Most leaders develop grand plans for their teams. They hire people with the right skill sets to meet their goals. They keep track of industry changes. They add to their tech stack to give their teammates every chance of success. But they fail to assess whether their teams have an even bigger tool at their disposal: confidence.

Without confidence, high growth isn't possible. And confidence is experienced differently between men and women at work. A Hewlett-Packard internal study found men applied for promotions when they met 60 percent of the requirements; women only did when they met 100 percent of the posted qualifications. HP women were missing out on real opportunities. In discussing this confidence gap in The Atlantic, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explained that women often shift the right question -- such as "Am I good at science?" -- to the wrong one: "Did I get the answer right?"

But from what I've seen, both men and women lack self-confidence all the time. In an attempt to read your mind (or mood), they watch your reactions and hedge their bets on what you deem most important. All that means is they're getting good at doing your bidding -- not thinking for themselves.

Leaders have to boost employees' confidence. Here's how you can do just that.

1. Put your team first.

Most leaders believe the only way to grow is to put the customer first. This is followed by growth metrics. However, fast-growth companies ironically don't put customers or metrics before team members. After 434 interviews with founders and CEOs of fast-growth companies, I discovered their secret to growth acceleration: team first. 

One example is Jeff Knauss, co-founder of Digital Hyve, No. 563 on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list. His company's fourth hire was an HR director -- not the route most high-growth businesses take. But Knauss focused on the brand's team-first mentality. "I've seen so many businesses put their clients first, and what happens is they burn out their people," Knauss explained. "You create a negative culture, and then ultimately, clients don't get the best service. Whereas if you create a great culture and you put your people first, what happens? You take care of your people; they take care of your clients." 

The lesson here is one you can apply to build your team members' confidence. Putting the team first means talking to teammates about their personal lives so they feel understood. Talk about the fears that hold them back. When you talk about the deeper issues of their personal growth, you get the mindset shifts that make them more creative and innovative with their work. 

I've seen this work; I've hired more than 100 people over the course of my entrepreneurial career. You have to put the team before everything to fuel long-term growth. A boost in employee confidence will boost the company's revenue, too, as they tackle more creative problem-solving. 

2. Personalize your approach to the person you're leading.

Leaders are very busy. They're also quick to make excuses about spending time with their people to personalize their individual growth. But taking care of people's needs can't happen without knowing what those needs are -- and too many leaders assume one employee's needs match the next person's. If you're hiring a truly diverse workforce, your people value a variety of things: autonomy, money, flexibility, career progression, social missions, leadership opportunities.

I spoke with Mark Ellis, the co-founder of marketing platform company Liftoff, No. 118 on the 2018 Inc. 5000 and one of Inc.'s 2019 Best Workplaces. Adapting to individuals is something he learned by working with a wide range of leaders throughout his career. "We now are very motivated to have an environment where people can be their best selves," he said.

It stems from enabling people to be authentic. "If we can allow people to be their authentic selves, be transparent in decisions we're taking, where we're going, when we don't hit the high mark, why we fell short, what we're going to do about it...It breeds confidence in our innate to figure things out, and it breeds confidence that you can be yourself. You've been hired for a reason, and you can be your authentic self and we come together and make things happen," he added.

You also can't expect confidence to spring up in your team without your help. The people who invest in your company with their sweat and time deserve your investment, too. By putting them first and getting to know them, they'll feel confident enough to tackle anything.

Published on: Sep 24, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.