Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How Confident Should a Leader Be?

When leading a change project one of the most commonly accepted pieces of folk wisdom is that the leader needs to be very confident about the outcome of the project. We recently worked with a leader who wanted to express very bold statements about the positive outcomes that would be delivered from successfully implementing their project. However, strong statements of confidence often backfire. What can psychology tell us about when this happens?

In a recent series of studies* psychologists looked at the outcomes of presenting parents with statements about the effects of vaccinations on their children.

Participants were given either strong statements of reassurance (e.g., "There is no evidence that repeated vaccinations overwhelm the immune system") or weak statements (e.g., "There is only sporadic evidence that repeated vaccinations overwhelm the immune system").

Contrary to what you might think, the participants who received strong reassurances actually reported feeling most worried. The researchers found a couple of reasons this might be.

One reason is that a strong reassurance of no risk is very attention grabbing. Imagine buying a foreign car you’re not familiar with and hearing the salesperson tell you not to worry: “There is no credible evidence these vehicles have ever blown up, killing all the occupants.” OK, now I’m worried! Strong statements can highlight risks in ways you might not have even considered before.

Another reason strong statements can be counterproductive is they prompt the listener to respond with strong counterarguments of their own. “Buying foreign cars strengthens our diplomatic position overseas and helps eradicate poverty in third world countries.” Such a definite statement makes people think of all the qualifications and examples when it wouldn’t be true.

We always advise project leaders to be conservatively optimistic. They should paint a positive picture of the future for their audience without making excessive statements. We advised our aforementioned client to back off a little on the bold optimism.

The takeaway? When it comes to speaking positively of the future some leaders go too far. The result? They set up their colleagues to view their statements with suspicion and cynicism.

*Betsch, C, and K Sachse. "Debunking Vaccination Myths: Strong Risk Negations Can Increase Perceived Vaccination Risks." Health Psychology (2012).

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