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The role of confidence in leadership and negotiation

PCDN Global

April 7, 2017

“Confidence is a gift, given to you by yourself. To have it costs nothing but to not have it comes with an immeasurable price tag.”

Debbie Dickerson, Confidence is Your Game Changer

Confidence is a fundamental part of effective leadership and negotiation (among other endeavors in life).  However, what it means to be appropriately confident is sometimes unclear and can cross a fine line into being over or under confident.  Let’s explore this idea and try to grasp its role as it pertains to leadership and negotiation. 

The word confidence comes from the Latin word confidere, which means 'to be sure.' However, how do we know how sure we should be?  It is a little bit like Goldie Locks and three bears.  As you will recall in that story, Goldie Locks tried porridge that was too hot, too cold, and then just right.  Similarly, you can be too sure in yourself (AKA overconfident or cocky), not sure enough in yourself (AKA under confident or meek), or you can have just the right amount of confidence.  When you have just the right amount you continue to trust yourself even when you fail…without questioning your overall ability.  Clearly the best leaders and negotiators find that sweet spot.    

When it comes to the role of confidence in leadership and negotiation it is not a stretch to say that it forms the foundation of everything that is done in these realms. For example, when it comes to leadership Francisco Dao explains, “Self-confidence is the fundamental basis from which leadership grows. Trying to teach leadership without first building confidence is like building a house on a foundation of sand. It may have a nice coat of paint, but it is ultimately shaky at best.”  Similarly, when it comes to negotiation, listen to the words of international negotiator Lahktar Brahimi, “You have to be, at the same time, arrogant because you want to solve problems that look unsolvable, but you need to also be very very humble.  These are contradictory things but if you look closely they are not that contradictory.  You also need to have determination, you want to succeed, and you think (reaching success) is doable.  But you also need to be modest, don't play god, you are not god and you have to accept failure as part of the process.”

The key to confidence in leadership and negotiation is the belief in yourself that you can do whatever you set your mind to do, but that has to be combined with an ability to listen to others when you are off course or heading down the wrong road.  If you fail to listen you are over confident.  As Stone, Patton, and Heen explain in their bookDifficult Conversations, “One reason people are reluctant to admit mistakes is that they fear being seen as weak or incompetent. Yet often, generally competent people who take the possibility of mistakes in stride are seen as confident, secure, and ‘big enough’ not to have to be perfect, whereas those who resist acknowledging even the possibility of a mistake are seen as insecure and lacking confidence. No one is fooled.”  Conversely, if you listen too much and lose your way, than you lack confidence. 

Confidence, however, is not just about how we ourselves when it comes to leading and negotiating.  It is also about how followers or others we are trying to influence see us. As Thomas Wren explains, “Not only is the leader’s self-confidence important, but so is others’ perception of him. Often, leaders engage in impression management to bolster their image of competence; by projecting self-confidence they arouse followers’ self-confidence. Self-confident leaders are also more likely to be assertive and decisive, which gains others’ confidence in the decision. This is crucial for effective implementation of the decision. Even when the decision turns out to be a poor one, the self-confident leader admits the mistake and uses it as a learning opportunity, often building trust in the process. . . .”  The same can be said for negotiation.  If the other negotiator senses a level of confidence in you than they are more open to your proposals and ideas and will also have a level of respect for you that won’t been seen if you come across as over or under confident.  According to a study by Huthwaite International, a UK-based sales and negotiation specialists firm, under-confident negotiators achieve a successful outcome in just one in five of the negotiations they’re involved in.  The survey of over 1,300 professionals in 52 countries also found that those who feel ‘neutral’ achieve an even lower rate of success in negotiations, with only 16 per cent of them succeeding.  Successful negotiators were defined as those who implemented 75 per cent or more of their negotiations without the need to renegotiate. Those defined as unsuccessful were negotiators who had a rate of success lower than 50 per cent in their negotiations.

The study also stated that more than six out of 10 (62 per cent) of successful negotiators describe themselves as “very confident” when entering negotiations.  As the CEO of Huthwaite, Tony Hughes, stated “Confidence has a huge impact on negotiators’ behaviour and what they ultimately achieve.” Hughes ends the study with the following advice for negotiators, but also seems relevant for leaders, “Our advice is to be confident but not aggressive. Try to strike the right balance with your negotiation partner and focus on long-term partnerships.”

So the bottom line is that confidence is a critical and often unforeseen underpinning of leadership and negotiation.  If you have it, find the right balance so you don’t tip too far in either direction.  If you don’t feel confident, probe as to why and then work on those aspects until you do.  It takes time to build confidence if you don’t have it, but when you find it you won’t lose it easily.


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