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Unpacking ‘confident’ – and finding inclusion

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Head and shoulders shot of Clare Moriarty
Clare Moriarty, Permanent Secretary, Defra

I confess that I have a bit of a problem with the word 'confident'. Not in the sense that it appears in the Civil Service Leadership Statement, but in some of the ways I hear the word used.

I’ve written here before about the value of showing vulnerability as a leader. Sharing who we are helps make connections with other people and build trust. When I talk to people about this, the response is often, “I wouldn’t want to show vulnerability, it’s important to look confident”. I get where they are coming from, but I think it’s flawed logic.

It takes a lot of confidence to be prepared to show vulnerability, and when we don’t it’s often because we’re unconfident of other people’s reactions. We lack confidence that we’ll be accepted as ourselves. So, as a leader, by showing people myself I’m demonstrating confidence and, even more importantly, giving other people confidence about being themselves. That feels more true to the spirit of the Leadership Statement than the kind of ‘confidence’ that puts distance between us and our teams.

Cartoon of a man and woman on opposite ends of a see-sawAnother place where the word ‘confident’ often pops up is in discussions about diversity. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say that in order to progress, women need to build their confidence. I suspect that women of colour hear this even more than white women. It’s always said with the very best of intentions, by people who really want to see a better balance of men and women in senior roles. And not just in the Civil Service, by the way: it’s a common assumption in all sectors.

But again I think it’s flawed. It’s often said that a woman will only apply for a job if she can tick off every element of the person specification, whereas a man may give it a go if he meets 60% of the spec. I’ve never found the hard evidence for that, but it rings true with a lot of people. Is that about confidence, though, or just differences in style between men (on average) and women (on average)?

When you unpack it, ‘women lack confidence’ can simply mean ‘I don’t see women displaying the behaviour that I naturally associate with confidence’. And if that’s the case, encouraging women to be more confident means asking them to look more like confident men. That will work for some people, but if it’s not my natural style it probably won’t come over as confidence.  

Detail from Diversity & Inclusion graphicIf I try on clothes that don’t really fit me, I feel awkward, and that transmits itself to other people. One woman I know, who is from a Bangladeshi background, was told she should be more assertive – but when she tried to, she was criticised for being brash. A male colleague received feedback after an interview that he’d given great answers but the panel didn’t quite believe them. He is naturally collaborative but had followed advice that he should talk more about ‘I’ rather than ‘we’.  

So, what’s the answer? Well for me, it’s letting people be themselves. Recognising that confidence manifests in different ways, and isn’t about a particular set of behaviours in an interview setting. Doing a bit more to change ourselves rather than just trying to change others. This has the double benefit that celebrating people as they are, rather than as how we think they should be, is a great recipe for building true confidence.

Put another way, this is about making a reality of inclusion. We’re inclusive when we ensure that people feel valued, respected and listened to; when we recognise and value the differences we each bring to the workplace, and allow ourselves to be challenged about whether our way is the right way. I don’t find that easy – I think few of us do – but it’s definitely worth the effort.

The first page of the equality, diversity and inclusion strategy that we’ve been developing for the Defra group says: “Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is about making the mix work.” Opening our minds on confidence feels like a good step towards making the mix work.

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  1. Comment by Gemma Hughes posted on

    I really enjoyed reading this article Clare. I agree that there are a lot of soundbites out there that lead us to believe we should behave in a certain way or exude a certain presence. While books like 'Lean In' make good observations, I don't feel that they can be taken too literally. Organisations advertise for diversity, but as the previous comment states, they have a competency based selection processes that often drives the opposite outcomes.

  2. Comment by Paul Johnson posted on

    Dear Anon (who wrote on 22/12/16)

    I'm sorry to hear about your experience of being rejected for the job you were already doing. Sadly that kind of experience is replicated countless times each year across the Civil Service because of the continued emphasis on competency based selection processes. Claire neatly sums up the absurdity of such systems in her blog:
    "A male colleague received feedback after an interview that he’d given great answers but the panel didn’t quite believe them. He is naturally collaborative, but had followed advice that he should talk more about ‘I’ rather than ‘we’."

    That story will sound depressingly familiar to most people who have engaged with these systems, on either side of the interview table. Essentially this kind of regime pushes selection panels towards promoting egomaniacs - or in some cases, to put it frankly, liars - because it awards them the highest marks.

    So my challenge is: instead of blogging about the injustices of such regimes over which they currently preside, why don't the Permanent Secretaries get together and agree to commission the development of a more equitable system?

    What would a replacement system be like? I don't know, but frankly it cannot be worse than the approach Claire rightly criticises.

  3. Comment by Linda posted on

    I agree that a little vulnerability provides empathy and allows us to relate more sensitively and builds trust. However, there needs to be a time and place. In a working environment it's important that vulnerability is not shown too often as it will be considered weak - especially if you're in a leadership role. It's also important to define 'confidence' - I've met many a 'confident' manager, who is in fact insecure, inept and lacks the knowledge, but they just happen to be good at bluffing and appearing confident.

  4. Comment by Quietly confident posted on

    Early on in my career my boss told me I needed to be more confident. He pointed out that the people who 'do well' are the loud mouths, even if they things they say are way off the mark. I decided to speak out more, and so I forced myself to spout nonsense at every opportunity.

    I left in the end. I didn't want to work somewhere where people were valued according to how many things they could say in a meeting, and where confidence meant singing your own praises at every opportunity. I knew I was good at what I did. I knew I was well liked. I was confident. But not in the way that mattered to them.

    Since then I have had a very fulfilling career in two wonderful organisations. My confidence has grown even more, even though my extroversion has not. What's changed is my willingness to accept myself for who I am and not try to live up to something I'm not. Authenticity is key.

    On another note, having recently been on several interview panels, it is frustrating when candidates say 'we' instead of 'I'. It's just impossible to determine whether the person sat in the chair actually did anything or not - or was it everyone else who did the work? I know it can feel a bit weird, but if you can be specific about your particular role, then it's not a question of whether or not you are being arrogant (I) or modest (we), it just clarifies exactly what your part was - even if you did work collaboratively.

    • Replies to Quietly confident>

      Comment by William posted on

      Dear Quietly confident,
      Oh, how much I agree with you on that.
      In my lowly opinion we have a promotion and recognition system that rewards the loudest noise. We somehow all need to be a "jump up and down look at me" personality to get noticed.
      I will not go as far as calling some of these loud extrovert people liars or criticise their abilities - but there is an old saying - the loudest noise comes from the empty vessel.

      My point is - what about the person that wants to get on with their job and do it well?
      Are they not confident and deserving of notice and, possibly, reward?

  5. Comment by Rob B posted on

    I once studied a social sciences course in which the idea of “structure versus agency” was presented. The idea was that some people tend towards a structured lifestyle, others incline towards less structure and a greater degree of agency or individuality. For the first type the structure itself is foundation for confidence. For the second type it is quite the opposite, the structure undermines confidence; rather, confidence is founded on one’s own individuality.

    Confidence, position and advancement within the Civil Service are currently referenced against two particulars structures - the competency framework and its little brother, Performance Management Review. While encompassing diversity, both of these structures - for being structures - provide for the first type of person only.

    For me, I quite easily compare “structure versus agency” with “collective versus individual” and with “work versus art” (“art” in its constructive, creative sense).

    So I am left wondering: Might “structure” and “agency” actually be compatible? And, properly, are those two types of people just two aspects of any individual? - their varying capacities for work and art? And has the latter been excluded? Is this the real reason for some people’s apparent lack of confidence? Is the competency framework nothing more than a scaffold? Or a blank canvas?

  6. Comment by Suki posted on

    Really great article

  7. Comment by Pete posted on

    Thought provoking but the conclusions are based on an admission of the absence of hard facts and by stereotyping the approach by different genders. If the reader was not aware of the gender of the author I expect the general reaction to the article may be rather different.

  8. Comment by Andy posted on

    Thanks Clare; a good article. Of course, although a lack of confidence maybe applies to more women than men, it certainly does apply to men as well.

    I was a bit unsure, though, whether you were talking about confidence (i.e. can you give a presentation in front of 1,000 people?) or SELF-confidence (i.e. if asked about what you are good at, do you start by listing all the things you are not good at?). I think the latter but I'm not sure. Of course the two are very different. Speaking personally, I have plenty of the former but hardly any of the latter.

    • Replies to Andy>

      Comment by S posted on

      I don't feel as though these types of confidence are different at all. But then, I the opposite of you; I am quietly very self aware and assured about what I am actually good at, and absolutely terrified of giving presentations to even 15 people let alone 1000. I still see that fear as part of my "self" though.

      As a Defra employee, I really appreciate all the work Claire is doing on authenticity and inclusion. I've never been inspired by a Permanent Secretary before. I really hope this attitude prevails throughout the extremities of the department, and at all management levels. It would be a 360 from some of the attitudes I have seen in the past.

      I recently came across the term "radical softness" by Lora Mathis - the notion that sharing your vulnerability and uncertainty can be a deliberate tactic, a sign of a different kind of strength, and that can inspire others who are going through similar problems. That emotions are nothing to be ashamed of, as the cultural suppression of emotion shackles all genders. I welcome this move away from the old, cold paradigm.

  9. Comment by Alison Acton posted on

    What a lovely thoughtful piece, it very much mirrors our views here at the VOA where we are embarking on our own journey to create a better more inclusive environment.
    Embracing and understanding that everyone fits into the Diversity profile somewhere, we all have imperfections and flaws meaning it is impossible to truly describe anyone as perfect - being different is what makes us the amazing creatures that we are.
    By adopting a more accepting cohesive approach we can begin to value and reap the benefits that other people can bring to our lives on both a work and personal level.

  10. Comment by Claire Porter posted on

    Claire, I just wanted to say that I wholeheartedly agree with your comment "It takes a lot of confidence to be prepared to show vulnerability". I know that I respect my bosses more when I know they are being open and honest with me e.g. if they make mistakes and admit it, or share their thoughts over something that they have difficulty with at home or work. We are all JUST people at the end of the day! It's not a sign of brave!

  11. Comment by Michael D posted on

    Thank you for the thoughtful piece and I agree with the thrust that confidence is too often defined and valued by a stereotypical set of extrovert behaviours. there are some actual things that can be done to adjust this beyond general exhortations to be more inclusive. To take your examples:
    - the way the competency framework is being used for recruitment has become formulaic with an expectation of self-promotion and use of the word "I" being a tick-box requirement so that some people are better at playing this new game with exercises in "creative writing" and rhetoric more important than a track record in actual delivery. I guess many of us collude in this by marking people down in sifts who do not conform to the "expected" technique.
    - was being more assertive actually required to improve performance or only the appearance of performance to help during annual appraisal? If the latter, then the system is the issue not the individual. In any case, learning to change behaviour will never be an easy thing to do and people need support when they try not (negative) criticism.

  12. Comment by Dave posted on

    Claire, thank you a very insightful article.

    I think that a major part of the problem here is that "confidence" or rather the lack of what the current Civil Service culture sees as "confidence" is regarded as weakness. In current Civil Service parlance "confidence" = "strength", and "strength" is good. This in turn means that managers, in order to appear "confident" (aka "strong") refuse to accept when their decisions, direction of travel etc. may be incorrect and carry on regardless of evidence to that effect. True confidence (and true "strength") lies in the ability to accept when someone else has a better idea than you do. Someone who is truly confident can say "I was going to do it that way, but having spoken to, and listened to, others I now accept that there is a better way of doing this". This failure to understand what true confidence is, is so endemic amongst senior leaders that one can only conclude that the current recruitment and promotion systems are biased towards identifying and rewarding it. Nothing will change unless those systems change, and there is no sign of that any time soon.

  13. Comment by alex lisle posted on

    I agree with Annette, an "excellent piece of writing". I particularly like the thought of "Doing a bit more to change ourselves rather than just trying to change others." Puts me in mind of some wise words spoken on a mountainside many moons ago about not judging others according to our own imperfect outlook, as if focusing on the straw in another person's eye but failing to notice the rafter in our own is going to prove successful.

  14. Comment by Sandra Popoola posted on

    Clare, thank you so much for sharing your views and thoughts. Really encouraging to hear that we all need to be ourselves. It's become more and more important to me in the last 12 months or so that I guard my 'being' and not try and be what I am not. It's difficult in the workplace to do that because we are expected to wear our organisation's cloak per se and demonstrate the values and culture of our organisation. I don't have an issue with that, because that is equally important, but it should not be at the expense of our individual being.

    And I agree that inclusion is about people feeling valued, respected, listened to and making them feel worthy!

    I'm so grateful for your article!

  15. Comment by Caroline posted on

    Hi Clare, really enjoyed reading your article, cheered up my morning and brought inner sunshine to a damp grey day in the Cambridge office.

  16. Comment by Edem Agboado posted on

    This is an interesting read. I also think that beyond the gender sensitive issues , the amount of information or knowledge one has about his or job and it's impact on the overaching FCO goals also helps to boost confidence.

  17. Comment by Grace posted on

    "Recognising that confidence manifests in different ways, and isn’t about a particular set of behaviours"

    I can't agree with this enough. Having been on the Fast Stream and continuously being assessed against a set standard and compared to others I've been told many times I need to 'be more confident'. I'm very confident in myself and my abilities but have never felt the need to shout about this, my confidence is within. I've also had many times that I have a 'quiet confidence' but said in a way that it's not the right confidence to have and that I should fit the mould and be overtly confident as some of my peers - even though that's not who I am and wouldn't be authentic. It's so refreshing to hear one of our senior leaders understanding that we are all different and that we don't all show confidence in the same ways - thank you for sharing Clare.

  18. Comment by Tia posted on

    I spent most of this article going "yes, this!" which should highlight how true it rang.
    As someone with autism, for example, the common suggestion that 'you need to make eye contact' can range from difficult to downright impossible, especially in a stressful situation like an interview.
    I particularly liked this paragraph:
    "When you unpack it, ‘women lack confidence’ can simply mean ‘I don’t see women displaying the behaviour that I naturally associate with confidence’. And if that’s the case, encouraging women to be more confident means asking them to look more like confident men. That will work for some people, but if it’s not my natural style it probably won’t come over as confidence. "

    Thank you for such an excellent article.

  19. Comment by Susan posted on

    Thanks Claire, really enjoyed this blog. It echoes everything I've felt for years. I especially liked the bit - "A male colleague received feedback after an interview that he’d given great answers but the panel didn’t quite believe them. He is naturally collaborative but had followed advice that he should talk more about ‘I’ rather than ‘we’." I consider myself to be a 'team player' and I know I've lost out in the past for not saying 'I' and using 'we', even though I think 'we' represents more accurately the way I work.

    • Replies to Susan>

      Comment by Anon posted on

      I am an AO grade who has been on TDA as an EO for over 18 months (in my current role) with over 6 years worth of TDA in a 10 year period in total under my belt). I received an "exceeded" marking for my last PMR as an EO (doing the full range of duties that also included my giving on the job training to established EOs). When the role I was doing on TDA as an EO was advertised as a permanent position I, naturally, applied for the post with confidence in my own abilities to do the role. Yes, you guessed it. I didn't get the job. My confidence is now shattered because the feedback basically said "yes you could do the job, but you didn't interview very well because you did not say enough to demonstrate the competencies and we could not give you the required marks".

  20. Comment by Paul Johnston posted on

    Dear Claire - Just wanted to say: Great piece! Paul

  21. Comment by Daniel Stapleton posted on

    Confidence is no measure of ability and never has been. A person may be over-Confident or under-Confident and this is simply a reflection of their confidence level rather their ability.

  22. Comment by Mags McKenna posted on


    I really enjoyed both this article and your previous one. I spoke with a group about engagement recently and the most important factor for them was honesty. Your words speak of being honest about what and who you are, building trust and therefore encouraging people to understand that it's OK if they have vulnerabilities too. Together you will support each other to get the job done to your best capabilities. Great understanding of people.

  23. Comment by Anon posted on

    I really wish that were true but being vulnerable in the workplace from the word go when I got here wasn't a good idea and it still isn't now. I've had to change myself as a person to fit in here, it's like being back at school and I don't see it changing anytime soon.

  24. Comment by Alison Wedge MoJ posted on

    Many thanks for posting this thoughtful blog. My favourite way of describing diversity and inclusion - is that diversity is about being invited to the party, inclusion is about being asked to dance!
    I agree with much of what you say but would take it a small, but I feel, important step further....I think that recognising and valuing the differences we each bring to the workplace is vital - but to truly make inclusion a reality, and enable everyone to contribute to their full ability, I think we need to celebrate and revel in our differences - we need to allow ourselves to be immersed in those differences and create the space for them to flourish, to encourage new ways of doing things and give space to innovative insights. I very much welcome what you are trying to do at DEFRA and offer my support.

    • Replies to Alison Wedge MoJ>

      Comment by Paul posted on

      I like your analogy, Alison, but as a perpetual wall flower I eventually found out that even if someone has been kind enough to invite you to the dance, you still have to have 'something' that attracts a dance partner to ask you to dance with them.

      • Replies to Paul>

        Comment by Amy Farrah-Fowler posted on

        There should be more to a party than dancing. Some wall flowers will wish they were asked to dance; others will be quite happy with engaging conversations away from the dance floor. The danger is that the Civil Service will assume that measures to get everyone a dance partner have done the trick, when they're actually missing out on talents that don't work on a dance floor, and perhaps pushing in an unhelpful direction people who would prefer to be 'always in the kitchen at parties' (to quote a very old song).

  25. Comment by Derrick Christie posted on

    I enjoyed reading your article Clare. Anything to improve inclusion in a work environment should be supported

  26. Comment by Penguin posted on

    I think the issue is more of what people's personal definition of confidence actually is. Unfortunately people mistake confidence with aggressiveness, arrogance, loudness, or egotism, which are not the same things.

    That's where the inner discomfort can arise, if people are naturally not that way inclined but feel pressured into putting on that facade just to get recognition for their abilities.

    True confidence is simply having faith and trust in your abilities to get the job done. If one was truly confident, it's not even necessary to put on a bright peacock feather display of loudness, egotism, aggression, etc. as the confidence speaks for itself.

  27. Comment by Annette Sandy posted on

    What an excellent piece of writing. And so refreshing to hear it articulated so beautifully. Thank you for sharing your insightful and inclusive thoughts.

  28. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Clare for setting out your throughts about the word "Confident".

    From my perspective, I would say that rather that being confident, the key point to having an inclusive organisation is having an environment in which they can be "Authentic".

    I would very much agree with the point made by Charlotte that this particular issue is not just restricted to women but to a much wider audience.

    As a member of the FCO Staff Association Wellbeing Network, one of our aims has been to break the stigma associated with mental health and to seek to create a culture in which colleagues can feel more confident about expressing how they are feeling and having the opportunity to talk about issues that are stopping them from being authentic.

  29. Comment by Rob Neil posted on

    Dear Clare,

    Firstly, thanks for being honest, open and so vulnerable in this space. I happen to agree with much of what you share on the individual journey in 'being confident' but that coincidence is merely a bonus. What's more important is the example you set and the demonstrable lessons on offer. As a long serving civil servant myself (33yrs and counting) I too have faced the uncomfortable challenge of being coached into leading with 'I' statements as a traditionally acceptable way of demonstrating ones ability. However, I have always felt far more comfortable sharing MY truth which is talking about what 'we' achieve through successful collaboration. Authentic leadership exudes and transmits confidence and THAT is what your blog says to me. Thank you for being such an inspiring and authentic leader. Stay Strong. R

  30. Comment by Charlotte Smith posted on

    I dont think "confidence" issues is restricted to women alone. The same is applicable to EVERYONE in the workplace, able bodied, disabled people, the LBT community, religious beliefs and race issues as well. I dont think it is applicable to one sector of the workforce. For example someone may not have confidence speaking in front of an audience, another may be afraid of taking command because they have never done it before or think they will fail, they dont think they will be able to step up to the plate. That sort of thing.

    I also think the lack of confidence in a workplace may not necessairly be down to the individual. It may be well down to the workplace environment they are in. For example a team leader has no faith in a person, or indeed their own colleagues. It does happen.

    As to vulnerability, the truth is we are ALL vulnerable. that is what makes up human. It should be embraced but not made an issue out of. Concentrate instead of the many positive aspect of one's self and at the end of the day...all the world's a stage and we are mere players. You are coming into work to do a job and must put on a workface and act that role. I have phsyical and mental vulnerabilities but i have workplace adjustments in place to accomodate them. But once that is in place, i am expected to get my head down and do my job, as we should all do! That is my role on the perverbial world stage. And we should all focus on that.

    • Replies to Charlotte Smith>

      Comment by Jonathan posted on

      Nicely put Charlotte. I have to say my colleagues at FCO Services have been very accepting and supportive of me coming out as a TV. Something I kept quiet at my last role in HMP - I had no confidence in some of my colleagues to keep their mouths shut in front of prisoners. It's not a forgiving environment...
      The acceptance and support I have now has just made me feel so much better, so much more confident in myself. Whilst I could stand up and speak quite happily in front of a room of people, that other aspect of me was something I avoided before.
      It's intriguing as well how sometimes, just paying someone some attention and giving gentle encouragement, showing you have confidence in them can really boost their own personal confidence. The end result is wonderful.