Confidence and Feedback


The best managers know that instilling a sense of confidence in all workers is critical to organizational success. Lack of confidence on the job may indicate that people may not know how best to accomplish a task, which can lead to less than wonderful results, or in the worst case can lead to safety problems, demotivation, and disengagement.

Turned around, confidence is to a great extent a function of learning the foundational skills for a role at work. Adam Grant, the well-known psychologist, puts it this way:

The highest form of self-confidence is believing in your ability to learn.

It will come as no surprise that the capacity for curiosity is linked to confidence. Asking questions is one of the signs of confidence and engagement at work, since the questions indicate a desire to learn, and an eagerness to fill in knowledge gaps that may be essential.

In my work as an advisor and executive, I am well-known for asking questions rather than telling people what to do or how to do it. But in many company cultures that can run against norms, where it can be perceived as a rebuke of the status quo, as opposed to being confident.

Surveys have shown that confidence underlies organizational health:

The real impact of confidence stretches beyond the individual; confident employees also bring big rewards for employers. Nearly all workers (98%) say they perform better when they feel confident. This makes sense, since many foundational workplace skills, including work ethic, are driven by confidence.

What’s more, 96% of respondents are more likely to stay at a company when they feel confident. Teams and companies that support this skill and nurture it among employees can help reduce turnover.

One barrier to employee confidence is that it's hard to give good feedback, to help people improve and to learn. In The Feedback Fallacy, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall get to the heart of this problem:

Feedback is about telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better—whether they’re giving an effective presentation, leading a team, or creating a strategy. And on that, the research is clear: Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.

The authors spell it out. People are "unreliable raters" of others. We don't have the objectivity to evaluate someone's assertiveness or creativity, for example. We are subject to the idiosyncratic rater effect, where 50% or more of a rating of someone else reflects the rater, not the subject being rated.

So even before trying to give helpful feedback, we are blocked because, as Buckingham and Goodall state, “the only realm in which humans are an unimpeachable source of truth is that of their own feelings and experiences” not others' capabilities.

Here's what the authors suggest. Think of the left-hand column as the dark side, which decreases confidence and perhaps completely kills it, while the right-hand column is much more positive and non-threatening.

source: Buckingham and Goodall

This reminds me of the line in Jerry Maguire when Tom Cruise (as Maguire) is shouting to Cuba Gooding, "Help me to help you." So we need to focus feedback through the channel of feeling: tell the feedbackee how we feel in response to what they are saying or doing, instead of telling them what to do or how to do it. And the best way to do that is when they have done something well.

The great football coach Tom Landry once had a great insight. His team wasn't performing well, the players weren't confident, and no matter how many times he had them watch the mistakes they made on film, and no matter how many times he told them what they should have done, they didn't improve.

Landry realized training people to absorb the lessons of an infinite number of mistakes was impossible. However, the right ways to execute a catch, a block, or throw were finite, and that made learning manageable. So he junked the mistakes tapes and found clips where the players made the perfect catch, block, or throw. And he pledged to the team, "we only replay your winning plays."

That's confidence building, instead of confidence destroying.

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