need.
  10. Acknowledge and show gratitude for those who really show-up and fully participate.
  11. Recognize and publicly point-out the value that others bring to the conversation.
  12. Ask proactively for the input and help from others.
  13. Own your work. Own the result.

Now take one of the tips above and write it into your calendar as a reminder. Use it to bolster your confidence in your next meeting or presentation. Notice the difference!


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