Person lying down with book on face. Is this how we imagine rest?

Is having more confidence an advantage at work? We often assume so. And yet, how often do we interrogate exactly what we mean when we talk about confidence, or consider the paradox of trying to “gain” it?

This month, we’re asking what place confidence has in our modern workplace – and whether it’s a helpful focus for individuals or organisations.

What do we mean by “confidence”?

Confidence often comes up in conversations around our experience at work. It’s sometimes a gendered issue – in our work with women, confidence is often mentioned as a quality participants would like to build.

Confidence can also be a challenge for neurodiverse individuals. For example, research has shown that untreated ADHD is associated with lower self-esteem. James Ward-Sinclair of Autistic & Unapologetic notes:

“When we hit a bump, we can see our confidence greatly decrease – which, for autistic people who tend to over analyse, can be a particular problem as we usually dwell that extra bit longer on any blows to our self-esteem.”

But what are we really talking about here? Can we be specific about what we are describing by a feeling of “confidence”? For example, do we mean:

External signs: The frequency with which we voice our opinions; the steadiness of our voice; our posture; our readiness to share input?

Or internal signs: A belief in our value; an ability to say yes or no to opportunities without second-guessing ourselves; an assumption that what we have to contribute is important.

When we begin to consider these aspects, we can see that often what we’re alluding to when we talk about “confidence” is more akin to a sense of belonging. To a sense of being valued. To a well of experiences of being listened to and taken seriously.

Perhaps, focusing narrowly on “confidence” as an individual trait overlooks the context in which that trait is expressed.

“When women fail to achieve career goals, leaders are prone to attribute it to a lack of self-confidence. And when women demonstrate high levels of confidence through behaviors, such as being extroverted or assertive, they risk overdoing it and, ironically, being perceived as lacking confidence. No matter the outcome, women’s lack of career progression is blamed on them, an attack they share with other underrepresented groups.” – Source

If confidence is the wrong place to focus, then – where should we be looking?

Global Warriors and confidence

At Global Warriors, one of our key areas of focus is creating contexts where people feel safe.

To be themselves.

To express themselves.

To share their emotions – or not share their emotions.

These spaces can be rare in organisations.

When we create a space where people feel seen and valued, confidence stops being an issue. People can simply “be”. And when everyone in a group feels safe to be themselves, to express themselves authentically, confidence ceases to be a question.

As leaders, rather than focusing on confidence per se, we would perhaps do better to focus on creating genuinely accepting spaces where people can show up in a way that feels natural and appropriate to them.

And indeed, on modelling behaviours which encourage people to feel confident to be vulnerable, to ask questions, or to fail. Increasingly, these more nuanced levels of emotional literacy are considered to be the traits which set great leaders apart.

“While confidence may be valuable in some situations (such as uncertainty), demonstrating humility and vulnerability has a humanizing effect necessary for creating psychological safety in others, and relatability. In other words, reflection, and openness can be healthy and valuable in terms of creating a more inclusive workplace.” Source

This means not assuming that someone who doesn’t loudly share their ideas in a meeting has nothing to contribute – or even that they “lack confidence”. (A room full of “confident” people talking over each other may be less effective than a quiet collective who trust each other’s ideas – and are able to say those 3 little words, “I don’t know”.)

But what about that person on my team who lacks confidence?

If we invite you to focus on the context, does that mean there’s nothing individuals can do to allow themselves to be more confident?

Not exactly.

However, we tend to focus more on asking the question “how can you be more yourself?” than “how can you be confident?”

There may be people on your team who project confidence as part of a performance, or a mask, rather than genuinely expressing who they are. After all, there’s an awful lot of advice out there instructing people to do just that – hide who they are, and how they feel, in order to create an impression of confidence.

“Paste on a smile, fix your posture, kill any negative thought that pops into your head, and constantly tell yourself that you’ve got this.” – How to be confident at work

Will an organisation in which individuals suppress their emotions, perform a certain way of being, and ignore thoughts which conflict with an idealised notion of an employee be best placed to respond effectively to future shocks, and ever-increasing uncertainty?

We think not.

When we think of ourselves from the perspective of systems, we realise that confidence is not an individual concept. We can create confident organisations, confident teams, where everyone feels free to be heard. These are the teams and organisations who will be able to draw most effectively on their collective resources – and adapt to whatever comes their way.

Want to find out how we could help you create a culture of confidence?

Contact us to find out more about our work.

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