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Playing the confidence game at work — the wrong way

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

American business executive, author and chemical engineer Jack Welch.

(Getty)

Near the end of every school year, junior high school teacher Amy Lou Linder Weems begins a month-long lesson in what she calls “service learning.” She tells her students in Monroe, Louisiana, to pick a social problem that interests them. Then she gives them the freedom to figure out how to fix it on their own.

Weems, 38, tried it for the first time in 1999. It was her first year as a teacher and the hubris and exuberance of inexperience somehow convinced her that the project would be easy to pull off, she said. She learned quickly that it was hard to keep the kids focussed. “That first year,” she recalled, “I was like, oh, god, what have I done?”

At first, she felt like the students expected her to know all the answers. She wanted to show kids how confident she was as an educator. Over the years, she learned that really feeling confident about the effort meant letting students make decisions, asking for their ideas and conceding that teachers don’t have all the answers. Last school year, Weems watched her students donate a thousand-plus hours to their causes and collect $3,000 in donations.

“As teachers, we have to go from being sage on the stage to a facilitator of ideas,” Weems said. “It’s less about us and our confidence level and more about our confidence in our students.” 

Business world shift

The business world has seen this same kind of shift in the last generation. The superstar chief executives of the 1980s bred a climate where managers needed to be unflappably confident, unable to admit a shortcoming, never asking for advice to solve a problem. Then came the financial crisis — and plenty of blame was placed on these all-confident types. Now, good managers are more typically encouraged to tap into self-confidence when it’s applicable and to admit when they need help from their employees.

“The key is for a manager to know when it’s time to change course,” said Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware’s Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance. “Confidence is important, but too much confidence sets you up for disappointment.”

The importance of confidence in the workplace has swung like a pendulum in the last 60 years, Elson said. In the 1950s, companies expected managers to quietly do their bidding without making waves. That changed gradually as the growth of business schools helped redefine what a manager is expected to do. It culminated in the 1980s, in large part to the bombastic approach of managers like General Electric’s former leader Jack Welch.

The era of the ever-confident manager found a definition in 2004 with a book by Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, appropriately titled Confidence. Kanter, in an email, described confidence as “a sweet spot between arrogance and complacency.”

Real confidence, the hallmark of successful managers and their subordinates, “involves high degrees of empowerment of others,” Kanter wrote.

But a form of over-confidence gained the upper hand in boardrooms and helped lead to the collapse of the banking and housing sectors, said Peter Atwater, president and CEO of Financial Insyghts. His Pennsylvania-based firm advises companies and executives on how attitudes can affect business decisions. Before the recession, lower-level equity analysts in the banking and housing sectors felt like they couldn’t bring their concerns to overly-confident managers.

Then there were the managers who saw the signs of a collapse but couldn’t change course because they feared they would look like they made poor decisions. Richard S Fuld Jr, for instance, watched Lehman Brothers implode even as signs that the company’s subprime investments were crashing in around him.

“We ended up with a culture where only the loud are heard,” Atwater said. “We had this corporate phenomenon where managers felt like they always had to exude confidence.”

This wasn’t just a US problem. Globally, managers had adopted this bombastic approach, Atwater said, rejecting ideas from those below them and ignoring signs that their past decisions weren’t working out.

Perhaps the most well-known example is the 1985 introduction of New Coke. Coca-Cola Co CEO Roberto Goizueta infamously told employees it would be “New Coke or no Coke.” The sweeter formula met widespread rejection, in the form of lawsuits from 20 Coke bottlers and 400,000 calls and letters from angry customers. Three months later, Coke was forced to release “Coke Classic” and eventually discontinued unpopular New Coke.

The new confidence game

The end of the era of my-way-or-the-highway management accelerated after the financial crisis in 2008, when many of the big-name CEOs who exemplified the style were shown the door.

Then, in 2011, the journal Nature published a paper titled “The evolution of overconfidence.” Unchecked hubris, the paper argued, “leads to faulty assessments, unrealistic expectations and hazardous decisions.” And it has led to “market bubbles, financial collapses, policy failures, disasters and costly wars” – in other words, most of what’s wrong with everything.

The article helped guide the post-recession discussion about the role of CEOs not as know-it-alls but as facilitators of good ideas and partners in a company’s progress.

If you’re wondering, about now, if a manager ought to ever show a confident side again, the answer is yes. The key is to know when a self-assured demeanour is beneficial, like during layoffs or industry downturns. At those junctures, bosses need to show employees that there’s a plan to improve things – while still being willing to hear ideas from others.

“When everyone says it just can’t get any worse, that’s the moment when a manager needs to say that it’s going to get better,” Atwater said. “The era of running an empire is over. This is an era when executives need to be partners.”

The correct way to manage nowadays involves showing empathy, vulnerability, creativity. Supervisors should seek input from the introverts on their team. And most importantly, Atwater said, they ought to quickly change directions when there’s evidence that past decisions were wrong.

For middle school teacher Weems, the service learning programme helped her become the Louisiana Teacher of the Year in 2013. And the Ouachita Parish School District where she works promoted her – she’s now her school’s curriculum coordinator.

“When you show confidence in your students, it allows them to think they can accomplish things they never thought they could do,” Weems said. That confidence in the kids, she said, allows ideas to flow from student to teacher and not just vice versa.

The key, Weems said, is knowing when to step back — to turn off the know-everything teacher attitude — and ask students for ideas. That’s when you realise a simple truth: admitting you don’t know the answer, that’s true confidence

The era of running an empire is over... executives need to be partners. — Peter Atwater