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Paul Brewerton

founder and director - the Strengths Partnership


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Generating success: How to build a culture of confidence


Confidence is at the heart of effective performance.

But the media continuously bombards us with very public examples of people in every sphere of life buckling under pressure.
In terms of the performing arts, think of the contestants on Britain’s Got Talent! or the X-Factor. A botched performance can either make or break them. In sport, the England football squad springs to mind when it comes to confidence ‘gaps’ that result in lacklustre performance and failure.
For HR directors, it is just as important to understand how they can go about building a culture of confidence and success, however. Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter from Harvard Business School believes, for one, that confidence comprises “positive expectations for favourable outcomes”.
Rather than simply being an element of an individual’s personal psychology, she maintains that confidence needs to become embedded in everyday interactions and, from there, into company culture.
“On the way up, success creates positive momentum. People who believe they are likely to win are also likely to put in the extra effort at difficult moments to ensure that victory,” Moss Kanter explains.
On the way down, however, failure also feeds off itself in the same way. “As performance starts running on a positive or negative path, the momentum can be hard to stop. Growth cycles produce optimism, decline produces pessimism,” she points out.
So, how can HR directors build and maintain a culture in which ‘success cycles’ are encouraged and ‘failure cycles’ minimised? Here are five suggestions:
1. Help employees to build up awareness of their strengths
The average individual doesn’t get much feedback about their strengths during either their personal life or career. As a result, they often don’t understand what those strengths, or weaknesses, are.
Some people even feel anxious, uncomfortable and embarrassed when talking about their strengths as they have learned to fear complacency, failure or being different from the rest of the ‘pack’.
But there are lots of ways to help build their self-awareness, which includes encouraging them to reflect on their conscious experience, obtain feedback from colleagues and other stakeholders, and keep a journal or diary of tasks that energise them.
Objective strengths profiling tools such as Strengthscope’s are also useful and focus on relevant opportunities to apply them more fully.
2. Ensure that line managers encourage positive ways of working
While self-awareness is crucial, it is not enough. As part of an ongoing dialogue about performance, managers should work with staff to explore how to make their strengths more productive, not only in their current role but in tasks and projects that are outside of that role.
Like professional athletes, employees need to build and practice positive ways of doing their work, which reflect who they really are and what comes most naturally to them. This approach results in successes which, in turn, help to reinforce confidence.
3. Recognise and celebrate success at all levels
If people feel that they have been successful and their efforts and achievements have been recognised, they will, in turn, feel positive. This kind of positive emotion becomes contagious and boosts energy levels, morale and discretionary effort, fuelling a success cycle.
Therefore, by helping senior executives and line managers to understand the significance of sharing and celebrating success and putting in place enterprise-wide mechanisms and processes to facilitate such sharing, a more positive performance culture will prevail.
It is important that such activity takes place across organisational boundaries, however, as an individual’s success can make others feel more energised and positive, provided that it is communicated and celebrated in an appropriate manner.
Authentic and frequent recognition by line managers as well as praise for a job well done is just as essential in creating a culture in which those who put in the effort and work hard will be seen to flourish.
4. Ensure that senior executives lead by example
The “shadow of the leader” effect is strong at work. This means that leaders and managers need to understand the impact that their values, attitudes and actions will have on the workforce.
As a result, they should be invited to consider what type of “shadow” that they cast now and how it could be strengthened in future. Too many leaders still cast a long, negative shadow, which saps their organisation’s energy and life.
But developing and educating them to become aware of their own strengths and to use positive psychology will help – although all learning in this area should be practical, relevant and ideally be supported by on-the-the-job coaching to ensure maximum benefit.
Investing in their future should also create the added advantage of making managers and leaders more likely to stay with the organisation. And improved retention rates and leadership stability should, in turn, should kick-start a success cycle of its own.
5. Provide personnel with balanced feedback
Success generates positive feedback from customers and other external stakeholders, while failure generates the opposite.
However, employees often only receive any input when problems occur or performance falls below expectations (for example, when customers complain or shareholders are unhappy with the company’s performance).
But in order to build confidence and encourage a more appreciative atmosphere, it is important to ensure that negative feedback is always balanced with positive input.
One way to do this is to invite teams to interview their own customers (internal or external) and stakeholders using an appreciative inquiry interview process. Once the data has been analysed, it can be fed back during a team meeting in order to explore successes, strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement and growth.
Boosting relationships
Positive emotions generated through success boost relationships and encourage better collaboration, creative problem-solving and wellbeing among both individuals and teams.
If people are in a positive frame of mind, they are more likely to be generous, supportive and tolerant of one another, which improves teamwork and commitment. It also means that they will be more willing to acknowledge their concerns and fears and to admit mistakes and learn from them.
Turning around a failure cycle can be tough, particularly in the case of successive failures, which tend to sap a team’s, or even an organisation’s, morale and energy.
However, with the right attitude, approach and techniques, leaders, if suitably supported by their HR practitioners, will be in a position to take responsibility for cultural change. The secret is in taking the initiative and focusing on the small ‘wins’ to start rebuilding confidence in order to inspire people to make the most of their strengths.

Paul Brewerton is co-founder and director of management consultancy, Strengths Partnership.