Contagious Confidence

We all know that illness is contagious – the coughs and colds that many of us have at this time of year is an easy reminder of this fact.

But we don’t just catch illnesses from the people we live and work with. We can also catch their feelings and emotions. Perhaps the most everyday example is happiness. But there are other examples too.

Take empathy. Empathy is the way that we mirror the emotional state of another person by mimicking their behavioural expressions, and “feeling what they feel”. This can also be considered a form of emotional contagion where we “catch” the emotional state of another person. The function of this is, in essence, to show we care and to make sure we respond appropriately.

But another example is confidence.

Confidence is not just a personal feeling.

When we speak about confidence, we often think of it as a personal feeling. A feeling that we, as an individual, may experience in all its colourful highs or lows when faced with a particular situation or challenge.

But confidence can also operate at a collective level. At the level of the whole team, not just you, the individual. And at a team level, confidence can be contagious.

A good illustration of this is in sport.

Creating a collective sense of “us”

In many group sports, working well together as a team is not only desirable, it is completely essential for success. For being the number 1. And to be successful as a team, it isn’t enough to have self-confidence or self-belief. You also have to have team confidence. You have to believe that the team as a whole has what is takes to succeed.

Researchers who study the phenomenon of team confidence often divide it up into two parts. The first of these is feeling confident that collectively the team has the skills and abilities necessary to do what is required of them – in other words, the “process” of success and what is sometimes called “collective efficacy” by those working in the field. The second is feeling confident that the team can achieve their goals – in other words having the confidence and belief that there will be a  successful  – “winning” – outcome.

Lows and highs of team confidence.

When there is a breakdown in this team confidence – in other words when people don’t have the belief in the abilities of the other members of their team, or where they have confidence in some members but not others – then it fragments the team, impairs it’s cohesion and increases conflict. All of which stands in the way of success.

In contrast when there is a strong confidence and belief in the abilities of the other members of the team, then research shows that individuals are more likely to exert more effort, set more challenging goals and be more resilient when facing adversities. And as a well known American football coach once observed: “When a team outgrows individual performance and learns team confidence, excellence becomes a reality”. Or to put it another way, your team becomes “more than a sum of its parts”.

Living up to expectations.

And it is the contagious nature of confidence – the way that each member’s confidence and belief can spread to the rest of the team – which is critical for creating this collective sense of “us. Of “we can do it”. And as might be expected, the confidence of the team leader plays an important role in initiating and fostering this upward (or downward!) spiral of confidence contagion.

The mechanism of this contagion is in part due to what’s called the Pygmalion effect. This refers to the phenomenon whereby the more that is expected of people, the better they perform. In other words, the fact that everyone in the team, including their leader, has high confidence and belief in the abilities of the rest of the team sets up an expectation of success, and this expectation, as long as it is realistic, can become ultimately self-fulfilling.

Going against the bias.

But creating team confidence is sometimes an uphill struggle. Not only because within the workplace we are often required to have regular reviews of our personal weaknesses. But because we all have in-build biases which go against the desired mentality of believing in the abilities of the other members of the team.

One of these is the fundamental attribution error. This is the error we make, usually without even realising, where we attribute a negative outcome which occurred to us personally to be the fault of the situation (…my alarm clock didn’t wake me….), while we attribute a negative outcome which occurred to someone else to be the fault of them personally (…it’s because they are lazy…).

Another one is the self-serving bias – a bias which in its most extreme form borders on narcissism but more generally reflects the fact that one way to boost our self-esteem is to think lesser of those around us.

Countering or controlling these types of biases; fostering a mutual respect for the individual strengths of each team member; and working at a leadership level to create a cohesive sense of “us” can therefore all help to boost team confidence, allowing you to capitalize on the success that it can bring.

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