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How confidence and leadership
new research

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Confidence is a critical state for leaders. Whilst competency criteria may not explicitly require it, confidence is the prerequisite for success.  And an apparent lack of confidence can derail a career.  


“Women just lack confidence” is often suggested as the cause of the relatively few women in senior positions.  But do we understand what confidence is and how it links to other leadership behaviours? New research from Management Research Group (MRG) throws light on confidence in business both for women and different generations in the work place.

The research covered over 4 thousand people in 20 countries. 56% identified as male and 28% as female with 16% who did not identify as either gender. MRG used their LEA leadership 360 tool which measures both felt confidence – how confident I feel and conveyed confidence – how confident I am perceived by others (usually boss, peers and direct reports) as well as other leadership behaviours.

Felt self confidence

When helping leaders increase their ability to convey self-confidence, many development programmes and coaching strategies begin by helping them increase their felt self-confidence with the expectation that increases in felt self-confident will lead to increases in conveyed self-confidence. However, the research found a weak relationship between felt and conveyed self-confidence. Nor was felt self-confidence associated with any particular pattern of behaviours people knew they used. Felt self-confidence seems to be unique to the individual. This suggests the way to help leaders be more self-confidence is to work on conveyed self-confidence rather than felt self-confidence.

The research found no significant difference in the felt self-confidence of leaders and their conveyed self-confidence across different generations in the workforce. There were however differences across gender. Whilst conveyed and felt self-confidence were similar, men rated their felt self-confidence higher than women (women 5.47 men 5.71, on a scale of 1-7).

Conveyed self-confidence

MRG explored the importance of conveyed self-confidence by studying its relationship with other measures of leadership effectiveness. The findings align with previous research in this area, showing that conveyed self-confidence is related to many other measures of leadership effectiveness. Overall, leaders who convey self-confidence are also seen as effective in moving forward in business, overcoming obstacles, taking control and making effective choices.

In addition, conveyed self-confidence enhances status and is linked to an assumption of success and competence. Self-confident leaders are seen as more socially adept and are given more control, power and opportunities to lead.  And these assumptions persist even when the leader has messed up or there is evidence that they are not actually competent.

Conveying more self confidence

To help leaders identify the most efficient path to higher levels of conveyed self-confidence, MRG conducted an analysis to determine which of their 22 LEA leadership behaviours have the greatest impact on observers also seeing the leader as self-confidence. They found conveyed self-confidence is seen in leaders who also seek opportunities to be in charge and show they are comfortable in that role, consider the long-term impact of their decisions, exert influence and expand their expertise, are persuasive and do not prioritize others’ agendas.

It’s interesting to note that leaders who are seen as self-confident tend to also be seen as less cooperative and less deferential to authority, than their peers. It’s the over use of these behaviours rather than not being cooperative at all that is observed. Seeking opportunities to take charge was twice as important as other factors.

Generational differences

MRG looked at three different generations: baby boomers, gen X and millennials

There were some differences across generations in the behaviours which conveyed self-confidence: all generations showed evidence of management focus, lower deference to authority and lower tendency to cooperate with others, as in the previous analysis.

In addition, baby boomers show self-confidence through being strategic, being productive and giving feedback. Whereas gen X put emphasis on being less consensual than their peers, being persuasive, emphasising their technical expertise and communication. Young leaders in the millennial group are also seen to emphasis their technical expertise and their productivity and are less likely than other millennials to worry about being consensual or empathetic. It’s worth remembering however that there were no significant differences in conveyed self-confidence across the generations, so these behaviours are a means of helping an individual rather than being prescribed across the whole generation.

Gender differences

Leaders who are seen as self-confident tend to display behaviours which are less typical of their gender. For example, male leaders typically show restraint about emotions and communicate less. A leader who is seen as self-confident as well as emphasising management focus, being tactical etc, tends to be lower on self-restraint and higher on communication than peers. There is also an atypical gender pattern with women. Women who are seen as self-confident show more of the behaviours of being strategic and persuasive than their peers alongside an emphasis on management focus, less deference to authority and higher communication.

How to use these finding

The findings suggest:

Personally, you should stop worrying about your felt self-confidence and focus on using the behaviours which say to others you are self-confident. So, emphasis managerial focus, taking control of situations, being clear and persuasive and not worrying too much about other’s needs, at least not to the extent it interrupts your pursuit of goals.

If you are a woman avoid stereotypical behaviour and focus more on the behaviours above. You can still cooperate, be empathetic and communicate well but not at the expense of managerial focus.

If you are trying to help another person who has had feedback that they are not self-confident enough forget about how they feel and focus on what they do. This is backed up by Amy Cuddy’s research that when we act self-confident we start to feel it, our brain ensures our feelings  synchronises  with our behaviour.

Whether you are helping others or want to boost others opinion of your self-confidence incorporate some subtle signposting into contributions, to indicate this is a deliberate choice of work style:

  1. When cooperating indicate why, “I like to get others’ opinions and input it means we can implement faster.”
  2. When you’re entering a discussion after having been largely silent, preface your comment with a signpost such as “I find it really useful to hear everyone’s different perspectives…”
  3. When acknowledging team contribution, instead of just saying “We’ve all worked really hard on this” (which could sound like a minimisation of your own role), say something like: “It would be good if we could take a moment to recognise that the team has achieved this against a tighter deadline than we’ve ever attempted before…”
  4. Take the initiative to raise the question of style in your performance review: “It’s not my style to be very directive. I find its most effective when…”

This research suggests we are more alike in how we demonstrate self-confidence but that subtle nudges help to ensure others read your behaviour correctly and given how much self-confidence correlates with other leadership behaviours it’s worth the  effort.

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