Confidence in Today’s World

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

A borderless world is intrinsically risky and unpredictable. Thriving in borderless conditions requires high levels of confidence because confidence increases people’s ability to handle risk and be comfortable with change.

Confidence increases when people succeed in mastering tasks they haven’t mastered before, the task is difficult and the outcome really matters. Nothing succeeds like success.  Success is the natural motivator; it increases confidence and energizes enthusiasm.  Achieving success, becoming confident and having enthusiasm are the grounding for thriving in unpredictable conditions.

It takes confidence to behave in the ways that borderless conditions require: to make fast decisions and act on them, to share resources and knowledge, to initiate instead of wait for orders; to be direct and disagree with bosses and colleagues when you think you’re right.  People don’t share power and knowledge others and hand-off decisions, or prefer spirited debate, or delegate to others unless they are very confident.

Confidence is the liberating quality because confidence is the only condition that frees us from the fear of failing or the fear of being powerless or insignificant… or laid off.  It’s no fun to lose your job.  But confident and non-confident people react differently to being laid off.  Non-confident people tend to respond to the possibility or actuality of losing their job with counterproductive responses:  they panic, they freeze or they get very depressed.  Confident people are more likely to anticipate the possibility and plan for it.  Non-confident people are likely to see only a bleak future and grab for a job, even if its prospects are poor.  Confident people are not likely to panic because they view the economy as cyclic and they’re psychologically better able to wait and be selective about what they’ll do next. Confident people’s responses tend to be constructive and adaptive, while non-confident people’s reactions are not.  As the world grows more borderless and the economy more turbulent and Darwinian, the more critical it is for people to be confident.

Confidence increases when people succeed in mastering tasks they haven’t mastered before, the task is of medium difficulty for them, and the outcome really matters. Nothing succeeds like success.  Success is the natural motivator; it increases confidence and energizes enthusiasm.

Confidence means someone is willing to handle risk and it is the result of striving, stretching and usually succeeding.   To gain confidence, people need to succeed in hitting increasing performance goals in circumstances in which there’s some risk.  “Risk” means something significantly different happens when you succeed from when you don’t.  Hitting stretch targets where there is no risk, where nothing much different happens to you if you succeed or if you fail, does not result in increased confidence.  Confidence is about  being able to handle risk.

The development of confidence is encouraged when managers, teachers, parents… “Manage to Success.”  When people manage to success, they want others to succeed and grow confident.  This is the opposite of “managing to fear” where the goal is to instill enough fear that obedience is the result.  Confidence cannot develop where fear is the motivator.

Confidence requires success; failure does not develop confidence. Therefore, the difficulty of people’s challenges must increase in small enough increments that success is still likely.  As confidence increases, the level of risk and the difficulty of the tasks which are comfortable, rise in larger and larger amounts.  As confidence rises, the process becomes self-initiating: fun! for confident people is grappling with a tough task when the odds are long and the outcome really matters.

Confident people are extremely valuable in borderless conditions because they are comfortable with greater risk and uncertainty than most people can handle.  Confident people are more likely to succeed, and feel excited and energized instead of frightened and exhausted in a world where risk is high and answers are less and less predictable.

Too much security or prolonged protection from risk leaves people unable to handle it. It is ironic that the protection from risk that many people sought and many people gained in stable conditions left those people without the experience and skills, without the resilience, without the confidence to cope with borderless conditions.

Today, fleeing from challenges and trying to stay safe, is a very poor blueprint for managing in reality.  People need to resist the temptation to “stay safe,” to continue doing what they’ve already learned because it’s easy and they never make mistakes. Moving toward manageable challenge and risk in order to successfully grapple with difficulty and develop self-confidence is probably the single most important responsibility we each have for ourselves.  In borderless conditions, most people need to keep pushing themselves beyond the envelope of their comfort zone.

To reduce anxiety and increase confidence, people need to take an active role in the development of their own confidence by filling their life with manageable challenges and risk. And they need to ask the institutions in which they work and play and learn to collaborate with them in creating stretch challenges that really matter.  At the same time, all of our social institutions need to be facilitating the development of people’s confidence.  Parents, professors and teachers, supervisors and managers, scout masters and drill sergeants…anyone who has responsibility for setting goals and evaluating people’s performance, needs to learn how to manage to success.

Confidence requires earning success; failure does not develop confidence. Therefore, the difficulty of people’s challenges must increase in small enough steps such that success is still likely. As confidence increases, the level of risk and the difficulty of the tasks which are comfortable, rise in larger and larger amounts.  As confidence rises, the process becomes self-initiating: fun! for confident people is grappling with a tough task when the odds are long and the outcome really matters.

To rebuild a sense of control and increase confidence, people should take an active role in having manageable challenges and risk in their life. Toward that end they need to ask the organizations, in which they work, play and learn, to collaborate with them in creating stretch challenges that really matter. At the same time, parents, professors and teachers, supervisors and managers, scout masters and drill sergeants… anyone who has responsibility for setting goals and evaluating people’s performance, needs to learn how to manage to success.

With individual initiative and institutional collaboration, most people can and will reduce their anxiety level, gain more control over their workload, and develop the confidence that will allow them to prefer the excitement of borderless over the predictability of stable conditions.

 

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