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A Culture of Confidence

I was listening to some business pundits discuss the “crisis of confidence” locally and in our global economy this week. Obviously, confidence tumbles after national and global events, whether from disasters or stock market drops. It’s something we measure from a number of angles to see how we’re doing; we eagerly await the results of numerous consumer confidence and CEO confidence indices to gauge whether people are spending money to boost the economy, or whether our business leaders are optimistic (or not) about their company’s futures. When the numbers are good, we feel good – and we look for signs of profitability and healing. It started me thinking about how critical an abiding sense of confidence is to the performance of a project team or an entire company.

I am a student of the systems that surround high performers, and I have witnessed some exceptional settings during my career. I see how confidence plays a starring role in companies, particularly when the going gets a little rougher. And a lot of it has to do with preparation: it’s easier to take a challenge in stride when you make a habit of developing plans for all contingencies; of practicing for all outcomes; and of using constructive Monday-morning quarterbacking to see where one play was masterful, but another could have been tweaked to yield a better result. The best organizations stress accountability, personally and collectively; live and breathe the mission statement and the company’s common goals; rely on collaboration and support their team members… and look for ways to “talent manage” everyone in the company so that the entire staff develops not just their own capabilities, but each other’s.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of the books Confidence and SuperCorp, notes that “Even for the best companies and most-accomplished professionals, long track records of success are punctuated by slips, slides, and mini-turnarounds. In sports, the team that wins the game might make mistakes, fumble, and lag behind for part of it. That’s why the ability to recover quickly and get back on course is so important. Nothing succeeds for long without considerable effort and constant vigilance. Winning streaks end for predictable reasons: Strategies run their course. New competition emerges to take on the industry leader. Ideas get dusty. Technology marches on. Complacency sets in; making people feel entitled to success rather than motivated to work for it.

“The lesson for leaders is clear: Build the cornerstones of confidence—accountability, collaboration, and initiative—when times are good and achievement comes easily. Maintain a culture of confidence as insurance against the inevitable downturns. Resilience is not simply an individual characteristic or a psychological phenomenon. It is helped or hindered by the surrounding system. Teams that are immersed in a culture of accountability, collaboration, and initiative are more likely to believe that they can weather any storm. 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.”

Celebrated football coach Vince Lombardi once observed, “Confidence is contagious. So is a lack of confidence.” Can you train confidence into people, into players, into organizations? Of course – we’ve all seen it happen. According to Tony Schwartz, the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live, it’s a pretty simple recipe to move from confidence to stellar results : "Confidence equals security equals positive emotion equals better performance." Whether we’re talking about sports, business, countries, economies or ourselves, confidence is a valuable commodity with a built-in advantage. And getting to that “margin of victory” comes much easier if we’re working from a natural culture of confidence.

Reprinted from the September 2011 issue of Mobility magazine.

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