It is often posited that in the dog-eat-dog corporate world, overconfidence has created a narcissistic, incompetent workforce which does little to nurture healthy company culture or support growth. We all know someone we believe to be entirely hot air, and constantly question how they reached such dizzying heights of power in the first place.
In his 2013 book, Confidence, and this more recent article, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explores the connection between confidence and incompetence at work. He offers some pointers and lessons to those seeking self-improvement. Some of his lessons about danger of overconfidence are even more relevant today.
According to Premuzic, most people are not as good at their job, nor many other things, as they would like to believe: ‘People see themselves as better than average across virtually any domain of competence – for example, cooking, sense of humour, and leadership – even though, by definition, most people are average.’
If you want to understand why some companies have a toxic culture, underperform relative to their potential, and eventually collapse — look no further than the quality of their leadership teams. While competent leaders inspire high levels of trust, engagement, and productivity, incompetent ones result in anxious, alienated workers who practice counterproductive work behaviours and spread toxicity throughout the firm. Consider that the economic impact of avoiding a toxic worker is two times higher than that of hiring a star performer.
A key point from Premuzic’s book is that ‘confidence’ and ‘competence’ are completely separate things. For instance, you might be going to an interview for a job that your skills do not match. You exude confidence, impress your interviewer sufficiently to be given the job and then, inevitably, get the sack. Why would this happen? Having confidence does not mean you are competent. Purely by believing you are good at something, you may also think you don’t need to work hard to get better, nor to change anything. This raises the existential question of whether high confidence is linked directly to a lack of hunger and ambition in employees.
Premuzic created the confidence-competence matrix (above) to explain this link. His matrix suggests that most people fall into the high confidence, low competence category. Wake-up call! Many people strive to be the next Steve Jobs, yet lack the necessary work ethic. These people believe that they are great at their job, things are going well and are generally satisfied, and yet they fail to take feedback, lack ambition and are not great leaders. Some of the most successful people, according to Premuzic, fall into the high competence, low confidence category. These people are perfectionists, who constantly criticise themselves and are never satisfied. They have realistic confidence and, as a result, are more motivated and self-aware.
How can we solve this problem within businesses?
As a starter, those (like us) who assess leadership candidates need to improve their ability to distinguish between confidence and competence. At ORESA we have dedicated much of the past few years to fine-tuning our approach and distinct methodology for assessing leaders. The result: 98% of candidates in place after 12 months and 4 years of average tenure – a very good ROI for our clients.
The traditional interview format champions the ego and perhaps only tests a candidate’s ability to embellish their own skills and career, dazzling interviewers to a degree that overshadows the less gregarious characters. Does this mean we’re fated to hire those with more confidence than tried-and-tested aptitude? At ORESA we believe that both qualitative and quantitative data are required and that a deep holistic approach ensures results. This is imperative especially when, for us, leaders need to demonstrate humility and confidence in equal measure.
How can we address this in ourselves?
On a personal level, we need to take a step back to examine how we’re conducting ourselves in our professional lives, and how often we find ourselves ‘faking it’ rather than admitting that we’re out of our depth. It’s important to recognise that confidence plays a vital role in your success in all areas of life, but equally key to distinguish between the beneficial and the detrimental. Take some time to understand your environment; company structures that encourage a kind of toxic competition inevitably breed employees who learn to shout louder than their colleagues. It’s worth remembering that with leadership power comes a responsibility to support those junior to you, rather than blindly concentrating on climbing higher.
Premuzic also makes the point that those with excess confidence are the last to take criticism: ‘the more successful and powerful you are, the more that people will suck up to you, even when they think poorly of you.’ We can all learn a lot by actively seeking constructive criticism, and by taking it on board. Few employees have the confidence to criticise their boss, but encouraging an open channel of good and bad feedback is one way to keep your self-awareness up to date.
One of the important lessons from Premuzic’s book is that in order to be successful, you must be both ambitious and self-critical. Stay dissatisfied no matter what you achieve and look for ways to improve, innovate and grow. Having confidence will make you feel better; being competent will make you be better. You’d be well advised to swap self-confidence with self-awareness. As Oliver Burkeman noted, ‘the solution to a world run by overconfident fools is not to make the other half overconfident too’.