5 ways CEOs' lack of confidence affects middle management - SmartBrief

All Articles Leadership Management 5 ways CEOs' lack of confidence affects middle management

5 ways CEOs’ lack of confidence affects middle management

What does CEO confidence mean for the rest of the organization?

5 min read


5 ways CEOs' lack of confidence affects middle management


In September 2018, PwC interviewed 1,378 CEOs in more than 90 territories regarding the global business climate in 2019. The company released this report recently. One major finding was that CEO confidence was at an all-time low. Specifically, 30% of CEOs projected a decline in global economic growth compared to 5% the previous year. Overall, there was a 12% decline in CEO confidence.

When there is low CEO confidence, operations can be affected in a number of ways. As a result, middle management can be significantly affected. When confidence is eroded, it hampers the mindset of the entire workforce. It’s middle managers who then have to bear the brunt of connecting motivated workers with the disillusioned, though demanding, C-suite.

Low confidence can obscure a growth mindset. If CEOs see fewer possibilities, so will middle managers. Because the brain is less stable without a growth mindset, people will feel less intrinsically motivated. Even when people have grit, this will not translate into effective execution of strategies. In the brain, grit needs a growth mindset in order to come alive.

Also, without this growth mindset, it’s hard to be receptive to corrective feedback. If people are on the wrong path, they might try to ignore this or any feedback along the way. As a result, when they are lost, they will feel out of control and be less mindful. Also, confidence boosts motivation and activates control mechanisms in the brain. And managers might not realize that they are expecting the worst because the brain introduces this bias under conditions of uncertainty. This bias can spread throughout the organization.

When low confidence obscures a growth mindset, increases uncertainty, decreases intrinsic motivation, compromises grit, decreases control, and decreases responses to feedback, workers are likely to simply trudge along with the full expectation of despair looming around the corner. They will not be internally driven or responsive. And this is what middle managers will have to deal with as they try to answer to the expectations of the C-suite.

To avoid this conundrum, I suggest that managers learn what I refer to as existential confidence. Jim Selman and I have developed this idea to help CEOs and managers learn how to embody a confident state of being at times of uncertainty. As opposed to ordinary confidence, existential confidence requires a different set of mental skills, attitudes and ways of being.

When you are existentially confident, you are less concerned about the probability of success, and you use language related to the possibility of your goals. You cannot calculate probability in a world in which the variables are constantly changing, so the first thing you do is commit to a possibility that you define. You refine this possibility until you believe it. Based on a growth mindset, this offsets ordinary confidence so you can entertain the other guidelines or assumptions.

For instance, during the financial meltdown of 2008, Starbucks was not asking about the probability of success. Instead, Howard Schultz led his team to success by exploring possibilities.

Then, you reflect on the fact that your brain expects the worst when uncertainty changes and biases it. Knowing that 75% of people will mispredict when bad things are going to happen under conditions of uncertainty, you simply use self-talk to say, “I may feel like the worst is going to happen, but I simply do not know what will happen. Uncertainty does not imply disaster.”

I recently worked with a company undergoing an uncertain merger. The senior leader was at first very negative, but, upon using this framework, he suddenly felt relieved. The merger process was successful, and felt light and encouraging because he could also see the positive.

An existentially confident leader will also learn how to navigate without control. To do this, he or she must take the reins of imagination, simulation, and imitation and manifest this. Rather than look for what to control, an existentially confident leader engages others by asking them to create ideas and pictures of the future internally. Specific kinds of imagery (e.g., how to overcome adversity) can improve confidence. As Elon Musk points out, life is not just about problem-solving. Sometimes, you have to lead your life with your inspired ideas.

When you’re not confident, you might imagine that you should start setting goals. But goal-setting can overactivate the sympathetic nervous system and interfere with success. Rather, being compassionate is the best way to get results. For example, Southwest Airlines is known to be the airline that love built. And its compassionate strategies have been a cornerstone of the brand and its profits.

So when you’re faced with eroding ordinary confidence, turn to existential confidence instead. It’ll help you transcend the limits of the world you see so you can live in a world that you imagine.


Srini Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and award-winning author of numerous books, including “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind.” He serves as a part-time assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is a LinkedIn educator.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadershipcareer growth and HR, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.