The gremlins of self-doubt

The nation chewed its collective fingernails watching England win the recent Ashes series. But how did the players prevent the gremlins of self doubt setting in?

The issue of confidence is elemental to so many spheres of activity. It is equally relevant to the business pages, the sports pages, the arts pages and the political commentaries; yet it is a psychological concept.

Confidence is relatively simple to understand and it can be developed by deliberate action. It comprises four elements: prediction, control, coping and recent experience.

Prediction and control go together. A friend of mine is 5’6” and weighs nine stone; I am six foot tall and weigh 16 stones. When we are around horses, she is relaxed and confident, I am nervous.

The reason is simple: she can read the horse’s behaviour and has a fair understanding of what the horse is going to do. I know nothing of horses and only understand the horse’s intentions retrospectively as the pain shoots through my arm or leg.

On the sports field or in business, those who can recognise patterns within certain situations have the best chance of dealing with them. The ability to predict behaviour gives them more time to respond. If they also know how to respond effectively, they are likely to remain confident throughout. 

Visionary business leaders are mere dreamers unless they can read the market they are in. Sir Rod Eddington, at British Airways, was criticised for retiring Concorde and for selling Go, its low-cost airline.

Yet Eddington understood airline economics and read the market well. He worked with his leadership team to return BA to being the world’s most profitable airline in his five-year tenure, despite facing unpredictable events such as 9/11.

Coping is a different matter. We speak of resilient people having the ability to remain calm in a crisis or being able to bounce back quickly.

Remaining calm may be largely determined genetically but we can all make matters better or worse depending on what we do. We can talk positively and focus on positive aspects of the situation we are in, or we can do the opposite and undermine ourselves.

Friends and colleagues also play a part. Between overs in England’s victories, the batsmen would come together in the middle of the pitch and touch gloves, pat each other on the shoulders, and joke around to support each other. Support helps us cope with tribulations and challenges in our past or our immediate future.

Recent experience is fundamental. Sports teams, company boards and management teams face crises differently. Whatever has become their pattern to date is often exaggerated in a crisis.

The teams who have become used to strife and conflict tear themselves apart; and the cosy colluders muddle themselves to a standstill.
Challenge and support are required together. They are not opposites: they are synergistic. They have the most wonderful capacity to increase performance, motivation and confidence.  They are to be practised together in the good times so that they can be deployed together when times are tough.

The ability to predict, control and cope can be developed. But how is this to be achieved? There are four steps to take:



  • Get focused – there are always conflicting priorities: leaders have to choose between them and allocate resources accordingly
  • Build the team – the most effective teams are comprised of people who are different but compatible
  • Build competence – by focusing on targets and performance and providing feedback that is unequivocal. Identified shortfalls have to be worked on
  • Challenge and support simultaneously. This is partly a matter of language and partly of respect. If we sustain a shift in our language, we slowly shift our values also. 

David Pendleton is a psychologist and chairman of Edgecumbe Consulting Group.

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