Webinar Wrap-Up: Surprises as we Explore the Science of Self-Confidence (Part 1)

When it comes to self-confidence, can leaders fake it til they make it? In other words – if a leader looks confident, but doesn’t quite feel it inside, can anyone tell the difference? How does it impact the impression they’re making on their colleagues, and how they’re perceived as a leader?

When the MRG research team set out to study self-confidence, they ran some initial exploratory analyses. Maria Brown, MRG Head of Research, started looking at the data on over 4,000 leaders, and she came across a fascinating finding:

The data showed no correlation between felt self-confidence and conveyed self-confidence.

This result influenced the direction of our research for our recent webinar, The Science of Self-Confidence: Helping Leaders Gain and Demonstrate the Confidence they Need to Succeed. As we did more digging, we found that there were also no patterns in the behaviors that leaders who felt confident were emphasizing. Leaders who conveyed confidence, however, had some specific behaviors in common.

So with that in mind, it appears we can make a greater impact on leaders’ performance by helping them convey self-confidence – regardless of whether they’re feeling it. We explored this subject from several different angles to see how the data can help make our efforts more effective.

The Highlights

  • There are behaviors associated with self-confidence: leaders who convey self-confidence were found to seek more opportunities to be in charge (and felt comfortable taking the reins); focus more on long-term impact; exert more influence and expand their expertise; and to be persuasive, and spend less time prioritizing others’ agendas
  • Demographics make a difference: when we examined the data by age and gender, we found that there were some noteworthy differences. For example, men who act independently and focus on short-range, practical strategies convey more self-confidence; Gen Y leaders who place less emphasis on demonstrating active concern for others convey greater self-confidence
  • Watch out for the risks: there are interactions between leadership competencies and conveyed self-confidence that make a difference in a leader’s impact. For example, leaders who convey a lot of self-confidence but who are unwilling to listen can be seen as aggressive, independent, blunt, and power-minded; leaders whose high conveyed self-confidence is not matched by their ethics may also be seen as aggressive, blunt, independent, and commanding.

Catching Up

If you missed the webinar, you can catch up on the slides and the recording here. With such fascinating data, we also released a supplemental Research Summary with further detail from the study – find it here.

Questions & Answers

It’s not surprising that these findings stimulated some lively conversation among the live webinar attendees. We fielded as many questions as we could during the webinar, but for those we couldn’t get to live, we’re addressing them on the blog.

In this post, Tricia Naddaff will answer your questions about applications.

In part two, Maria Brown tackles your application questions.

Read on for part one of the Q&A:

Q: Would it be too general to say that behaviorally, Baby Boomers are more “command and control,” whereas GenX and Millennials are more people-centric?

A: Some important context to bear in mind as we look at this research: we are not talking about absolute levels of behavior but rather these leaders are using these behaviors more than their generational peers who are seen as less self-confident. When we look at our general generation differences in approach to leadership research, the data suggests that the Baby Boomers are not “command and control” at all (in fact they are the highest generation on Cooperation and Empathy). However, when we look at the relationship between leadership behaviors and conveyed self-confidence, the data suggests that those Baby Boomer leaders who are somewhat more focused on Production, Feedback and Management Focus are seen as more self-confident.

Q: You noted that women who display some more gender non-conforming behaviors are seen as more self-confidence. How do we explain this, when women are often they are “dinged” for some similar behaviors?

A: While women do sometimes get “dinged” for appearing to be “too assertive,” it is unusual for women to get criticized for being too strategic or too persuasive; those are the two non-gender conforming behaviors we see in the conveyed self-confidence research.

Q: Does the combination of Management Focus and Persuasive create a really good additional basis for both conveyed and perceived self-confidence?

A: More emphasis on Management Focus, Persuasive, Technical and Strategic with less emphasis on (Deference to) Authority and Cooperation appear to be widely associated with higher levels of conveyed self-confidence.  We did not find any behavior patterns that were associated with felt self-confidence across our broad study population, suggesting that the behaviors associated with felt self-confidence are likely to be unique to each individual.

Q: Does an organization’s culture influence perceptions of effective leadership behaviors?

A: While we haven’t looked specifically at the relationship between organizational culture and perceptions of leadership effectiveness, we do know that other elements that impact culture (country, industry, organizational function) all impact perceptions of leadership effectiveness in subtle ways.  So it is conceivable that organizational culture could influence perceptions of effective leadership behaviors.  However, while looking at general comparisons across different leadership groups can yield some fairly significant differences, when we look at different leadership groups in terms of effectiveness the differences we see are much smaller and more subtle.

Q: How can you behave with self-confidence – even when you’re perhaps not feeling so confident – and not come across as a phony?

A: We don’t know if the leaders we looked at in the study actually believe they were behaving in a way that suggested they were self-confident, since we found an extremely minimal relationship between conveyed self-confidence (as seen through the perceptions of the observers) and felt self-confidence.  I think from a coaching perspective, we will probably be more helpful to our clients if we coach them on the behaviors associated with conveyed self-confidence (in particular Management Focus, Persuasive, Strategic and Technical) rather than to coach them more directly to the idea of trying to behave as if they feel more self-confident than they actually feel.

Q: It’s interesting to consider how being present relates to conveyed self-confidence.

A: I think this is somewhat related to the aspect of the study that looked at the combination of “Willingness to Listen” (which is very connected to being present) alongside conveyed self-confidence.  When those two observer perceptions were seen together – the level of perceived effectiveness of the leader was significantly greater than those leaders who conveyed self-confidence but were seen as not very willing to listen, and therefore likely to be seen as much less present.

Q: It appears that conveyed self-confidence is heightened with overt/external control or leadership.  Might this be related to what is valued by societal norms?  It doesn’t seem to correlate with how individuals like to be treated by their leaders.

A: The pattern of leadership that was most prevalent with the conveyed self-confidence leaders was not what I would characterize as a very high control pattern of leadership.  Management Focus is about assuming full responsibility for the leadership role; Strategic and Technical are cognitive behaviors associated with longer term thinking and professional expertise; and Persuasive is about engaging people to win them over. While these leaders also showed less deference to authority and placed somewhat less emphasis on cooperation, it does not mean they do not defer to authority or do not cooperate, it just means they relied on those behaviors less than the leaders who were perceived to be less self-confident.

Q: Could you say this supports the concept of “fake it till you make it”? Or in other words, presenting yourself as the person who is in the job you want, versus the one you have?

A: I think it’s less about “fake it till you make it,” and perhaps more about demonstrating leadership behaviors that make people think: “The way this leader behaves makes me feel like they’re sure of themselves.” We want to help leaders focus on using the behaviors that help their stakeholders feel confident in them and their capabilities as a leader, rather than strictly on putting up a facade.

Q: How do you think the generational differences impact inter-generational perceptions -i.e., a leader of one generation perceiving someone of another generation as more or less confident?

A: While we didn’t see any difference in perceptions of self-confidence based on the generation of the leader, we do know that perceptions based on the generation of a leader is an area that can be filled with biases and stereotypes – just look at what has been written about the Millennials for the last few years! We also know that different behavior patterns are associated with perceptions of self-confidence for each generation we looked at. So it is very likely that there is some kind of generational interaction going on relative to these perceptions.


During the webinar, a question arose of how to coach the younger generations – who both appear to be using less feedback – in managing more effectively. One attendee made the following suggestion in response:

A client I have has an expression they use called carefrontation. When a leader is reluctant to have a confrontation, they ask something like ‘do you CARE about this person?’ As a leader, if you do care, you need to let them know when they are behaving in unhelpful or unproductive ways. If you don’t care, let it unfold as it will. This was an interesting perspective for me that encouraged me to have those tough conversations.”

To learn more about the application of this research, read part two of this post.

About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

Connect on LinkedIn

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments