Many of the larger communities in the USA offer business awards called “Forty Under Forty” or “Thirty Under Thirty.” The awards recognize exemplary achievements of a limited group of individuals in those age categories.
I’ve seen numerous résumés that include the line item, “Recipient of the prestigious Forty-Under-Forty award.” It’s obviously viewed by many as a milestone achievement.
But the concept has gone too far.
Incredibly, there’s now a “Six Under Six” award for exceptional post-toddlers. This one is sponsored by ad hoc parent groups that have sprung up around the country. The award recognizes “above and beyond behavior” among four and five-year-olds.
A recent winner of “Six Under Six” in Iowa, freckle-faced Timmy, was recognized for making his bed five days a week, standing up to a bully at the local playground, and sharing his S’mores at a family campout. Sharonda, a winner from Philadelphia, consistently arrived on time for kindergarten classes, and achieved a black belt in only 18 months at a neighborhood karate studio. Sharonda’s citation praised her willingness to take up martial arts at age 3, only months after she was potty-trained.
Okay, I’m kidding about the “Six Under Six” award. But did I have you snagged? What does it say that most of us wouldn’t be shocked?
The mounting volume of awards popping up everywhere from Little League fields to business conferences has propelled our culture into a state of recognition frenzy. It’s as if public acknowledgement has become more important than actual achievement.
What I’m interested in is a simple question: To what extent do verbal praise, awards and public recognition actually increase an individual’s self-confidence?
First, what is confidence? Based on the Latin root (meaning “with faith”) confidence refers to a state of belief or faith in a deity, outcome, person or group. By extension, self-confidence means having faith in oneself.
But faith in oneself regarding what? It would seem that believing in one’s ability to excel at computer programming might differ, say, from faith in one’s ability to dunk a basketball or write a poem or keep a secret. Self-confidence appears to be situational. If that’s accurate, then no one is across-the-board confident. It depends.
So what degree of situational self-confidence comes from encouragement, recognition and praise? Does a steady stream of “You can do it” messages translate into believing in oneself?
It certainly feels good to know that the people we care about are behind us, pulling for us to succeed. It might be the kind of spark that inspires us to keep going when quitting would be easier. But does it take us all the way to self-confidence?
The only sure-fire path to self-confidence is the “internal knowing” that emerges from provable, unaided accomplishment. Genuine self-confidence comes from knowing you can do or be something. And the only way to reliably know that is when you actually do or be it.
I use the qualifier, “Genuine self-confidence,” because as with every other descriptor, there are fake versions of confidence. Phony self-confidence often displays bravado, or bragging. The swagger can be convincing to outsiders, but that doesn’t mean “inner knowing” is driving it.
If the true calling card of self-confidence is not praise or self-puffery but actual achievement, how does one become an achiever? Does confidence play a role in getting good at something? To a degree, but the hidden engine of achievement is something more basic: practice.
Whether you’re trying to become better at social conversation, hitting out of a sand trap, raising goats or mastering a second language, the strategy that consistently outperforms all others is focused repetition. Consistent practice over time produces higher and higher levels of mastery:
You end up contributing vibrancy in that social conversation, nailing those sand trap shots, raising healthy goats and speaking that second language. And self-confidence emerges.
Self-confidence and leadership responsibility
The building of self-confidence might be among the unsung but most impactful responsibilities of leadership, not only in organizations but in families. The advantages of a self-confident workforce or of raising self-confident children are not hard to imagine.
But most leaders have swallowed the bait of praise and recognition at the expense of the real deal: achievement based on initiative, practice and repetition.
Here are some leadership strategies that point in the direction of genuine self-confidence:
Recognize that over-confidence is cut from the same emotional tapestry as low confidence. Believing, without evidence, that one can do or be something, is just as delusional as believing, without trying, that one cannot. I invite over-confident individuals to back up what they say. I invite low confident individuals to take risks and see what happens.
Moderate praise with challenge. Consider raising the bar, then notice the response. Spend less time thinking about recognizing, and more time thinking about posing thought-provoking questions that might influence motivation, and ultimately, practice, e.g. “What do you most want to get better at?” “What are your thoughts about what that would require?”
Promote the idea that the accomplishment IS the recognition. I’m not saying eliminate all incentivizing and rewarding. I am suggesting that the accomplishments supporting the “inner knowing” of self-confidence deserve the front burner.
Don’t forget about luck. Every accomplishment involves some element of fortune, whether it’s parental encouragement, a pivotal bout of adversity that helped generate a change in direction, or a chance meeting with a key influencer. The integrity of knowing, “I had some help” doesn’t douse self-confidence. It puts it in perspective.
To combat the gushing praise that feeds low and excessive confidence, more mature leaders promote the practice that builds accomplishment.
8 Responses to “July 2015: Reclaiming Self-Confidence”
July 01, 2015 at 11:24 am, Bill Tilton said:
Timely as usual.
John and Leadership Coaching Inc. have practiced.
July 01, 2015 at 12:19 pm, Tim Burns said:
I think the idea of intelligence as innate, versus something that can be developed plays into this as well. If you praise children or employees for how smart they are, I think it can reinforce the idea that it’s more important to “look smart” and get that recognition, and the idea that maybe effort is fruitless, because I am either smart, or I am not. But if you embrace the idea that intelligence is something that can be developed or worked-on, then you more readily accept challenges , learn from failure and persevere against adversity. I think praise for “being smarter than everyone else” acts much like the recognition frenzy described above. And it feels so good to think our children are smarter than the other kids, because they achieved some made up award or get recognized for almost anything. I wonder if “Most Improved” (assuming if reflects true effort) is actually more important than “Most Valuable?”
July 01, 2015 at 12:25 pm, Scott Gibbs said:
Love this John. The act of “doing” builds true self-confidence. Unwittingly, we are praising our kids and employees too much for minor things and this is creating a gap between what they know to be true and what we are praising them for. This gap feeds the “impostor” feeling that we get sometimes.
July 01, 2015 at 12:45 pm, andrea schara said:
Thank you for the good reminder to weed our mental garden as to the over positives and how how one can be sabotage with intoxicating praise.
You could look at any social system and see how the leader regulates the group and how the group regulates the leader.
Yours is a good example of how the group can weaken the leader with praise and the same can be said of the leader regulating the group with criticism.
Some leaders are addicted to their own importance and very often then very critical of others who do not follow the party line. They spend time making sure others acknowledge their leadership as the one and only “leader”. To keep a job people praise the “critical of others” leader to avoid being on the outside and becoming the focus of criticism.
For all of us being aware of how the group can manipulate us and how we mange the input from the group by defining a self, serves us well.
The effort to be more differentiated asks us to understand the natural tendency of groups to manipulate others to go along.
Its useful to prepare self to mange upset and not be regulated by praise.
The social and family system do not “approve” of individuals who can define a self and take on the upset in important others or in the social group.
I like how Bowen put it:
“Differentiation begins when one family member begins to more clearly define and openly state his own inner life principles and convictions, and he begins to take responsible action based on convictions. This is in contrast to principles derived from the rest of the family. It may require months or longer for this one to become reasonably sure within himself. The remainder of the family opposes this differentiating effort with a powerful emotional counterforce, which goes in successive steps: (1) “You are wrong,” with volumes of reason to support this; (2) “Change back and we will accept you again”; and (3) “If you don’t these are the consequences,” which are then listed. The accusations commonly list indifference, meanness, lack of love, selfishness, coldness, the sadistic disregard for others, etc. When the differentiating one defends himself, or counterattacks, or falls silent, he slips back into the old emotional equilibrium. When he can finally stay on his own calm course, in spite of the togetherness forces, the accusations reach a peak and quickly subside. The opposition then expresses a single statement of appreciation at the conviction and strength of the differentiating one and the entire group pulls up to the new level attained by the first. Later, another member of the group will start his or her own effort at the better definition of self. The togetherness opposition to individuation, or differentiation, is so predictable that differentiation does not occur without opposition from the togetherness forces.”
Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 437). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
July 01, 2015 at 2:40 pm, Kat Roby said:
We are most likely born with a universe sized amount of self-confidence and confidence (faith). What confidences remain are most likely shaped by others, unless we go through a process of re-discovering in our potentiality. Like the article, and though we have a primal nature that is very similar to the animal kingdom, we do have a higher level of consciousness. Which brings me to the point of praise or no praise; it really doesn’t affect a truly self-confident person. That shows up in society as a truth when a performer, activist, athlete, scientist has there inevitable moment of being acknowledged or awarded and they begin their acceptance speech. “Everyone said I was crazy. No one thought it could be done. I knew in my heart I could”. So without praise is achievement and perseverance for some. For others, there is a need for continual coaching and recognition to assist them to reach their enlightenment. Example, “You did a good job peddling for the first five feet, but I think you were scared. You proved you can do it..” the kids thus peddles ten feet next time. My suggestion, don’t box yourself in believing one way of dealing with your employees or families is the one true way. It’s best to listen and respond the individual.
July 06, 2015 at 2:16 pm, Jerry said:
From my experience, superficial and unwarranted praise is quickly identified by children as such, and has a negative and counterproductive effect on confidence. Same holds true in the workplace for my team.
July 12, 2015 at 3:00 am, krista said:
John, this is a neat reminder to check our inner compass for what inspires and reinforces our drives. Speaking up in a toxic environment may be risky, and those who do deserve praise to balance the inevitable censure from the bullying manager, or sycophant peers in fear of their job security. Malcolm Gladwell relates a cogent research on the value of experience with adversity as a seed to real confidence, initiative and perseverance against seemingly insurmountable odds in his recent volume ‘David and Goliath’. This is cautionary evidence against the downfalls of over-privilege and over-praise we often see in western culture. Thanks for taking this discussion into our modern context.
July 12, 2015 at 3:03 am, krista said:
John, this is a neat reminder to check our inner compass for what inspires and reinforces our drives. Speaking up in a toxic environment may be risky, and some do deserve praise to balance the inevitable censure from the bullying manager, or sycophant peers in fear of their job security. Malcolm Gladwell relates a cogent discussion of research on the value of experience with adversity as a seed to real confidence, initiative and perseverance against seemingly insurmountable odds in his recent volume ‘David and Goliath’. This is cautionary evidence for the downfalls of over-privilege and over-praise we often see in western culture. Thanks for taking this discussion into our modern context.