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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 06/09/2006

So the Scottish football team is finally on a winning streak. Those wanting to understand how this happens and how it can be nurtured should pick up a copy of Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s new book – Confidence: Leadership and the Psychology of Turnarounds. Moss Kanter is Professor of Business at Harvard and one of the few women business gurus commanding big audiences at events. While I take issue with Moss Kanter on some of her fundamental assumptions (more of this later) I think this is an interesting, and important book which deserves to be read.

Moss Kanter argues that winning and losing don’t tend to happen as single events but are part of winning or losing streaks. She writes: "On the way up, success creates positive momentum. People who believe they are likely to win are also likely to put in the extra effort at difficult moments to ensure that victory. One the way down, failure feeds on itself. As performance starts running on a positive or a negative path, the momentum can be hard to stop. Growth cycles produce optimism, decline cycles produce pessimism."

Moss Kanter’s way of explaining how ‘confidence consists of positive expectations of favourable outcomes’ draws heavily on Seligman’s work on optimism. Winners are more likely, she claims, to have a positive, optimistic ‘explanatory style’. But Moss Kanter’s book is important in helping us to understand confidence and its relationship to positive success cycles because she looks much wider than the individual’s own personal psychology.

In the course of the book Moss Kanter bases her analysis on current psychological research and theories as well as her own empirical research with teams. This leads her to argue that there are four different ways that winning ‘begets winning’ and so boosts confidence:

1. Since winning feels good it generates positive emotions and good moods. This type of positive emotion is not only contagious but also boosts energy and morale. This contributes to more effort and hard-work therefore reinforcing the likelihood of success.

2. The positive emotion produced through winning cements relationships. When people are in a positive frame of mind they are more likely to be generous, supportive and tolerant of one another. This then reinforces team-work and commitment. It also fosters an environment where people can openly talk about mistakes and learn from them. Again this is likely to increase the likelihood of success.

3. In this positive, winning environment people are likely to invest trust and time in the system which has so far produced success. This may mean more stable leadership and investment in procedures (such as training) which are also more likely to lead to success.

4. Finally, winning brings rewards from the outside. This might be enthusiastic fans, media attention and investors. Again all of this contributes to a positive atmosphere and builds confidence. In a business environment these positive feelings may mean less scrutiny or control thus allowing a winning team to get on with what they want to do with a minimum of restrictions.

Moss Kanter outlines clearly the contribution leaders can make to creating or sustaining a culture of confidence or how to help turnaround a losing streak.

Moss Kanter’s analysis is great so far as it goes. However, her whole argument is built on such a questionable assumption that the book does not simply have an Achilles heel but an Achilles tendon. She links confidence to winning and losing throughout the 369 pages. Her positive prose, her focus on team work and leadership almost get you to believe that if we all just follow her advice we could all become winners and feel confident. But we can’t. In most areas of life (particularly sport, her main focus) winning is a ‘zero sum game’ – people win at the expense of others. Scotland’s football team is on a winning streak only because it has beaten its opponents. This is fine in sport, since competition is so much of what it is about, but do we really want to follow Moss Kanter’s line and see life itself as divided into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’?

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