I rarely talk or write about the workplace lessons sport can teach us. I believe the workplace to be much more complicated and nuanced than sports defined by wins and losses to say nothing of the fact that many people do not relate to sport, especially professional sports. However, the accomplishments of the Cinderella team the Leicester Foxes winning the English Premier Soccer League in stunning fashion under the guidance of modest Italian manager Claudio Ranieri is truly remarkable. The workplace lessons in humility and self-confidence and how the two intersect are undeniable as this unlikely team won it all over the much richer and well known clubs in world’s most watched sports league.
Humility as a highly sought after trait in our workplaces is not new. Laszlo Bock, Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations has spoken and written extensively that to get hired at one of the world’s most coveted employers you need to have demonstrated humility extensively in your past and have it shine though (in all humility) during the selection process. Bock extolls the better problem solving, the willingness to learn from failure (something Leicester’s Ranieri is famous for) and cites the ability to step back and revel in the accomplishments of others as the reasons Google strives to hire the humble. So how does humility then coexist with self-confidence?
We are inundated with notions of “faking it til you make it” and the self-help movement celebrates the importance of self-confidence in everything from dating to landing a job, being successful and finding and excelling in leadership. Self-confidence as the foundation of effective leadership is written about extensively in the popular business press and we know confidence is sometimes misinterpreted as competence. What is also now clear in recent research in our personal branding obsessed, self-worshipping Donald Trump era is that low self-confidence may as critical to our success and that ultimately competence outstrips confidence.
In his eye opening article “Less-Confident People Are More Successful”, noted business psychology Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic PhD, CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems states “self-confidence is only helpful when it’s low” arguing that you pay greater attention to negative feedback, prepare more and you have less chances of “coming across as arrogant or being deluded”. He reminds us that extremely low self-confidence with its accompanying fear, self-doubt and worry can render us as ineffective as the over confident who often overestimate their abilities, get in way over their heads and fail miserably and repeatedly.
In Chamorro-Premuzic’s 2014 book “Confidence: How Much You Really Need and How to Get it” he writes “wanting to be good at something is incompatible with thinking you are good at something” and goes on to urge people to build competence rather than focusing on confidence. He goes on to say “reams of psychological studies show that being perceived as modest is associated with a wide range of positive outcomes. The message is clear: People do not value confidence unless it is accompanied by competence—and even when it is, they prefer to see as little confidence surplus as possible.”
Tara Sophia Mohr in her 2015 Harvard Business Review article “Helping an Employee Overcome Their Self-Doubt” states that “readiness for advancement and leadership does not depend on an innate quality of confidence, but rather, on building the skill of managing one’s own self-doubts.” She reminds us that to be truly effective at helping people build confidence is to tone down the cheerleading and help people realize their inner critic is an extremist who is a problem focused, negative know-it-all we can choose to ignore in favour of our more reasonable, enterprising and sensible self.
The self-deprecating and notoriously humble Claudio Ranieri turned an unlikely group of athletes into champions by modeling humility and skillfully building their confidence without resorting to telling his players they were great and going to win a championship. He methodically built their capabilities and focused on steady progress and only at the very end of the year allowed his team to think of winning it all. He built competence which in turn brought the confidence needed to be crowned champions.
True to form, the day after winning the championship, when many of his more flamboyant peers would be celebrating very publicly to great applause, the 64-year-old Ranieri bypassed the hoopla and reportedly had lunch with his mum instead.
The goal you want them to work toward is not unfailing confidence, but rather, more skillful management of their own limiting beliefs and self-doubts; that readiness for advancement and leadership does not depend on an innate quality of confidence, but rather, on building the skill of managing one’s own self-doubts.