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Ingredients for confidence

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 16 October 2019
"Confidence," says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, director and chair of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, "is an expectation of a positive outcome. It is not a personality trait; it is an assessment of a situation that sparks motivation."

As I noted in the last issue, confidence (or more accurately, the lack of it) is an issue that arises frequently in leadership development workshops, assessments and coaching. From "imposter syndrome" to harsh feedback, from fear of rejection to unrelenting pressure and lack of appreciation, from unexpected changes to complex operating environments, it's easy and common for our confidence to take a beating. And that's not good for individual wellbeing or for organisational performance and culture.

So what can we do to manage our own confidence, support others' self-confidence, and encourage others to be more confident in us? The following suggestions don't constitute a recipe for confidence, but do highlight some key ingredients.

Self confidence
Our brains have a necessary but sometimes counterproductive instinct called a negativity bias. Its valuable function is to keep us out of harm's way by noticing early and powerfully anything that might be a threat. So, especially in uncertain, unfamiliar or hostile environments, it's easy to feel swamped by negative thoughts. And that's before you look at your news feed!

But that negative sensitivity doesn't mean the negative is always real, relevant or useful. It's important to maintain a healthy dose of positive self-talk, a realistic perspective on what's working well, and a healthy mindset that doesn't see changes or challenges as likely failure but as situations to be managed. Kanter cautions against the power of "Self-defeating assumptions. You think you can't, so you don't." Remember, confidence is an assessment of a situation that sparks motivation: "What can I do? What do I want to achieve here?"

In the last newsletter we looked at the power of "best-self activation" - the power of identifying experiences of satisfaction, achievement and success in order to remind ourselves of our proven capacity to perform well. This mindset is closely linked to being aware of, valuing and developing our strengths. It's too easy to take strengths for granted and - here comes the negative bias ... focus too much on apparent limitations.

In addition to a positive mindset that builds on our strengths, self confidence is also maintained through a conscious commitment to living our values. As Susan David writes in Emotional Agility: values help you "place your feet in the right direction as you journey through life, no matter where life leads you".

Building others' confidence
Rosabeth Moss Kanter also explored confidence in groups and teams in her book Confidence: How winning and losing streaks begin and end (2006). It turns out that we can boost our own confidence by investing in others' confidence.

"To build your confidence," she says, "think about building the confidence of others and creating a culture in which everyone is more likely to succeed, whether through mentoring them or recognizing their strengths. Giving to others boosts happiness and self-esteem, as numerous research studies show. Supporting them makes it easier to ensure that they support you."

So in a sense it's about taking the same principles we apply to ourselves (positive reinforcement, identifying and investing in strengths, and creating a culture of achievement) and expressing them, in word and deed, to one another. This sounds easy, but the value and power of such practices come to the fore during times of setback, frustration and challenge. "Kanter's Law" says that "Anything can look like a failure in the middle."

The excitement and anticipation of the start can easily give way to lethargy and frustration when setbacks arise and the going gets tough. Which means that a culture of trust, honesty and commitment to shared success must be built in the easier times. Again, celebrating small wins, appreciating strengths, commitment to development and shared values are vital ingredients to be conscious of and focused on in the day-to-day.
"Teams that are immersed in a culture of accountability, collaboration, and initiative are more likely to believe that they can weather any storm," Kanter notes. "Self confidence, combined with confidence in one another and in the organization, motivates winners to make the extra push that can provide the margin of victory."

Building others' confidence in you
A third perspective on confidence is the need for others to have confidence in us. Whether that's at the level of a brand or organisation, leadership, expertise, or teamwork, we know how crucial it is to win and maintain others' confidence in us and in what we do. It's about trust.

Two of the most important elements of trust are competence and warmth (empathy/relationship). Yes, we need to be able to demonstrate competence. (You don't even have to be the best, just not incompetent!). But leaders and team members (and organisations) too often neglect the element of warmth in establishing trust.

Why are these traits (competence and warmth) so important? Amy Cuddy and her colleagues answer it this way: "Because they answer two critical questions: 'What are this person's intentions towards me?' and 'Is he or she capable of acting on those intentions?' Together, these assessments underlie our emotional and behavioral reactions to other people, groups, and even brands and companies."

So, in addition to ensuring we're good at what we do, if we want to maintain others' confidence in us, our project, our mission, or our organisation, we must ensure that we also project appropriate warmth. And that starts with presence.

"Credibility is gained in small quantities through physical presence," explain Kouzes and Posner in their book, Credibility. "Leaders have to be physically present, they have to be visible, and they have to get close to their constituents to earn respect and trust."

If we're going to express warmth as well as competence we have to "show up". Proximity, visibility and attention are daily requirements if we're going to earn and maintain the trust and confidence of those we seek to lead and influence.

And sometimes that work of being visible, present and warm can present a challenge to our own self-confidence. But that's okay, if you take Kanter's perspective that "confidence is an expectation of a positive outcome. It is not a personality trait; it is an assessment of a situation that sparks motivation".

What's your motivation to build confidence in yourself and others?


Aubrey Warren

Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies

References & Resources

Cuddy, A.J.C., Kohut, M., Neffinger, J. (2013). Connect, then lead. Harvard Business Review (July-August, pp55-61)
David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and in life
Kanter, R.M. (2014). Overcome the eight barriers to confidence. Harvard Business Review, (Jan. 3)
Kanter, R.M. (2011). Cultivate a culture of confidence. Harvard Business Review (April)
Kanter, R.M. (2006). Confidence: How winning and losing streaks begin and end
Kouzes, J. & Posner, B. (2011). Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it; why people demand it
Marano, H.E. (2003). Our brain's negative bias. Psychology Today (Australia), (June 20). Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/articles/200306/our-brains-negative-bias

© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2019

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