Certainty Versus Confidence
Leaders of social change can benefit from making the distinction.
Jana Eggers, senior vice president for Products and Marketing at Blackbaud, recently shared with me this terrific quote by Madeline Albright: “Be confident, not certain.”
It’s become my mantra. Confidence without certainty was a trait exhibited by my neighbors in Hoboken, New York City, and the New Jersey Shore during—and now in the aftermath of—Superstorm Sandy. It’s an ethos that I am sharing with my two nieces, ages 7 and 10, as they personalize girl power and unveil their personalities to this complex world.
It has also come to the forefront in my communication coaching. Earlier this month, I coached four researchers as they prepared to speak at the Population Council’s 60th Anniversary Dinner. Each of these executives has advanced in his or her career by conducting careful, complicated, and peer-reviewed scientific research. They have succeeded by presenting highly vetted data, certain of its factualness and findings.
My goal was to assist them in being inspiring and effective speakers. To tap into, surface, and share their confidence with their audience. Certainty of facts and figures alone was not going to engage the audience. Certainty coupled with confidence, however, rocked the house.
Confidence is inspiring. We tend to be less certain of our passion for the solutions we are offering, or of our respect for our colleagues and clients, as we are confident in those emotions.
Confidence invites a listener into conversation, whereas certainty shuts down conversation. Certainty excludes mutuality. Confidence allows for curiosity, and opens us to learning and growth. If you present certainty without confidence, one small nick in the facts of your presentation renders everything questionable. Confidence allows for fallibility and flexibility, and therefore helps you to develop trust with your audience. Think of the sometimes off-putting perfectionism and certainty of Martha Stewart, versus the humility and benevolent confidence of Oprah Winfrey.
I also recently coached a financial officer at a foundation who is eager to be seen as a resource to his programmatic colleagues. He planned on asking his coworkers for examples of times when they were confused by the organization’s financial reporting requirements, and then presenting his expertise on how to address their needs. That approach framed him solely as a purveyor of problems and confusion, and his certainty in having all the answers would surely backfire.
In this case, an appreciative inquiry approach will be both more useful and more respectful. I suggested that he ask his colleagues, instead, about financial reporting situations that were very clear to them. He will most likely learn a lot from asking about what is working. For example, the program officers may tell him about how they are currently accessing the information they need. By asking for and appreciating stories of what is working, he will demonstrate that he has the confidence to learn from others.
Confidence allows you to listen. As Jana explains, “When you’re certain something’s right, you get blinders on.” Certainty tunes others out. It is didactic. Madeline Albright said, "Certainty comes from believing we have learned all there is to know. Confidence comes from the effort to learn all we can."