I was having dinner the other night with a friend of mine who works in human resources for a non-financial company. We got to talking about my work with employees at advisory firms, and she asked me this question: “How do you develop a business mind in employees, who are afraid to admit that they don’t have a business mind, but want one?”

I didn’t have to explore what she meant for long before I realized that she was talking mostly about herself. And I was surprised to find that this poised, successful woman (who has an MBA) actually had very little confidence in her ability not just to understand the basics of business, but in her abilities as a manager. 

Her question about developing a “business mind” in employees is a very good one: one that requires a lengthy answer, which I’ll address in future blogs and perhaps a column or two. But I’ve found that her insecurity about her ability is such a widespread problem among employees that it needs to be addressed first, before employees can learn about business principles, or even learn to do their jobs well. 

In my view, the basic problem is that most of us are afraid to take an honest look at ourselves for fear that we don’t measure up as well as we think we should. Sometimes this is called the impostor syndrome, in which people are sure they don’t deserve their current role and/or live in fear that their boss will eventually figure it out, and show them the door. (By the way, many studies show that the impostor syndrome is equally as common among very successful people as the rest of us working stiffs.) 

The first step in overcoming a lack of confidence in your ability is to take a look at your co-workers. This is usually more effective if you work in a large company, but just a glance around your firm’s office is often sufficient. Ask yourself: how many of these people are better at their jobs than I am at mine? Chances are, at worst, you’ll find yourself in the middle of the pack. And if you’re the newest employee and find yourself near the bottom, ask: Do I expect these folks to be better than I am when I have their years of experience? Few people will really believe that. I have a friend who often says that the most valuable thing about having gone to college is the realization of how many idiots have graduated from college. The same is true about having a job. 

Yes, I understand that many of us don’t want to be “in the middle of the pack.” Still, that realization will do wonders for your job insecurities. Next, take a look at yourself. What do you do well? What do other people come to you to get done? What do people compliment you on? What problems do you feel good about solving? What things do you do that help your firm succeed? 

If you weren’t doing something that helps your firm succeed, you wouldn’t have your job. Start with that, and build on it. How could I do more of that? What else could I do to help my firm, my co-workers, and my boss? What else could I learn to enable me to help out more? Once you’ve started asking these questions, you’ve shifted your focus from fear that you’re not good enough to how you can help the team. Nothing builds confidence like the realization that your contribution makes a difference; or motivates better than the drive to make a bigger contribution. 

You don’t have to master everything you do, just do what needs to be done. And you need to learn to help out even more. Try that mentality for just a few months, and you’ll be surprised at how much better you feel about your job, and your ability to do it. Then we can talk about how much more valuable you’ll be when you understand more about a business mentality.