A Question of Confidence

High-profile firings remind how quickly years of gaining your boss's confidence can slip.

It can take years to get…yet it can disappear virtually overnight.

Gaining the boss's confidence is a crucial but often elusive goal that executives have always struggled with. And as anyone whose been following this week's headlines from Washington can attest, that confidence can vanish quickly. It was, of course, an extreme case, but the Trump White House lost confidence in communications director Anthony Scaramucci after just 10 days. In business, activist investors often cite “lost confidence” as a reason for pushing for the removal of a CEO. While each situation is different, they all bring up an important aspect of the boss-worker relationship, namely how to restore lost confidence, or whether it’s worthwhile to even try.

“These situations can become dangerous if emotionally charged,” says Mark Royal, senior principal for Korn Ferry Hay Group. “The first thing to do is take a step back and examine the history and nature of the relationship, and if the lost confidence is the result of one instance, several instances, or a change in the way they are interacting.” Royal says the first step is diagnosing the source of the issue, which can often be distilled into one of four categories: accountability (failing to deliver), judgment/decision (making a bad call), integrity (acting in a way that's self-interested or ethically dubious), or capability (lacking a skill set). Issues of accountability and judgment are easily enough to address and move beyond, provided they are isolated and not repeated. Recovering from a boss’s lack of faith in your integrity or capability is much harder, and ties into job engagement and leadership style.

For example, leaders with visionary attributes set a direction and create a lot of space for people to get there. They expect that missteps will occur, and frequently provide a positive environment for resolving them and moving on. By contrast, leaders with a pacesetting style serve as chief doers and, even with limited interaction and observation, are quick to pull back on individual autonomy if performance doesn’t mean their standards.

Christine Rivers, senior client partner for Korn Ferry Hay Group’s Board and CEO Services practice, says that how clearly success is defined also factors heavily into the confidence equation. Does the employee know what is expected of him and understand the connection between his performance and business goals, for instance. Without that clarity, employees often make assumptions that lead them in wrong directions, Rivers says.

“There needs to be accountability from both sides,” Rivers says.