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selfconfidence

Sometimes I like to go to the movies by myself because I only laugh if I truly find something funny and I might like a story that – were I with others – I might not otherwise like due to my subconscious perception of their reaction.

When we go to the movies with someone, we are swayed by their laughter or their mood, and that in turn colors our experience of what we are watching.

And isn’t that true for most of our group experiences in life?

Those around us often affect our moods, reactions, thoughts, and feelings. So it goes to reason that when we put ourselves into groups and teams in the workplace we will also be affected by the personalities that surround us.

Sometimes, teams gain their strength by being greater than the sum of their individual members. But group dynamics and social influence can cause far more problems than they solve.

Groups, whether they are an executive team or a religious cult, are susceptible to making decisions that none of the individuals involved would have chosen or condoned independently.

When it comes to why smart individuals make dumb group decisions there are four major factors.

1. Overconfidence

There comes a point when healthy confidence dips over the edge into overconfidence:

When we are excessively confident, to a fault, in our own abilities.

Overconfidence breeds arrogance, which can lead to faulty decision-making.

This is dangerous for anyone, but particularly for leaders. If we are so confident in ourselves that we disregard facts and/or insight that would benefit us, then we’re headed down a self-destructive path, and we are taking everyone down with us.

Interestingly, groups do not quell overconfidence; rather, individuals tend to grow more confident in groups.

One way this happens is through our cognitive biases, like the confirmation bias:

our propensity to seek out and weigh only the information that supports our beliefs or decisions.

In a group setting confirmation bias can play out in dangerous ways.

It’s much easier to share information with a group that supports the consensus or the new idea everyone likes. It’s much more difficult to be the “wet blanket” who has information or an opinion that goes against the group momentum.

On a larger scale, confirmation bias can begin with the formation of the group. For example, if I have an exciting but expensive idea for a new marketing campaign, I might not invite the budget-minded CFO for a discussion of my plan.

With a lack of dissenting voices and information, individuals in a group can grow more and more confident in the infallibility of their ideas and make poor decisions.

2. Common Knowledge

New ideas are hard to come by – and accept when brought to the table – but it’s even more difficult to take the risk and share a totally new idea with a group. This is why groups tend to rely on common knowledge when they get together to generate ideas.

It’s much easier to talk about that which you know already than that which you don’t.

Group members prefer to exchange information held in common because they receive more favorable reactions.

If you play it safe and stick to the status quo, you aren’t vulnerable, causing any anxiety, or potentially sounding like an idiot.

If, however, you are the sole member of a group with a new, innovative idea, the odds are against you.

When you present something that is unknown, unseen, and unproven, you can make people psychologically uncomfortable because they have to consider their biases and assumptions, critically think about the issue at hand, and have to decide whether or not they want to change (and people hate to change).

3. Groupthink

In the famous Asch conformity studies, participants are seated at a table with a few other people, whom they believe are fellow participants but are actually actors.

A researcher presents the group with cards like ones pictured below and asks the folks sitting at the table which line, A, B, or C, matches the height of the line on the left. The actors answer first, each going down the line and answering incorrectly, “A”. The participant then has to give his answer.

While the answer is obviously “C”, about 1/3 of people will conform to the actors’ incorrect answer.

Now, you might be thinking: “I would never conform and say the blatantly wrong answer!” However, what if instead of random actors answering the question before you, it was your boss and other members of the upper management at your company? Would you defiantly give your honest answer or would you conform to avoid rocking the boat?

We are social creatures, and our desire to maintain harmony, avoid conflict, and protect feelings can lead to extremely dysfunctional decision-making.

Irving Janis researched the phenomenon in 1972 and proposed that certain characteristics of groups tend to encourage groupthink:

  • Strong group cohesion
  • High levels of stress
  • Strong/directive group leader
  • Insulation from outside opinions
  • Isolations from other groups
  • Lack of norms for evaluating information

Groupthink undermines the long-term viability of the team as bad decisions pile up. The best, productive, and innovative teams will be ones where the members feel safe to speak their minds, throw out ideas, and negate or support one another without the fear of retribution, attack or dirty looks.

Teams should cultivate empathy, respect, and mutual support for all opinions so it is a safe place for risk-taking and expression.

People have different levels of comfort. Some naturally speak up, while others – who may have fantastic ideas – never do. Setting a rule in place to give every person time to talk in the group helps create the norm where everyone’s voice is heard.

It helps people practice who don’t normally speak up have their voice heard; it helps those who always speak up practice listening; and it creates a norm where everyone’s voice is important.

Counteracting the Traps

  1. Establish Group Diversity – Uniformity tends to breed lackluster results. Groups thrive when opinions from different genders, age groups, and ethnicities are welcome.
  2. Define Expectations – Knowing what’s expected of a group can help the group stay on track. Expectations support accountability as well, since the group members can’t deny they didn’t know what the goal was.
  3. Emphasize Collective Awareness – Understanding common group biases helps to keep them at bay. The group should know their weaknesses and how to spot them.
  4. Provide the Right Training – Teamwork training is essential and often overlooked. Team members need to understand how their role fits into the larger group identity and feel comfortable with their position.
  5. Stress Freedom of Thought – Individuals can do their own research and thinking before meeting with the group. Leaders should stress that all ideas are welcome, no matter how far out or strange they might seem.
  6. Insist on Information Sharing – It’s imperative that everyone in a group list all of the information in their possession that relates to an issue. It’s the only way to get the best results.
  7. Promote Innovation – A good leader stimulates people to climb over the mental fence that can keep a group from devising, openly discussing, and adopting new ideas and solutions.
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You have a presentation coming up, you’ve prepped, you know the information inside and out, but as prepared as you are, how do you know if you are conveying an air of confidence?

This is almost more important than whether what you are saying is true or not.

Turns out, our brains have a primal, vested interest in the mental state of who it is listening to. We are neurologically wired to determine whether the information given to us by someone is being given to us with confidence or insecurity.

On a neurochemical level we want to know whether whom we are listening to can be trusted. It’s a carry-over from our primitive days when we were focused primarily on surviving.

No one wants to waste their precious time listening to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And while you might know what you’re talking about the brains in the heads of your audience might be tuning out on a primal level based on certain factors.

1. Work on your tone.

Turns out, confident voices tend to be lower in pitch, have a flatter intonation, and a faster speech rate.

Xiaoming Jiang, a postdoctoral researcher in the Neuropragmatics and Emotion Lab led at McGill University discovered that our brain activity lights up when a listener encounters a “confident” voice, suggesting our brains like and give attention to what it considers a confident voice. Simply put, our brains are attracted to confident tones.

Which begs the question…what is a “confident” voice?

Jiang and his colleagues determined that a confident tone tends to be lower in pitch, with flat intonation, and a faster speech rate. A non-confident tone tends to be higher in pitch, slower speech, and rising in pitch towards the end (think: upspeak).

Confident speech also ends in a period and never a question (when a question isn’t being stated).

Our neurons pick up on these tones and we receive encoded information about whether this voice is a voice to be trusted, based on it sounding like it knows.

And what’s more, this all happens in under a second. “When a speaker is very confident about something, this can be assessed at a very early stage,” Jiang says.

So as soon as you mutter “This might…” or “I feel…” or “I believe…” your listener’s brain has placed you in the non-confident realm.

2. Stop with the disclaimers.

This might sound stupid, but…

Everyone, at some point, has prefaced something they were about to say with a disclaimer that let them off the hook in case it did indeed sound stupid.

Unfortunately, you’re not winning anyone over with your humility and/or lack of arrogance.

I’m not saying it’s fair, but it’s time to stop because you are doing yourself a disservice.

If you are up against a competitor or a colleague with a “confident” tone you put yourself at a disadvantage. And your listener won’t even be cognizant of how their preference is being formed because it’s happening on a neural level in less than a second.

Whether the person behind the voice does actually know what he/she is talking about is another story, but for our own sake it behooves us to try and project a tone of confidence, thereby eliciting the trust of our listener.

3. Make sure your body language matches what you are saying.

Don’t be confusing. You might be saying, “this might sound stupid” physically but not verbally.

What are your shoulders doing? What is your stance? Are your arms crossed or open? How do you stand when listening to someone?

None of it is inherently bad, but your body has to be putting your best self forward too.

Maintain a relational philosophy throughout the day where you are not on automatic pilot but are instead aware and as in the moment as you can be, so that you are relating to people in a self-aware mode.

Sounds obvious but we can easily coast over many interactions and not really be present at the same time.

Remember: you’re sending neural signals to your listener / audience with your tone and physicality. You want them in your reign.

4. Recognize cues that say you aren’t capturing their attention.

Cues such as someone speaking over you, faces and physicality that indicate a lack of interest, your listener looking away, etc.

When you see this, acknowledge it, either internally or externally. “It seems like I may have lost you on that last comment, let me rephrase it” etc, and readjust.

Cameron Anderson, a professor of organizational behavior at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, has studied the effects and motivation of overconfidence. “When people are confident,” says Anderson, “when they think they are good at something, regardless of how good they actually are, they display a lot of confident nonverbal and verbal behavior.”

In Anderson’s study, he concluded that overconfident individuals “…spoke more, used a confident and factual vocal tone…exhibited a calm and relaxed demeanor, and offered answers first.”

We see that mention of “tone” again. And what’s also interesting is that the overconfident individuals in Anderson’s study never made “explicit statements about their own abilities…or their certainty in their answers.”

How convenient! It suggests that tone and confidence is the only support overconfident individual require to put forth their opinions.

If there are those out there who can project confidence without having the skills to back it up – and if our brains are wired to detect confidence in under a second – then it behooves all of us to give ourselves a fighting chance in this competitive world.

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A few years ago, I fell into a bit of a mental slump. My leadership development company, Equilibria Leadership Consulting, had just completed a two-year long project with our biggest client to date and we did not have another gig on the horizon. We did not have another gig on the horizon because I committed huge mistake #1 of owning a company: “forgetting” to do business development because I was too busy delivering.

I hate to admit it but my anticipatory anxiety flew through the roof. I feared the worst: we would not land another client, I wouldn’t be able to pay my employees, I’d have to close up shop, find a new career, divorce my husband, sell my car, move to the country, and raise cats. I was happy about the cat thing but pretty bummed about the rest.

I also felt extraordinarily guilty and stupid for committing “huge mistake #1” of owning a company. I felt like a complete failure.

It also didn’t help that I had just returned from my honeymoon and was probably dealing with a wine withdrawal, having spent the previous two weeks drinking in Italy and France.

Suffice it to say my anxiety over the business was affecting my ability to think clearly and objectively move forward. The fear and anxiety directly impacted my self-efficacy. I remember feeling mentally sluggish, lacking vigor.

Turns out this isn’t rocket science. Our self-efficacy directly impacts our motivation and ability to forge ahead. In short, our belief in ourselves (or lack thereof) influences how much energy you have to move through life and accomplish your goals.

The way you think about yourself makes or breaks your bottom line.

A 2011 study performed by Kathleen D. Vohs, Roy F. Baumeister, and Brandon J. Schmeichel found that if you are mildly exhausted and you have a strong sense of self-efficacy (one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task) then the mild exhaustion won’t affect your ability to forge ahead.

But if you don’t have a strong sense of self-efficacy then even a slight mental drain will join forces with your insecurity to ensure you drag yourself down and make you even more exhausted.

I’ve always been extremely driven and ambitious, waking up early and working steadfastly throughout the day, so this was an unusual state for me to be in; that further compounded matters as I couldn’t stop asking myself, “What’s wrong with me?”

There was an unhealthy cycle at play: fear I wouldn’t land another gig created anxiety, which created mental exhaustion, which affected my self-efficacy, which created fear I wouldn’t land another gig, and so on and so forth.

My husband, who normally needs career pep talks from me, was now the pep talker. We pepped and talked daily for a couple weeks until the fog lifted (and maybe the wine, cheese, and bread started to leave my system).

I can tell you from first-hand experience that when you are not feeling up to par professionally, you will need to bolster your lifestyle with every other possible gain to ensure you don’t drag yourself down a rabbit hole of exhaustion and self-defeat.

Since we can all feel less than at times, we need to either remember to eat, sleep, exercise, and laugh on a daily basis, or remind ourselves that our insecurities and exhaustion are joining forces to keep our productivity at bay.

So, in short:

  • Self-confidence increases your energy level and your immunity to the effects of mental exhaustion
  • Lack of self-confidence decreases your energy level and weakens your immunity to mental exhaustion

We need to think of our belief systems the same way we do our bodies and muscles. If you were going to run a marathon you would train. You’d build up your stamina. You’d run a bit every day. You’d stretch. You’d watch what you ate. You’d try to get the right amount of sleep. All of these factors play important roles to get into the right physical shape for the marathon.

Similarly, you need to prep the mind for the marathon that is your life. You need to get it in shape. So if you lack confidence, self-efficacy, or if you feel lazy, unambitious, and cynical – all of these factors are going to hinder your performance level.

If you’re getting enough sleep and eating well but still lack the energy to accomplish what you want to accomplish in life, take a look at your belief system. What are you telling yourself on a daily basis?

Are you filling your own head with doubt, insecurity, and cynicism? This type of negative self-talk will become a self-fulfilling prophecy as you drain yourself of the energy needed to accomplish the goals you are telling yourself aren’t possible in the first place.

Exhaustion we pretty much know how to deal with: sleep, the food you eat, exercise, etc. But what about self-efficacy? There isn’t a confidence diet, I’ve never seen an “Eat these three foods to believe in yourself” article.I offer the following three suggestions as a starter kit for keeping your self-efficacy intact:

  1. ACT. That’s not an acronym. I mean take action, even if they are small actions. Action begets action and as you accomplish small goals your confidence will rise. It’s amazing how great accomplishing a goal can feel. It removes so much anxiety. When we stagnate our anxiety increases and those two (stagnation and anxiety) will reinforce each other until the end of time. So don’t worry about the BIG goals. Instead focus on the small wins you can accomplish on a daily basis. Maybe it’s something as simple as registering a website domain. If you act in any way, shape or form, you’re way ahead of the majority of the world.
  2. Get a coach. If you lack the motivation to accomplish small goals on your own then you need outside help to motivate you, reveal your mental blocks to you, give you pep talks, and pump you up. Until you can self-motivate I recommend seeking outside motivation. A coach can give you the tools you need to prop yourself up when you’re alone.
  3. Talk to someone who is doing what you want to do. Learn how they got to where they are, what steps they took, what obstacles they faced. You might learn that they went through periods of self-doubt as well. Maybe they’ll share how they overcame them. When you meet another regular human being who has done what you want to do the road to the goal becomes less mysterious.

The two main actions that worked for me were talking to my husband, who served as a coach, and accomplishing small daily goals. Even though it felt like drudgery, the small daily actions kept me moving forward until the habit of moving forward was re-established.

The talking and the acting eventually broke the spell. Once the fog lifted I resumed my normal activity level, got back on track, and soon enough I started doing the work necessary to land some business.

I still recommend devouring as much bread, cheese, and wine if/when you find yourself in the south of France.

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