Leaders often describe the confidence of others, and yet the word “confidence” is one of those too-easy-to-use words that gets bandied about without enough care as to what it is describing or truly means. I am sure we mostly use it intending well, but it is a lumpen word that we should be far more careful around.

Consider the manager who notes how their colleague “…was full of confidence before the meeting actually took place”. There are interpretations that are benign and interpretations that undermine.

We can be “over-confident”; or suffer a “loss of confidence” and even “lack the necessary confidence to inspire confidence”. Confidence can be “misplaced” or “absent” or “earned”. Context may be everything, but I distrust a word that is so judgemental, and yet defies description.

We fool ourselves, or permit unkindness, if we allow such an imprecise idea to carry a sense of something that is capable of being weighed precisely; like a real ingredient in a real recipe for success. A little too much, or not quite enough, but always detectable (apparently) to the discerning (or should that be “confident”) palate.

Yet, when we try to pin the word down, to give it meaning, suddenly it has no weight at all. It is a puff of wind, sometimes adding nothing, but often with a scent of something malodorous; it is adjectival flatulence.

Confidence is an idea that carries next to no explicit meaning, but which allows the user to create a plausibly deniable narrative for their entirely subjective, but frequently passive-aggressive judgements.

It is a lazy word for the lazy manager which they can dispense without a care that they might be judged themselves. It is a junk word full of calories, but with no nutritional value whatsoever. A word that denies meaning, but which carries the likelihood of misrepresentation. Uncomfortably it feels to me that it is also an entry level word for the proto-bully.

“I just feel you lack the confidence to go to the next level”.

“I thought you showed a lack of confidence dealing with X, perhaps a leadership role is a little soon for you”.

“You presented a little too confidently, I’m not sure the meeting was with you”.

Explicitly these words add nothing to help understanding, but implicitly they suggest a low-level power game where the idea of “confidence” disguises a thread-pulling undermining that is at the dark heart of intentional unkindness.

My request is that we do not provide cover for the games some people play. Let us therefore use language that will precisely convey the feedback we want to give our colleagues, and which is therefore unambiguously infused with a genuine desire to inform and inspire those we are helping to find hope and joy in their potential to progress.

Leadership requires us to use our words with care.

Take care.