TITLE: Lack of Confidence and Teamwork
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: November 06, 2007 6:53 AM
Over on one of the mailing lists I browse --
maverick software development
-- there has been a lot of talk about how a lack of trust is
one of the primary dysfunctions of teams. The discussion
started as a discussion of Patrick Lencioni's
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
but has taken on its own life based on the experiences of the
members of the list.
One writer there made the bold claim that all team
dysfunctions are rooted in a lack of trust. Others, such as
fear of conflict and lack of commitment to shared goals, grow
solely from a lack of trust among team members and leaders.
This is, in fact, what Lencioni claims in his book, that a
lack of trust creates an environment in which people fear
conflict, which ensures a lack of commitment and ultimately
an avoidance of accountability, ending in an inattention to
the results produced by the team.
The writer who made this claim asked list members for
specific counterexamples. I don't know if I can do that,
but I will say that it's amazing what a lack of
confidence can do to an individual's outlook and
performance, and ultimately on his or her ability to contribute
positively as a team member.
When a person lacks confidence in his ability, he will be
inclined to interpret every contingent signal in a different
way than it was intended. This interpretation is often extreme,
and very often wrong. This creates an impediment to performance
and to interaction.
I see it in students all the time. A lack of confidence makes
it hard to learn! If I don't trust what I know or can do, then
every new idea looks scary. How can I understand this if I
don't understand the more fundamental material? I don't want
to ask this question, because the teacher, or my classmates,
will see how little I know. There's no sense in trying this;
I'll just fail.
This is, I think a problem in CS classes between female and
male students. Male students seem more likely than females
to bluff their way through a course, pretending they understand
something more deeply than they do. This gives everyone a
distorted image of the overall understanding of the class, and
leaves many female students thinking that they are alone in
not "getting it". One of the best benefits of teaching a CS
class via discussion rather than lecture is that over time
the bluffers are eventually outed by the facts. I still
recall one of our female students telling me in the middle
of one of my courses taught in this way that she finally saw
that no one else had any better grasp on the material than
she did and that, all things considered, she was doing pretty
I see the effects of lack of confidence in my faculty colleagues,
too. This usually shows up in a narrow context, where the
person doesn't know a particular area of computing very well,
or lacks experience in a certain forum, and as a result shies
away from interacting in venues that rely on this topic.
I also see this spill over into other interactions, where a
lack of confidence in one area sets the tone for fear of
conflict (which might expose an ignorance) and disengagement
from the team.
I see it in myself, as instructor on some occasions and as a
faculty member on others. Whenever possible I use a lack of
confidence in my understanding of a topic as a spur to learn
more and get better. But in the rush of days this ideal
outlook often falls victim to rapidly receding minutes.
A personal lack of confidence has been most salient to me in
my role as a department head. This was a position for which
I had received no direct training, and grousing about the
performance of other heads offers only the flimsiest foundation
for doing a better job. I've been sensitized to nearly every
interaction I have. Was that a slight, or standard operating
procedure? Should I worry that my colleague is displeased
with something I've done, or was that just healthy feedback?
Am I doing a good enough job, or are the faculty simply
tolerating me? As in so many other contexts, these thoughts
snowball until they are large enough to blot everything else
out of one's sight.
The claimant on the mailing list might say that trust is the
real issue here. If the student trusts his teacher, or the
faculty member trusts his teammates, or the department head
trusts his faculty, either they would not lack confidence or
would not let it affect their reactions. But that is precisely
the point: they are reactions, from deep within. I think we
feel our lack of confidence prior to processing the emotion
and acting on trust. Lack of confidence is probably not more
fundamental than lack of trust, but I think they are often
orthogonal to one another.
How does one get over a lack of confidence? The simplest way
is to learn what we need to know, to improve our skills. In
the mean time, a positive attitude -- perhaps enabled by a
sense of trust in our teammates and situation -- can do wonders.
Institutionally, we can have, or work to get, support from above.
A faculty member who trusts that she has room to grow in the
presence of her colleagues and head, or a new department who
trusts that he has room to grow in the presence of his dean,
will be able to survive a lack of confidence while in the process
of learning. I've seen new deans and heads cultivate that sort
of trust by acting cautiously at the outset of their tenure, so
as not to lose trust before the relationship is on firm ground.
In the context of software development, the set of tasks for
which someone is responsible is often more crisply delineated
than the set of tasks for a student or manager. In one way,
that is good news. If your lack of confidence stems from not
continuation passing style
works, you can learn it! But it's not too simple, as there are
time constraints and team relationships to navigate along the
Ultimately, a mindset of detachment is perhaps the best tool
a person who lacks confidence can have. Unfortunately, I do
not think that detachment and lack of confidence are as common
a package as we might hope. Fortunately, one can cultivate a
sense of detachment over time, which makes dealing with recurring
doubts about one's capabilities easier to manage over time.
If only it were as easy to do these things as it is to say them!