Confidence/Competence

Confidence and competence are very different qualities. Despite this, many mentors can feel ‘tripped up’ at some point in their careers by learners who are very confident but lack competence. At the opposite extreme, you may find learners who are very competent and knowledgeable but lack the confidence to work unsupervised or try out new things.

Competence

How can you tell the difference between confidence and competence?

Novices are unlikely to be highly competent, although they may have transferable skills, especially if they already have experience in a related work role. If a learner comes to you with some relevant experience, you may find it difficult at the start to determine their capabilities and skill level.

What is confidence in a learner?
A confident learner in the workplace is likely to be eager to work and make critical decisions without supervision. They are also likely to have high self esteem, and evaluate themselves highly and positively.
What is competence in a learner?
A learner in the workplace who is highly competent can be observed carrying out work to a high standard. They can also provide a sound rationale for their decisions, based on appropriate values, attitudes, theory and situational awareness.

How can you support a learner to develop confidence and competence?

I'm going to consider four combinations of high/low competence and high/low confidence, as shown in the grid. I'll describe some characteristics of learners in each category and follow with some useful 'mentoring moves' in each case.

Confidence and competence in four combinations

1: Learner with low confidence, low competence

Low confidence and competence could easily apply to a complete novice, in which case you would expect them to hang back and let you take the lead. Over time, you would expect the learner to make progress towards greater confidence and competence. If progress seems to be taking too long, you may decide to push the learner a little harder or discuss the situation with the education provider.

Learner characteristics

You might notice these kinds of behaviours or characteristics:

  • Reluctant to carry out work or make decisions without supervision
  • Low self-esteem, perhaps making self-deprecating comparisons with peers
  • Does not attempt, or only observes, many tasks; or significant flaws can be observed in standard of work
  • Unable to provide a sound rationale for decisions (rationale may be misguided or absent)
Mentoring moves

Here are some suggestions for how you could help:

  • Create or seek out low-risk situations for a novice to practise new skills
  • Give corrective feedback on work, and praise or reinforce good elements of practice
  • Signpost sources of information that will support learners' rationales for their practice
  • Invite the learner to voice any concerns
  • Help the learner to stand back a little and view their abilities in a wider context. This could involve telling them how long other people have taken to develop their expertise, or how you felt when you first started in a new workplace or a new role.

2: Learner with low confidence, high competence

Some people are naturally cautious, and this might show up as low confidence, even when they have developed competence. Also, a highly competent learner could lose their confidence following a very bruising experience. If they are hanging back from getting stuck into challenging tasks, this may hinder their learning and you may be unable to judge their full abilities and potential.

Learner characteristics

You might notice these kinds of behaviours or characteristics:

  • Reluctant to carry out work or make decisions without supervision
  • Low self esteem, perhaps making self-deprecating comparisons with peers
  • Can be observed carrying out work to a high standard
  • Provides a sound rationale for decisions, based on appropriate values, attitudes, theory and situational awareness
Mentoring moves

Here are some suggestions for how you could help:

  • Give praise and positive feedback on work that is of high standard
  • Invite the learner to voice any concerns
  • Encourage the learner to take on unsupervised tasks in small incremental stages
  • Encourage and support critical reflection on practice

3: Learner with high confidence, low competence

If a learner’s self-evaluation is overly optimistic, it can temporarily mask a low competence. Over-confident individuals might take on tasks above their capabilities without the proper supervision. This could be a dangerous situation in sensitive work environments such as health and social care, building sites, working with powerful machinery, and so on.

Learner characteristics

You might notice these kinds of behaviours or characteristics:

  • Eager to work and make critical decisions unsupervised
  • High self esteem, positive self-evaluation
  • Significant flaws can be observed in standard of work
  • Unable to provide a sound rationale for decisions (rationale may be misguided or absent)
Mentoring moves

Here are some suggestions for how you could help:

  • Create or seek out low-risk situations for the learner to practise new skills
  • Give constructive feedback on work, and praise or reinforce good elements of practice
  • Signpost sources of information that will support practice rationales
  • Firmly control the learner’s scope to practise unsupervised
  • Encourage the learner to develop critical self-awareness
Developing critical self-awareness

How do you encourage the development of critical self-awareness?

Encourage your mentee to assess their own progress since entering the workplace, or to provide evidence of their knowledge. Make it clear to them, if appropriate, how this differs from the outcomes they are working towards. If there are several learners in your workplace, consider setting up sessions for joint reflections on practice. You could also set mentees exercises in explaining to others how to carry out a particular skill. If you feel confident to manage this, you could also consider asking peers to assess each other.

4: Learner with high confidence, high competence

A learner who is both highly confident and highly competent can be a pleasure to work with. You will need to remind yourself that this is nevertheless a person who is in your workplace to learn and develop. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking there is no more you can teach them. Even if they have very good work skills, they could still learn more about how to become an independent lifelong learner.

Learner characteristics

You might notice these kinds of behaviours or characteristics:

  • Eager to work and make critical decisions unsupervised
  • High self esteem, positive self-evaluation
  • Can be observed carrying out work to a high standard
  • Provides a sound rationale for decisions, based on appropriate values, attitudes, theory and situational awareness
Mentoring moves

Here are some suggestions for how you could help:

  • Give praise and positive feedback on work that is of high standard
  • Create or seek out situations to further challenge the learner
  • Encourage critical reflection on practice

If they appear very independent, make sure you engage them in conversations that will allow them space for critical reflection. They will still have learning needs and will need your help to develop their practice further. It is important to realise this, as it can be difficult to know how else you can help a very independent learner.

Stretching the practice of a highly competent learner

Try giving additional responsibilities:

  • leading a small project
  • helping less able staff or students
  • preparing a poster for the workplace or public area
  • attending meetings with key people in the organisation
  • conducting a literature review

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