The Paradox Of Confidence

you can have too much of a good thing.


Confidence. Noun; the quality of being certain of your abilities or of having trust in people, plans, or the future.

Cambridge Dictionary 2018.


In the 18th Century, Voltaire captured a paradox in confidence that has stood the test of time: “doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”. His words underestimate the extent of our visceral attraction to confidence.

Doubt in our abilities, in others or in the future is far more than unpleasant; it can be experienced as a deep psychological threat. Confidence is the antidote that returns us to safety and increases our standing in other’s minds. Embracing the certainty it brings - even if objectively unjustified – is far from absurd on those grounds…


Uncertainty is a threat.

We all have unique personalities and preferences, but we’re also members of a species designed to prosper. In 2012, Dr Jacob Hirsh and colleagues published a paper framing uncertainty as an adaptive challenge for any organism, and its management as a matter of survival.

It’s intuitive to believe this happens consciously, as we make day-to-day decisions that suit our tastes for risk and reward. But things aren’t so straightforward. Think of yourself as an organic system fine-tuned over millions of years. Will the way you respond to the disorder of uncertainty - a threat to you and your species - really be reliant on cognitive processing, or more akin to touching a hot stove and instinctively pulling away?

This instinct is easy to recognise in a physical environment. Imagine you’re watching a group of adults learning to climb. The more nervous among them may only get a few feet off the ground before becoming rigid with anxiety; a symptom of uncertainty about their safety. To an experienced onlooker this may seem ridiculous – ‘they can just step down!’ – but their rationality or desire to succeed has been superseded by a primal system.

We all have our metaphorical place on the wall, whether in a climbing centre or a corporate meeting room, and we share the same biological reaction when it comes. When we perceive high-levels of uncertainty, increased activity is sparked in the behavioural inhibition system of our brain and anxiety-provoking noradrenaline is released. This mind-altering chemical is part of a mechanism designed to respond to threat.   

In the physical world our climber may become incapacitated until she or he is helped to the certainty of firm ground. But what about the world of work and cognitive decision-making? How do we experience uncertainty-related anxiety and what is the parallel of being coaxed down from the wall?


Confidence is the antidote.

Imagine you’re at a TEDTalk, listening to an inspiring entrepreneur. She starts by describing a rampant ill of our time, a major social challenge with the potential to cause great harm. In doing so, she’s inducing uncertainty about the future, forcing you up a wall you never asked to scale.  

You’re in a safe physical environment, but you’re still hard-wired to find this uncertainty uncomfortable. It means you’re primed for the inevitable answer soon to be introduced, whether it be a service, product or new technology. When it comes, you have a choice that may or may not be conscious: you can cling to rational scepticism and the anxiety it brings, or you can suspend disbelief and be transported back to safety. Her app will save the world!

It’s a light example, but it can translate to many decision-making contexts. Uncertainty lies in the choice between suppliers for an important project, in the candidate shortlist for a new team-mate and in where to focus your resources in the year ahead. The anxiety these decisions induce will differ from moment-to-moment and from person-to-person, and be amplified or softened by all manner of contextual and psychological factors.

It means that sometimes that silver-tongued salesperson, overly-assured interviewee or ‘transformative’ new technology will sound rightly absurd. But sometimes they’ll be exactly what we need: a means to reduce uncertainty. And when their grand, over-confident claims are required to help us cope with the disorder of the world, their absurdity can be swept away by the sophistication of a dynamic system designed to survive. Our in-built biases draw us towards certainty while we weave a complex narrative to post-rationalise why. We start to feel better. But at what cost?


Confidence and decision-making are not the best of friends.

All this means that absurd ideas are abundant in the workplace. They’re absurd because they’re too simple, easy and confident, which is exactly why they’re abundant. We hire people in our own image because it makes us feel safe. We continue to invest in practices like Myers Briggs personality testing and Generational Theory, found so wanting by empirical research, because they simplify the complex world around us. We choose McKinsey and IBM time and time again and obsess over the case studies that tell us what everyone else is doing. Because nobody ever got fired for staying safe; nobody got fired for towing the line.

Whether this matters is an open question:

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve designed an ambitious marketing strategy, but your leadership team are terrified of taking a new approach. There’s so much change happening and this seems to be just one step too far. You decide to quell their fears by explaining how millennials – who are all purpose and convenience driven, of course – are going to love this new direction. You show them a survey your marketing agency commissioned to prove it, with lots of reassuring graphs. They give the green light and sleep soundly that night.

Maybe, as an alternative, your gender pay gap is high, reflecting the inequality that women and men face in the workplace. The data your organisation has been forced to release has spread angst throughout your company, not least in the white, male leadership team who are now feeling exposed. A massive unconscious bias training programme is launched by your HR team that demonstrates their commitment to progress, and you and your colleagues enjoy the sessions and view them as an important step forward. The unpleasantness of uncertainty is reduced and everyone, especially those male leaders, feel better. But empirical evidence suggests your organisation’s efforts are unlikely to bring about any meaningful change. Does it matter?


The paradox of confidence is a challenge for our times.

“Yes!” I hope you’ll cry. But I also know that storming into that leadership meeting, telling everyone that unconscious bias training doesn’t work and they need to do a million other things, is likely to cause a meltdown. It’s not quite frozen on a climbing wall, but it’s not far off… and it takes us back to the same place. No change and the same old inequality. Finding a resolution is an important challenge for our times, but it is also mired in complexity and competing goals:

Anxiety is rising. Over the past 30 years, there’s been a marked increase in anxiety (and narcissism) in high-income nations around the world. This meta-analysis points to an increase in tasks combining ‘uncontrollable factors’ with ‘social evaluative threat’, the rising fear of judgement and comparison with others. This trend is harming our well-being and is likely to be amplified in the context of an organisational hierarchy. We don’t need any more anxiety; we need less.

Uncertainty is rising. While more confidence and less doubt might make us feel better as individuals, it might also render us incapable of responding to the changing world around us. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the follow up to Homo Deus, Yuval Harari writes that uncertainty is exactly what we need to answer the major questions of our time:

“In the coming decades, the world will become even more complex than it is today. Individual humans - whether pawns or kings - will consequently know less about the technological gadgets, the economic currents, and the political dynamics that shape the world. As Socrates observed more than 2,000 years ago, the best we can do is to acknowledge our own individual ignorance”.

Socrates was right. Acknowledging our ignorance really is the way to make good decisions, whether about big social problems or everyday management choices. The empirical evidence for this comes from one of my favourite researchers, Professor Philip Tetlock. Here he is on using uncertainty to your organisation’s advantage in the Harvard Business Review:

“Companies will capture this advantage (of good decision-making) only if respected leaders champion the effort, by broadcasting an openness to trial and error, a willingness to ruffle feathers, and a readiness to expose “what we know that ain’t so” in order to hone the firm’s predictive edge”.


How do we design for progress?

If there’s one condition needed for progress at work, it’s a willingness to embrace uncertainty. But grandly declaring your ignorance is one thing if you’re the globally respected Philip Tetlock or Yuval Harari, and quite another for the rest of us mortals. They often seem to forget that in the books.

The stakes however, are high. Too often, those with power in our organisations take decisions to make themselves feel safe at the expense of the people they lead. We should not fail to be moved by this injustice. But we should also remember that it may not be an active choice. Leadership teams are beset by uncontrollable factors and social evaluative threat, and are therefore likely to be riddled with fear and anxiety. It’s natural - a biological necessity even - that they’re pulled to the absurd when it comes to the complexity of cultural change and the significance of well-being, inequality and performance.

The answers, I believe, start with empathy for others and acknowledging our own fallibility. They continue with a search for safe, productive means to face uncertainty without freezing on the wall. There will be many avenues to this end, and I have outlined some ideas below:


1- Be ruthlessly pragmatic.

You could frame the dynamic between confidence and truth as a battle for the heart of humanity. From Donald Trump, Fake News and political polarisation to the ethics of virtual reality and our unknown digital future. This might make for a good book, but in the world of workplace culture it strikes me as indulgent and unpractical. What are we supposed to do when faced with these macro-social problems? Who knows. And that’s why I’m interested in the opposite. What can we control? How do we break big cultural challenges into everyday moments that we feasibly change in our organisations? And how do we democratise this process, doing it together at scale, while recognising there will need to be a lot of learning and uncertainty along the way? These questions are safe (controllable), productive (laden with doubt) and offer a platform for exploration. They are our start point.


2- Make people safe and give them time.

Exploration needs time and space, but everyone’s too busy. There are lots of reasons why but our draw to confidence is a factor. When you look busy you look important. It may be about having too much to do, but it may also be about reducing the anxiety of social evaluative threat. We can face both hurdles together, by removing unnecessary time burdens while introducing role models who celebrate rather than fear uncertainty.

  • Remove what wastes time and causes anxiety. How much time do your colleagues spend worrying about upcoming meetings? How much time do they spend worrying about your performance management process? How much time do they spend worrying about their employee engagement results or whether they made it into your high-performance programme? How much time do they spend worrying about the reorganisation you’ve just announced - the one that isn’t really necessary, but is another example of leaders doing things to make themselves feel in control at others expense?

    Is this anxiety worthwhile? Are these meetings productive? Does your performance management process increase performance? What’s the value of another reorganisation? These are worthy questions and they can offer simple, transformative answers. When organisations genuinely focus their enormous resources in these everyday places, magic things can happen. Like when Dropbox ran a beautifully named ‘Armeetingeddon’ initiative, that saved time, increased productivity and probably saved a whole load of needless anxiety by reducing meeting times.

  • Stop role-modelling the absurd. Look to your leadership team, to the TEDTalks you admire and the keynote speakers you invite into your organisation. Look to the dominant consultancy models, to the executive advisors and the popular content on LinkedIn. Every single day we are spoon-fed the same message. Confidence is the aspiration. Certainty is the value. Absurdity is what we want.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. But doubt needs a PR team. It needs to be a value that you promote, normalise and make safe, and this can happen in a myriad of ways. One trick is to start with the right role model. The most inspiring moment of my career was sharing a train journey with one of my heroes (and the world’s leading expert on gender equality), and hearing her reflect on all the things she didn’t know about gender equality. Nothing has been so liberating than listening to her authoritative uncertainty. She wasn’t anxious about it; she was inspired to learn more.

    We can recreate this experience for others. We can share the insights of Yuval Harari and his call for humility over the simple claims of that overconfident business guru. We can select speakers who celebrate doubt to address our events and conferences. We can talk about culture in grey, open terms, rather than relying on the absurdity of values on a wall. We can inspire the embrace of uncertainty in a community. And then we can help put it to work…


3- Redefine success.

Progress doesn’t happen in a day, it happens when a model of exploration and learning is repeated. For that to work, we need to redefine what success means on the small-scale in the interests of the longer-term.

In an alternative reality, our workplace initiatives would be put to the test, perhaps following the principles of randomised controlled experimentation. This would make our understanding of their impact more accurate - whether they worked or not, we would have learned something - and that should be our new definition of success. When that process is repeated and shared systematically, it will lead us to progress. We have the collective enterprise of science to thank for that truth.

The magnetism of certainty in the workplace holds us back from exploring meaningful answers to urgent questions. This will only change when we design the conditions for ourselves and others to strike the right balance between confidence and doubt.

Thank you for reading.

James Elfer