The scale of confidence

A blast or a whimper? Too much or too little self-belief damages your effectiveness and promotability. How do you pitch it correctly? MT lifecoach Miranda Kennett advises.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Confidence is a double-edged sword. We love it as a quality in our leaders: their self-belief and apparent certainty of direction tend to make us good followers. But when confidence shades into arrogance and overweaning self-belief, we fear its consequences - and rightly.

Consider Tony Blair when he first led the Labour party to victory in 1997. Everything about him said confidence. After the sartorial gaffes of Michael Foot, Blair's sharp suits and red tie conveyed the same confidence as his cultured voice, his handsome features and clear-eyed demeanour. First among equals, the New Labour leader was visibly on the front foot.

Fast-forward to more recent times and the self-confidence appears to have tipped over into unshakeable belief that he is right on every issue. Blair, according to some of his ex-colleagues in Cabinet, no longer consults his ministers and has ceased to listen to any adviser who has the temerity to produce facts that conflict with the path he has already decided to take.

Although his speeches are still verbally up-front, other attributes that once reinforced our sense of his self-belief have started to wane. These days, he's more likely to exude perspiration than confidence. The ravages to his youthful appearance that time and events have wrought are readily attributed to failing political confidence. Backtracking and U-turns compound that impression.

Of course, one of Blair's problems is that he doesn't have a manager. If you were his manager, how would you handle him? 'Bad decisions can be sold by charismatic leaders who haven't done the necessary homework,' says Richard Doyle, group organisational effectiveness director for Cadbury Schweppes. 'People look to leaders to show confidence in the direction they are taking - it's motivating. But at the same time, we need to be sure that their confidence is well-placed, that they've understood the challenges of the market and local conditions and have built up capabilities.'

One way of tackling the problem, believes Doyle, is to teach coaching skills to managers, so they are better at listening to others and can take on board relevant information from wider sources.

Cadbury Schweppes is so concerned to improve the quality of decision-making that it is developing a systematic, common template for the process, to ensure that appropriate data on the market, the product and environmental issues are gathered and analysed. 'We've just invested very heavily in our commercial capabilities and we need to know our plans are fact-based, robust and rigorous. We are creating a toolkit that will allow us to drive up our confidence that the plans will work.'

Super-confidence is often a function of youth and inexperience. We've all worked in organisations where the administrative staff had developed tactics for taking bumptious, self-important graduate recruits down a peg or two. I asked Andrew Marsden, category manager for soft drinks at Britvic and an outwardly confident person himself, how he handles someone whose admirable enthusiasm and positivity are not matched by a competence to make informed decisions. 'It's not so hard,' he replies. 'You can slap 'em down - they'll bounce back. Certainty is a benefit of youth. To get them back on track, you need to break down some of their certainties.

'When I see someone recommending a course of action they're too inexperienced to make, I tell them to "manage by facts" to establish what we actually know and what degree of confidence we can attach to the decision.'

Nevertheless, Marsden is positive about the benefits of appropriate confidence. 'Projected confidence is part of the skill set of a leader, setting a vision and getting some disciples to gather round to deliver it. You don't have to be overbearing. Arrogance is not the same thing as confidence. Arrogant people say: "Your views are rubbish." Appropriately confident people listen to others, think around the issue and have a more holistic view of life. They make a balanced assessment. Confident people can support others and give recognition.'

The consistent view of my interviewees is that over- and under-confidence are two sides of the same coin. People who seem to be super-confident are often trying to compensate for an inner fear that they are not really good enough - the same fear that nags away at under-confident people. JK Galbraith claimed that when people are least sure, they are most dogmatic, and there certainly seems to be an inverse correlation between people's sense of security and their need to be right.

Compared to the damage that the misguidedly hyper-confident can do, we may be forgiven for thinking that under-confidence is much less of an issue. But in reality, lack of self-confidence can be equally damaging, not just to the individual, who is not making the most of their potential, but also to their employer, who is not getting full value from their staff.

My highly experienced coaching colleague Kate Springford points out that under-confidence wastes huge amounts of energy that should be available for strategic thinking, because the individual is always trying to be what he or she already is.

How do you manage the under-confident? Cadbury Schweppes is committed to creating a diverse workforce and is focusing on attracting, retaining and developing talent. Doyle recognises that this policy brings its own challenges: 'We have to be very supportive of people with different styles, not all of whom have high natural levels of confidence. We want to be able to harness diverse opinions to improve our business. We have to create an environment where people can flourish.'

As he points out, sometimes it is the quietest person in the meeting who has the insight that can change the whole course of thinking.

What about the ostensibly high-potential manager who nevertheless seems to have a confidence issue? Doyle counsels diagnosis of what's behind the behaviour before prescribing the treatment. How real is the problem? How damaging is it? Is it based on a fear of presenting to a large group or is there some deeper psychological problem of which this behaviour is a symptom? Depending on the issue, there is a range of different solutions. Coaching is a favoured option and is used to help the individual understand their strengths and to build self-esteem, so that they can increase the number and type of occasions where they can be effective.

But Doyle adds a note of caution: 'We don't necessarily want everyone to be super-confident. Depending on their role, it may not be particularly important. We have eight leadership imperatives, such as accountability, adaptability and collaboration. Confidence isn't one of them.'

At Britvic, Marsden goes out of his way to create opportunities for the less assured to venture an opinion, in the belief that for them, gaining practice of sharing thoughts and taking centre-stage gradually reduces the fear. He too identifies the issue of under-utilised resources when more timid staff hold back their contribution.

So what does appropriately confident behaviour look like? Susan Hooper, senior vice president international for Royal Caribbean, has been responsible for the marketing of 'Freedom of the Seas', the world's largest cruise ship, launched in May. She thinks of herself as a pretty confident person and certainly comes across that way when welcoming opinion-formers and travel industry luminaries to the sumptuous vessel for a preview.

'I've always believed in myself, and my self-belief has driven me to push through a lot. I want to prove I can do it. I've been this way since I was a small child. I had no sense of hierarchy or fear of authority.

'My mother used to be quite shocked by my approach to adults. I didn't see them as being any different from me. They were older, but in my view we were equal. I'm equally egalitarian with people conventionally regarded as lower down the social scale.' She puts some of this down to having been brought up in the US, where the attitude is: 'Just go do it, it's up to you'.

Yet Hooper admits that sometimes her self-belief was unfounded and that she was much more aggressive when she was younger. 'I used not to sacrifice any point of integrity. I've learned that there are other ways of getting what I want. I'm definitely more self-effacing now.' She has no sympathy for those who use excessive confidence as a cover for their lack of knowledge.

One area she has had to work on was how she presents. She has previously worked at McKinsey, Avis and Pepsi and took several training courses in order to get herself up to what she feels to be an acceptable standard.

'I set my sights high and judged myself against others and found I fell far short.' Her current job requires her to do multiple presentations and interviews in a variety of languages, including German and Italian, and she's clearly become a highly competent performer.

What are her top tips for becoming more confident? Appearing confident is more than half the battle. Learn the techniques of presentation that help you appear happy in your skin and on top of your subject. Prepare, sort out your facts, look the part.

As a coach, I've often worked on confidence issues with clients. In my experience, the over-confident are almost always men. Their natural competitiveness, which can be a tremendous asset to them in achieving early success, can be a disadvantage if it gets in the way of listening to other people's good ideas and can ultimately limit how far they can progress up the organisation. Conversely, the under-confident are more often women, and frequently this is triggered by a change of circumstance: returning to work after maternity leave, swapping from a caring, paternalistic environment to a tougher one, being promoted to a more senior role. What holds them back is the belief that they are not capable of delivering to expectations.

But, as Henry Ford said: 'Whether you think that you can, or that you can't, you are usually right.' In other words, it's your mental attitude that dictates your performance. So working on your outer behaviour is useful, especially because confidence is in the eye of the beholder, but working on your inner sense of self-worth is essential.

What emerges as important is for each of us to achieve a good match between confidence and competence, between our perceptions and reality. Whatever our position on the scale of confidence, we can achieve this match by looking both within ourselves and outside to the people and environment we inhabit.

Looking within gains us valuable insights into what makes us tick and the effect of our behaviour on others. Looking outside helps us appreciate other people's abilities, ambitions and needs. This gives us useful data from which to make decisions about how we operate, to allow ourselves and others to operate at peak effectiveness. It also enables us to calibrate just how competent we are and to identify where we need to develop. And, for the less assured, the mere exercise of turning our attention to focus on someone else can act as a very effective distraction from our preoccupations and fears.

Confidence is not a constant, and many things in our lives can affect the degree to which we are able to hold onto it. But when it is proportionate to our abilities and potential, it is a precious commodity and one worth protecting and nurturing.

Apply for jobs at twice your current salary
Believe you are brighter than everyone else
Put your feet on the desk
Trust your own gut feelings at all times
Love the sound of your own voice
Overplay your strengths at interview and don't admit to any weaknesses
Assume everybody fancies you
Crush fingers when you're shaking hands
Never listen to other people's opinions
Never miss the chance to hog the limelight
Claim negative feedback is lying rivalry
Believe your own positive PR
Be aware of personal space - don't get too close
Adjust the volume - downwards
Tone down the language
Sit back and listen. Don't interrupt
Pause before you speak to allow brain to engage before mouth
Ensure you have data to back up your assertions
See how people with quiet power operate
Reduce the risk of bad decisions by consulting those with experience
Get frequent feedback to better understand the effect you have on others
Admit you might be wrong - it's a sign of strength, not weakness
Review your own work with an eye to improvement
Smile. Help others to relax
Have been on the same salary for more than two years
Assume everyone else is more intelligent than you
At interview, point out all the aspects of the job that would be new to
Whisper rather than speak up
Avoid eye contact when talking
Have a handshake like a wet flounder
Try to take up as little space as possible
Believe your opinion doesn't matter
Would rather have teeth pulled than make a presentation
Fail to recognise your growing competence
Allow your fear to prevent you from doing what you most want


Fake it until you can make it - act confident and only you will know you're not

Turn up the volume and reduce the speed at which you talk

Good eye contact and pausing when you've finished a sentence gives you gravitas

Banish fidgeting, hair-twiddling and other non-confident body language

Replace tentative words (maybe, perhaps, might) with positive, vigorous ones (will, definitely, absolutely)

Each time you tackle a scary situation, praise yourself for what you did well and chalk the rest up to experience

Write down a long list of what you're good at and read it when you're feeling wobbly

Recognise that even the most outwardly confident people sometimes get butterflies.

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