Confidence is gained and lost, but can it be lent? | Contributor

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal

How important is confidence in the workplace? What role does it play in employee engagement?

If you are at all curious about what factors impact performance, you must have asked yourself questions like these: Why do people of equal skills consistently have different outcome? Why do some of our teams perform above their talent levels?

I believe managers need to have an appreciation of the importance of confidence to overall performance, and be able to intervene effectively when they see it is missing.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, distinguished professor of business at Harvard, feels so strongly about the importance of confidence that back in 2004 she went so far as to write a book, “Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.

This is a big, fat book that might look daunting to some. But just part three, for application, makes it a great addition to your reading material if you are a manager with an interest in improving your skill set. These days you can buy copies used, as well, so it is a great value.

Kanter continues her interest in the topic of confidence right up until today. (Some messages bear repeating, as you know.)

As recently as January this year, she wrote a piece on her Harvard blog identifying and cautioning against getting caught in any of eight distinct confidence traps:

– Self-defeating assumptions
– Goals that are too big or too distant
– Declaring victory too soon
– “Do-it-yourself-ing”
– Blaming someone else
– Defensiveness
– Neglecting to anticipate setbacks
– Overconfidence

Many of these traps are self explanatory. You’ve seen them yourself or been guilty yourself. Others, maybe not so much.

I recommend reading the piece just to get on her understanding for yourself.

But back now to my opening question, we know confidence can be gained or lost, at least that is the way it gets talked about. Can it be borrowed or lent?

In the inspirational film, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Will Smith, as the lead character Chris Gardner, counsels his young son: “You got a dream, you got to protect it. People can’t do something themselves they want to tell you… you can’t do it!”

Given his circumstances, it might be hard to tell if Gardner is talking to his son or himself. But the message would seem to be that a leader in any circumstance can notice an absence of confidence in an employee, a friend, a child or even a stranger and offer to share their own experience as a temporary substitute for the missing ingredient.

Of course, you can’t make the patient take the medicine, but you can see the opportunity to step in and lend what seems to be needed.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter would offer that it is this type of action that defines leadership. In her view, leadership is not about the leader, but how he or she builds the confidence of others so that leaders emerge throughout an organization.

Fungible is a funny word, but in this case it may apply to the conversation.

Is confidence fungible? Can yours or mine be substituted for that which may be missing in someone else? I think so.

I also think it can be taken, which is a form of violence we unfortunately see all too often in the workplace.

A manager gives an associate an assignment, which does not go well. In the future, the manager refrains from giving that associate similar opportunities.

There may be no words spoken, but the message is clear. The manager has no confidence in the ability of the associate in that capacity.

The net effect of an experience like this can shape a career.

During a seminar I conducted a few years ago, a woman asked me about a circumstance she was facing. She said that for some time she had a desire to attend law school but she had postponed the pursuit in favor of raising a family—a not-to-uncommon scenario to be sure.

There was now time for her to get back to her vision, but she said she had serious doubts about being able to make the grades after all the time away from school. She was asking me for advice. Maybe she was asking me to agree with her and put an end to her quandary.

I knew she was married, so I asked how her husband felt about her dream. She said that he had expressed full confidence in her ability.

My response surprised her.

I said: “Why don’t your borrow his confidence in you until yours shows up?”

Four years later I received a note in the mail, a thank you card announcing the recent graduation from law school of this lady supposedly with no confidence.

Enough said? I hope so.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at

Tags: , ,

Related Stories