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Confidence in teams and organisations

'Confidence consists of positive expectations for favourable outcomes.'
Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Confidence
One of the most interesting and useful books published on confidence is by Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter from Harvard Business School. The book is entitled Confidence: How winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end.  Moss Kanter is an internationally acclaimed author and speaker and expert on leadership. In developing her ideas for this book Moss Kanter augmented her own experience of business with 300 interviews with people across a range of organisations and two surveys conducted in May 2003. The first survey was completed on-line by more than 1,200 companies in a range of industries. Responses to various questions allowed Moss Kanter to separate them into 183 successful companies and 93 who were clearly ‘in decline’. The second on-line survey included responses from over 1,500 school sports coaches or athletes in the USA. Again using similar methodology Moss Kanter separated these interviewees into 952 teams who usually won their matches that year, and 250 teams who generally lost.

Moss Kanter’s thesis

As the opening quote in this essay section showed, Moss Kanter makes big claims for the importance of confidence arguing that ‘Everything about an economy, a society, an organization, or a team depend on it.’ Moss Kanter’s great contribution to an understanding of confidence is that she argues that success or failure do not tend to be isolated events but are part of what she calls ‘fortunate or unfortunate cycles’ or winning and losing ‘streaks’. In other words successes and failures are not ‘episodes’ but ‘trajectories’.

Moss Kanter’s great achievement is showing how confidence is not just something in people’s personal psychology but gets embedded in everyday interactions and so in the culture of organisations or teams. 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’. In Learned Optimism Martin Seligman quotes research he carried out to show how teams, not just individuals, have an optimistic or pessimistic ‘explanatory style’ and how this affects the performance of the team. But Moss Kanter elaborates much further on how a team’s atmosphere or an organisation’s culture can be affected by the prevalence, not just of optimism or pessimism, but also positive or negative emotion.

What sustains the momentum of winning streaks

Moss Kanter  argues that there are four different ways that winning ‘begets winning’ and so boosts confidence:

1.Positive emotions
Echoing Professor Barbara Frederickson’s work on ‘the broaden and build theory of positive emotion’ and how positive emotions create upward spirals, Moss Kanter argues that as 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. Good relationships and learning environment
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.Stability and leadership
 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. Outside support
 Finally, winning brings rewards from the outside. This might be enthusiastic fans, media attention and investors. It also allows access to influential networks and information. 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.

When organisations and teams are caught up in this winning psychology, losing from time to time is not fatal. The positive emotion which they have generated ‘buffers’ the negativity of the loss and allows them to cope with failure with equanimity.

Losing streaks

Moss Kanter is equally illuminatng on the psychology and culture which sustains ‘losing streaks’:

As losses mount, pressure goes up … Stress makes it easier to panic. Panic makes it easier to lose. Losing increases neglect … . Signs of failure cause people to dislike and avoid one another; hide information, and disclaim responsibility – key elements of denial. All of this makes the cornerstones of confidence crumble. People doubt themselves, feel they cannot count on others, and do not trust the system around them. The climate of expectations turns negative, and everyone begins to feel powerless to change anything.

Losing a few times in a row amplifies negative emotion and feelings of powerlessness and the inevitable consequence of this, according to Moss Kanter, is confidence. She argues that when things start to go wrong in this way ‘people fall back on almost primitive self-protective behaviour’. So not only do people who fail get cut off from positive emotions which sustain energy and relationships and create what Frederickson calls ‘upward spirals’, but also the negative chain reaction feeds negativity and therefore sustains the losing streak.

Moss Kanter argues that as losing sets in ‘nine pathologies begin to unfold’ in an emotional and behavioural chain reaction’. These nine pathologies are as follows:

1. Communication decreases

There are a number of reasons for this including the fact that people start to avoid meetings since they are problem focussed and dispiriting. Management does not want to draw attention to failure so limit information flow. As Moss Kanter points out often cover-ups can cause more adverse publicity and problems than the orignial mistake.  The lack of communication stultifies learning and the likelihood of turnaround.

2. Blame increases

This often takes the form of passing the buck or scapegoating others. Managers often get fired; employees are vitimized. The blame culture and the constant criticism undermines effort and commitment. It also causes people to doubt themselves and so undermines personal and collective confidence.

3. Respect decreases

As criticism mounts people undervalue each other and their ideas and this soon leads individuals to feel they are working in a ‘culture of mediocrity’. As respect decreases so too does motivation and confidence.

4. Isolation increases

Moss Kanter reports that her research shows that people in losing situations tend to distance themselves from one another. 'Almost half of the people in declining companies, ' she writes 'told me that they rarely or never socialize together outside work hours, compared with only a quarter of those in successful companies.'

5. Focus turns inwards

As is the case with people who are depressed, there is a tendency in a losing organisation to become self-focussed and selfish. This not only cuts people off from important sources of information but also undermines trust and relationships.

6. Rifts widen and inequities grow

The selfishness outlined above undermines team working or pulling together. Moss Kanter states:

People in losing situations are over four times as likely as those in winning situations to tell me that their team or work group never or rarely pulls together nor presents a unified image – one of the strongest differences between losers and winners of any behaviours I asked about.

In such an environment internal rivalries often dominate and there is in-fighting between groups. Resentment and envy increase. So too does prejudice and sterotyping.

7. Aspirations diminish

As Moss Kanter points out one way to cope with failure is to reduce aspirations and say that winning doesn’t really matter. This then saps motivation and so performance is likely to suffer.

8. Initiative decreases

'Learned helplessness', paralysis, fear of failure and reprisal become evident as losing streaks set in. People stop being able to see a way forward or feel unable to take the risks needed to do things differently. Moss Kanter says that in the winning organisations she studied, new suggestions and ideas were welcomed but in losing organisatons people felt swamped by established policies and routines. She also argues that this passivity is one of the most ‘damaging’ aspects of losing streaks.The ensuing pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and saps people creativity and energy.

9. Negativity spreads

Since moods are contagious a negative environment has a tendency to envelop people. Negativity depletes and drains people of energy thus undermining performance and setting people up for further failure.

So, as we can see from this list, people can get caught in a doom loop where  negative fall- out is both a consequence of failure and the cause of future failure.

Losing streaks are likely to harden as the negativity starts to affect all areas of the organisation or the team’s performance: fans disappear, investment dries up, publicity is bad, fewer good people want to join the organisation and so forth. In an attempt to turnround the losing streak, managers are often replaced and this can lead to instability and another set of problems.  

Moss Kanter argues that it isn’t possible to single out one factor and say that it is the most important. It is the combination which is the problem. She writes: 'Economic, organizational, cultural and psychological factors interact. Confidence deteriorates at every level.'


For Moss Kanter ‘the art of building confidence’ and turning around a losing streak is mainly about leadership. However, she also points out the dangers of pinning all hopes on a leader who will save the organisation or team. The true turnaround leader is one who is able to engage people in recovery. She writes:
The art of turnaround leadership is knowing how to shed deadwood without killing the tree, to dig down to find root causes and make systemic changes, and to help the tree blossom. That takes a healer.'
One of the most attractive aspects of Moss Kanter’s analysis of turnaround leaders is that she identifies that the confidence they most need is not self-confidence but the confidence in others. If they have too much of the former they can see themselves as rescuing ‘heroes’. This can lead them to pick on others’ weaknesses and it will reinforce the negative cycle rather than turn it around.

Moss Kanter acknowledges that no two turnarounds will be the same but still argues that there are certain fundamental things which are needed to move from a losing to a winning streak.

The first is to get ‘accountability’ back into the organisation. The second is to encourage ‘collaboration’ so that people respect and trust one another again. This then encourages team work and builds confidence. The third is to encourage innovation and inspire people to take initiative. She suggest that this is done by managing people’s energy better through, for example, tackling negativity and giving support. She suggests starting with ‘small wins’ which will then galvanise people and encourage them to keep going in the right direction.

Following fairly detailed, and helpful advice, for leaders on how to build trust, accountability etc, Moss Kanter writes:

Leaders who guide winning streaks make a different set of choices, towards positive, inclusive, empowering actions that build confidence. By believing in other people, they make it possible for others to believe in them. Working together, they increase the likelihood of success, and of continuing to succeed.

The limitations of Moss Kanter’s approach

Moss Kanter sums up ‘the secret of winning’ in the following simple advice: 'Try not to lose twice in a row'. She admits that this sounds ‘a little facile’ but goes on to say that confidence doesn’t guarantee you that you will win every time but confidence will give you the resilience to bounce back from defeat to victory’. What she fails to say is that in some areas of life –most notably sport, one of the main focal points of this book, winning is a ‘zero sum game’. In other words, people win at the expense of others. Every team, even if they try every trick in the book to build confidence, can’t avoid losing because inevitably there are many fewer winners than losers. The majority are destined, like it or not, to be stuck, some of the time at least, in losing cycles.  In a book of 369 pages she never acknowledges this. The nearest she gets is when she writes: 'Success in life has many meanings, and a win for one does not have to be at the expense of another. That is the broader way I think about winning streaks and losing streaks – they are shorthands for repeated success or failure at achieving goals.'

I agree with Moss Kanter in this. Her analysis works equally well for thinking about succeeding or failing at goals rather than winning and losing, but the entire book, bar the last chapter, has a competitive ethos. Her terminology throughout is about winning and losing and at times it makes for a very unattractive, overly American, philosophy.  I’ve no problem about talking about ‘losing streaks’ but, given how pejorative the term ‘loser’ is in America I do balk when she dimisses people for their ‘loser’s behaviour or habits’.  

Moss Kanter’s strongly American, competitive creed is masked to some extent because she concentrates her analysis on teams and organisations, not  individuals. Thus she puts a big emphasis on team work and building relationshps. At times this give a rather cosy feel to what she is writing about. But her analysis as it stands, with its emphasis on winning and losing, is, antithetical to well-being. It may not be her intention but the language conveys the idea that the ultimate goal of every walk of life, is beating and being better than others. Following on from Professor Jennifer Crocker’s work (outlined elsewhere) we believe this is too egotistical and competitive an approach. Staking so much on victory inevitably heightens feelings of stress and so is not good for people’s mental and physical health. It is far better if people are encouraged to have goals which are more geared for the common good than related to them winning or coming out on top as no-one is able to guarantee this 100 per cent of the time.

However, we are pragmatists. We do not have a problem with this type of terminology being used for sports or aspects of business or life where competition and winning and losing is the essence of the activity. In other words, where competition or winning is the point of the activity.  But, for reasons outlined above, we do not think that winning and losing is a useful metaphor more generally for organisations or individuals.

To get round this problem it may be useful to use Moss Kanter’s analysis but change her terminology from ‘winning and losing streaks’ to something different. This could be success or failure cycles or something more general such as upward and downward spirals or ‘growth and decline cycles’, as Moss Kanter herself calls it at some points in the book.
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