Monday Mornings with Madison

Self-Confidence and the Goldilocks Effect

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Estimated Read Time: 5 min.

The Confidence Spectrum:  Insecurity, Self-Confidence and Over-Confidence

Everyone wants to boost their self-confidence.  It is an essential quality in business.  It’s the lifeblood of sales professionals and a key characteristic of leaders and managers.  It’s also a crucial trait of entrepreneurs who need to raise capital, negotiate deals and prompt productivity.  In fact, it’s a pretty fundamental trait for success in most professions.  Why is self-confidence so important?  Here are 3 reasons.

  1. Self-confidence spurs action. Meriam-Webster Dictionary defines self-confidence as “a feeling of trust in oneself and in one’s abilities, qualities and judgment.” [1] But top psychologists who have studied the issue of confidence believe that self-confidence is more than a feeling.  One of the clearest, and most useful, definitions of self-confidence was created by Richard Petty, an Eminent Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University, who’s spent decades studying confidence and behavior.  He said “Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.”  If action is fire, then self-confidence is the matchstick that ignites the fire.   So it turns out that one of the best ways to spur action and increase productivity is to boost self-confidence.
  2. Self-confidence is tied to achievement. Moreover, self-confidence is not just an impetus for action.  It’s also a great predictor of achievement.  Studies show that, when it comes to academic performance, confidence is a much stronger predictor of success than self-esteem. A study of 600 students conducted by professors Lazar Stankov, Suzanne Morony, and Lee Yim Ping at the National Institute of Education in Singapore found that confidence is a much better predictor of achievement than any other non-cognitive measure. [2] In fact, confidence has been found to be even more important than competence for success.
  3. Self-confidence is the foundation for leadership. Self-confidence has been found to be critical – perhaps even essential – for leadership success.  According to Inc. Magazine’s Leadership Forum, “Self-confidence is the fundamental basis from which leadership grows. Trying to teach leadership without first building confidence is like building a house on a foundation of sand. It may have a nice coat of paint, but it is ultimately shaky at best. While the leadership community has focused on passion, communication, and empowerment, they’ve ignored this most basic element and in the process they have planted these other components of leadership in a bed of quicksand.” [3] That likely explains, in part, why males – who consistently exhibit higher levels of self-confidence than women in every study – are more likely to get promoted and to hold most of the leadership positions in government, business, higher education, etc.  More about that below.

That said, it is important to understand that self-confidence is not the same thing as self-esteem, although people mistakenly think those two terms are interchangeable.   Believing in one’s own abilities, qualities and judgment is not the same thing as believing one is great.  A high degree of self-confidence is strongly correlated to action, achievement and success, while a high degree of self-esteem actually has had the opposite correction in which people perform worse, achieve less and do not succeed.  In other words, it’s good to think “I am capable” but bad to think “I am great.”

Too Little Confidence

So what happens when people lack self-confidence?  An absence of or lack of self-confidence results in insecurity, hesitation and self-doubt.  In business, those words are anathema to success.

Katty Kay and Claire Shippman wrote about the consistently lower level of self-confidence found in women, as compared to men. [4] They went on to publish “The Confidence Gap”, a book which elaborated on the connection between the lack of confidence of women in business and the gaps in female representation in Boardrooms and leadership positions.   It doesn’t account entirely for why women earn less, get promoted less and only make up 5% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.  But it does help to paint a picture of how lack of confidence affects career trajectory.

Competent, qualified, capable women are less likely to requests raises, apply for promotions, and request the best assignments because they are not confident that they are as competent, qualified or capable as male applicants, even if they are.  Lack of confidence means they take fewer swings at the ball.  Indeed, lack of self-confidence causes people to take less chances, assume fewer risks and not pursue as many opportunities.  Lack of self-confidence also drains motivation.  And lack of self-confidence causes people to be less open to learning and taking on new challenges.

Too Much Confidence

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, is too much self-confidence – or over-confidence – which results in arrogance or hubris.  This is described as having unmerited confidence or believing oneself capable or correct to a level that exceeds reality.  And when taken to its furthest extreme, over-confidence can lead to narcissism.

Many think that there is no such thing as too much confidence.  In fact, some think that overconfidence – believing you’re better than what is actually true – is actually valuable because it increases ambition, morale, resolve, and persistence or the credibility of bluffing.  They argue that this generates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which exaggerated confidence actually increases the probability of success.

However, studies show that this rationale is incorrect.  Overconfidence actually sets the stage for mistakes and poor judgement.  The consequences of unsupportable confidence have plagued organizations for ages.  As evolutionary biologist Dominic Johnson and political scientist James Fowler wrote in a 2011 article in Nature magazine, “overconfidence leads to faulty assessments, unrealistic expectations, and hazardous decisions.” [5] In fact, overconfidence is believed to be a primary contributor to market bubbles, financial collapses, policy failures, disasters and costly wars.  It could be argued that the recent Great Recession was caused, in part, by the overconfidence that generated a real estate bubble.  So the goal is to have the right amount of self-confidence.

The Right Amount of Self-Confidence

Like the Goldilocks story, Goldilocks finds that the bowl of porridge was too small, then too big, and then found the one that was just right.  In the story, this repeats with the chairs and the beds.  A sort of Goldilocks Effect seems to exist when it comes to confidence… too little is bad and too much is worse.  The goal is to have confidence that is ‘just right’.  So how much is that?  Finding a balance between insecurity and arrogance is a challenge for many.

In truth, genuine self-confidence and overconfidence have nothing in common.  Genuine self-confidence results in comfort. A confident person is comfortable speaking to a powerful executive because he doesn’t doubt the value of his ideas.  A self-confident woman is comfortable admitting ignorance because she doesn’t doubt her intellect and abilities.  A self-confident man is comfortable being silly or playful because he doesn’t base his personal worth on appearances.

The goal is to have the confidence to take chances, try new things, and believe in one’s judgment while trying to be realistic and make sound decisions.  Confidence is based on facts and figures while overconfidence is based on suppositions and speculation.  Knowing your own abilities is confidence but thinking you’re the only capable person is overconfidence.  Confidence says simply, I can do this work, while overconfidence says only I can do this work.  Self-confidence gives a person the freedom to make mistakes and cope with failure without feeling that the world has come to an end or that you are a worthless person.

Quote of the Week:

“Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.”
Samuel Johnson

[2] July 5, 2014, Saga Briggs, Why Self-Esteem Hurts Learning But Self-Confidence Does The Opposite, InformED,

[3] March 1, 2008, Francisco Dao, Without Confidence, There is No Leadership, Inc. Magazine, Leadership Forum,

[4] May 2014, Katty Kay and Claire Shippman, The Confidence Gap, The Atlantic Magazine,

[5] September 15, 2011, Dominic D.P. Johnson and James H. Fowler, The Evolution of Overconfidence, Nature, Volume 477, Pgs 317-320.


© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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