#79 from R&D Innovator Volume 3, Number 2          February 1994

Improving Your Staff's Self-Confidence
by James E. Tingstad, Ph.D.

Dr. Tingstad has managed research at Abbott Laboratories, DuPont, 3M, and Upjohn.  He is past president of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, and has also been a professor of pharmacy at the University of California at San Francisco.  He wrote How to Manage the R&D Staff (AMACOM Press, NY, 1991)

One of a manager's most important responsibilities is increasing subordinates' self-confidence; employees then have a more optimistic—but realistic—view of their skills and talents. 

Increasing self-confidence offers more than psychic rewards.  If employees feel good about themselves, chances are you will notice that productivity and morale both improve.  Why?  First, self-confident people are decisive rather than tentative.  They can focus on their work responsibilities instead of worrying about the reactions of others, and they are optimistic about reaching their objectives.

Second, self-confident people are risk-takers, and taking risks is crucial in technical organizations.  These people are expressive; they forge ahead instead of waiting for someone else to show the way.  People who lack self-confidence, on the other hard, tend to play "catch up" rather than focus on progress.

Third, people who feel good about themselves are likely to increase the self-confidence of those around them.  Self-confident people are respected by colleagues and management, and they return that respect.

One note of caution here:  I'm not talking about over-confidence.  People must accurately perceive their abilities so they will accept tasks that are appropriate to their skills.  Managers play an important role in working with researchers, to assign tasks so individuals can determine for themselves which challenges they can handle. 

Once we decide that improving self-confidence among the staff is a vital responsibility for a manager, how do we go about it?  By accepting, praising, appreciating, encouraging, and reassuring.  Let's examine these actions.


Accept your employees for who they are, not just for what they do.  People who feel valued, rather than feeling constantly scrutinized, will be more secure.  And since secure people are less threatened by mistakes, security fosters innovation.  (By "mistakes," I'm excluding life- or corporate-threatening errors, which clearly require drastic measures.)  Secure employees develop a realistic form of self-confidence, since they are more likely to recognize their deficiencies and admit them to others.

How do we translate this accepting attitude into action?  When you see something you don't like, you may need to stifle the urge to say, "Do it my way."  Instead, both parties may benefit if you let the person continue and learn.  Don't rule out the possibility that you may also learn something--many chiefs' ideas have been proven wrong by curious, intelligent, and secure subordinates. 

It's difficult to maintain an accepting attitude in the midst of others' mistakes, but it will make you a better manager.


Good managers take the time to listen to their employees, and are concerned about employees' self-esteem.  Although we all know how good it feels to be praised, many managers are too insensitive, too busy, or too concerned with their own egos to praise subordinates.

Here are some guidelines:

           Praise must be deserved, otherwise it will be counterproductive (or scorned).

           A spontaneous comment is the most genuine form of praise.

           Never suppress the urge to praise.

           Comments should be specific, so the recipient knows exactly what is being praised. 

           Expand a specific comment into general praise: "That memo was especially persuasive; you definitely have a way with words."

You can praise people by recognizing them as individuals or members of a group.  There are many options here.  For example, sponsor dinners, give out plaques, allow trips to represent the company, or send a formal letter detailing what the employee has done so well.

Usually, the problem is not an inability to find the proper reward vehicle, but rather the manager's reluctance to praise.


Appreciation is akin to praise, but while praise acknowledges that the employee has excelled at some skill or task, appreciation explains what the employee's effort has done for an individual, team or company. 

To appreciate, show your staff how their accomplishments have benefited you (as well as the company), and make it clear that you appreciate their efforts. (If you really have trouble appreciating your subordinates, ask yourself whether you can meet your career objectives without them).

While the value of praise is determined by whether the recipient feels it's deserved, the value of appreciation is largely determined by the giver.  Managers should show appreciation when it's due.  This is the right way to treat people; otherwise, managing becomes manipulating.

Show appreciation through personal comments and notes, but make it sincere:  “I just found out that I’ve been promoted.  It was partly due to your great work.  Thanks!”  You will also find that appreciation will be reciprocated, resulting in a far more pleasant and productive work environment.  Among the most rewarding events for a manager is receiving a note of thanks from a subordinate. 


When does an employee most need encouraging?  After a mistake.  This is when you can help the employee admit errors and learn from them:  One word of encouragement during a failure is worth a whole book of praise after a success. 

It’s important to appreciate that the greatest threat to self-confidence is criticism--even a single remark.  Although some believe "constructive" criticism improves performance and fosters personal growth, criticism is almost always destructive.  Regression, not growth, is the most likely consequence of criticism.

Self-criticism, the only kind you should encourage among subordinates and yourself, is the exception in most work environments. 

Secure and self-confident group members, who see each other as friends, are more likely to self-criticize.  Almost paradoxically, external criticism tends to stifle self-criticism by threatening morale and status.

If the manager frequently finds fault, then group members will become defensive and lose self-esteem.  What is needed is less managerial criticism coupled with increased managerial praise and encouragement.


Reassuring is defined as “restoring to assurance or confidence.”  (Reassuring is directed to someone who generally feels inadequate, while encouraging is a response to something specific, like a mistake.)

Studies have shown that more than two-thirds of business executives have feelings of personal inadequacy and doubt.  I’m sure it’s not only top management, but also researchers, who need reassurance.

People like to be praised for what they do well, but they need reassurance in areas where they are less confident.  Let them know they're making progress in overcoming a deficiency, that their problem is trivial, or that no one is perfect.

James Newton, in Uncommon Friends,  gives a perfect example of the place and power of reassurance:  “When Thomas Edison was improving his first light bulb, he handed a finished bulb to a young helper, who nervously carried it upstairs, step by step.  At the last moment, the boy dropped it.  The whole team had to work another 24 hours to make another bulb.  Edison looked around, then handed it to the same boy.  The gesture probably changed the boy's life.  Edison knew that more than the bulb was at stake.”

The more important a person is to us, the more we need signals from him or her that our relationship is healthy and productive.  Therefore, managers must frequently reassure, particularly in R&D, where the disappointments commonly outnumber the successes.

There is a danger: if you overdo reassurance, the beneficiary might feel patronized.  Reassurance is best done empathically—when you try to see things from the other's point of view and identify with those feelings:  “I know things look pretty dismal now.  That’s the way I felt just before I finally solved that sticky production problem.”

On the most productive teams, leaders and subordinates have a realistic self-confidence.  Researchers' self-confidence can easily be increased or decreased, and it's up to you as a manager to sustain it.  The entire team will find their jobs more enjoyable--and you’ll be ready to tackle the toughest problems.

1-50  51-100  101-150  151-200  201-250  251-300
301-350  351-400  401-450  451-500 501-550  551-600

©2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.