Thrive Episode 4 – How not to be perfect or clever

progress not perfect

I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking about confidence over the last couple of days because I’ve been doing some coaching and the topic that comes up more than any other is confidence. It comes from all levels of organisations – from the graduate who wants the confidence to speak up in their first client meetings but is worried about looking like a fool, to the senior executive who confesses to me that he doesn’t really feel as though he deserves that seat at the table with those other senior people, and that someone is going to ‘find him out’ at some point. 

Is it any wonder that in a world of social media and constant messaging about what is desirable, beautiful and perfect, people are struggling to find their confidence? Our ability to have self confidence starts early and it starts with what we hear from others and what we then tell ourselves.

testPsychologist Carol Dweck writes in her book ‘Mindset’ about a set of tests that they carried out on 8 and 9 year olds.  The group of 400 children took a set of IQ tests aimed at their age group.  The group was then split into two and one group were praised for being hard working and putting a lot of effort into the test while the other group were praised for being really clever.  The two groups were then offered a chance to take a harder test.  They were told that they would learn a lot from the test but that it would be more difficult than the one they had already done.  Of the children praised for their hard work 90% chose to take the harder test.  Of the group praised for being intelligent the majority chose to take an easier test.

Here’s our first important flag about developing confidence – if I am praised for being clever then I will try to protect that perception that you have of me.  I won’t take risks in case I prove myself to be other than clever.  What if I take that harder test and fail? Then people will know that I am in fact not clever at all.  And I can’t change that.  I can’t be cleverer than I am.  If, however you praise me for my effort, my focus, for keeping going when things were tough and for working hard, that is all stuff that I have control over and I can do more of it.  If the important thing is to work hard and try my best then why wouldn’t I take a risk and see if I can achieve something more difficult?

In further tests designed to create a failure situation the children who had been praised for working hard took it in their stride, after all they could always try harder next time, while the others struggled with their ‘failure’.  In the final round of tests the hard working group did 30% better than they had at the beginning while the group praised for their intellect did 20% worse. The researchers working with these children used one line of praise only for each of the groups and look at the impact that had. 

confidenceWhat does this mean for anyone who is a leader of people? If you’re managing a team what do you notice and comment on? Does your behaviour encourage people to take risks and try new ways of doing things? Or are you creating a culture where getting it wrong is not an option, so no one dares to think creatively? Are your people frightened of failure, of being ‘found out’?  Are you? As a leader, are you capable of saying to those around you ‘Actually I don’t know – what do you think?’ Do you lead from a position of authenticity, of vulnerability and humility or from one of always needing to be right, perfect and strong? How’s it working out for you?

As leaders let’s create environments where people can thrive and develop their self confidence.  Let’s place value on effort, hard work, rising to a challenge, picking oneself up and dusting oneself off, learning and growth, for those are the things we can control and do more of. And ultimately those are the things that make us bold, brave and brilliant human beings.

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