Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Confidence Too

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How do you think you would be received if you embarrassed people in power either political or religious power, not by claiming more or perhaps better knowledge, but simply by asking logical questions that pointed out inconsistencies and inadequacies in their decision-making, showing that the rationale for the various beliefs that they held dear was full of holes? What if you were so confident that your questioning approach was a method that could be utilized to uncover the truth and create a path toward greater understanding, and perhaps better decision-making, that you incessantly applied it every day until you had a both a following and a significant group of detractors?  If you were Socrates, causing that embarrassment would lead to the death penalty on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and disbelieving in the ancestral gods. He was so confident in his approach, now called the Socratic Method that he was willing to die for his beliefs.

Where did that level of confidence come from? How could he be so sure he was right? In essence he did not believe he was right about the content of anything, about his knowledge, what he stated he had was “an open awareness of his own ignorance”, a belief that he felt that those in power did not possess. What he believed in was his method, his approach that if followed would lead to greater insights, and that ordinary people could be taught to question traditional notions and by doing so would be leading a more fulfilling life. Heresy! His belief in his questioning approach was so strong that during his trial he is reported by Plato to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, as he rejected offering up exile or silencing as alternatives to the death penalty to be imposed by drinking Hemlock.  How many scientists do you know today who would be willing to die for the right to conduct experiments, or follow a line of inquiry in order to do hypothesis testing?  

It is speculated by some scholars that the charges were brought against Socrates because of a sense of pessimism that had engulfed democratic Athens after their devastating loss in the Peloponnesian War to the oligarchic Spartans, a loss of confidence in their political system, and the hunt for a potential scapegoat. You can almost hear the maneuvering, the rationales being offered as to why Athens lost to its rival. “It is that trouble maker Socrates, always questioning, tearing us down, trying to destroy our way of life, never following our lead. He has corrupted our youth by sowing doubt and has brought down the wrath of our gods by questioning their legitimacy. Death to Socrates!” It is easier of course to look back at the ancient past and to state that their behavior appears silly, for we would never act that way today, tearing down those that question our beliefs, would we? 

What is confidence? How is confidence acquired? Why are we confident?  What are the consequences of a loss of confidence? From a scientific standpoint, confidence can be described as being certain that a hypothesis is correct, and through research numbers can be ascribed to your findings which are interpreted or hedged using a confidence interval (99% or 95% confidence intervals being generally accepted standards), but it is also a psychological construct that is generated by and in what the individual believes to be true, personal hypotheses, if you will. An accountant might say, “I have absolute confidence in my facts and figures and I will stand behind them 100%.” I can also have confidence in my political leadership, my religious beliefs, my doctor, family members, my mailman, my lawyer (well, maybe not). But confidence regarding individuals or institutions and in what you believe to be true about them is often limited to certain very specific circumstances. I have confidence that my mailman will deliver my mail, he has a very good track record over the years, and I know he has the US Post Office standing behind him to support him in his efforts. And while I have that confidence in my mailman, I will not have confidence in him to interpret my EKG results. That piece of confidence I will reserve to my doctor, who I have confidence in because of her track record as my doctor (she once saved my life when I had pneumonia), experience, training, and because of the hospital she works at, which gives her legitimacy because I am going to assume would not let her practice there unless she was competent. In both of these cases I have confidence in these people, in specific circumstances because of their own personal characteristics and because of the organizations with which are somehow affiliated, either through training, experience, or employment.       

Confidence is very commonly used and fairly widespread. There are formal on-going efforts to measure Investor Confidence, Consumer Confidence, Purchasing Managers Confidence, and CEO Confidence. There are numerous self-help courses aimed at improving your self-confidence in a wide variety of situations, there is the statistical use of confidence intervals and confidence limits, politically some governments face no confidence votes, and on the dark side of the law there are criminals called Confidence Men. Our current economic situation has been called by some a Crisis of Confidence and some founding fathers somewhere thought it was a good idea for the future of their towns to name them Confidence including, Confidence, Iowa, Confidence, California, and Confidence, West Virginia.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 1, 2009 at 8:20 am

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