Monday Mornings with Madison

The Many Facets of Leadership – Part 3

Word Count:  1468 

Estimated Read Time:  6  min.

Mistaking Confidence for Competence

Hiring managers often claim to prefer employees with the right character traits and organizational fit over those with the right education, training, skills and experience.  They want people with a positive attitude, drive and passion.  But what they are really looking for are people who exude confidence.  Finding a highly confident employee is viewed like striking gold!  Why?  Confident people are seen as being self-assured, reliable, assertive, positive, dependable and steady.  Confident people also tend to be charismatic, extroverted, and have strong social skills.  In most cultures, these are highly desirable qualities.  Also, in practically every culture — but especially in the technologically-advanced, developed world – confidence is equated with competence.  We automatically assume that confident people are able, skilled and talented.

On the surface, this sounds right.  Who doesn’t want to hire a confident go-getter!?  However, this is the epitome of judging a book by its cover.  Managers often hire people based on confidence rather than on their actual ability to do the job.  That’s because employers commonly confuse confidence for competence.  In fact, they even sound alike.  This is especially true when filling leadership positions.  Unfortunately, confidence is the pyrite — or Fools Gold — of leadership traits.  On the surface, confidence looks like competence… attractive and desirable.  Employers trick themselves into believing that confident people make competent leaders… and that confidence is better than modesty, especially in a leader.  The manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential.  In reality, confident people are often not competent at all.  Why is that?  And, if that’s so, how can companies learn to distinguish between cotton-candy confidence and real competence?

The Competence-Confidence Conundrum

Confidence and competence are not related, connected or even correlated.  In fact, there is a huge gulf that separates confidence and competence.  Let’s start by considering each concept on its own.

Confidence has two facets.  The external facet of confidence looks a lot like extroversion.  Extroverts are typically more charismatic than introverts, especially in western cultures.  They are usually charming and personable.  People are drawn to outwardly confident people, like moths to a flame.  But there is also an internal facet of confidence.  One can be internally confident without necessarily projecting that to others.  That quiet confidence is exemplified by modesty and may even seem like insecurity when compared to highly confident people.

Competence, on the other hand, is a feature that is not readily visible.  Competence is when a person has practiced a skill so much that it has become second nature and can be performed easily.  Competence means the skill can even be performed while executing another task. The person may even be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.  But a hiring manager cannot just look at a potential hire and see their level of competence in any given skill.  That’s because person’s level of competence is not outwardly visible unless or until the skill is performed.  When the skill is something that can be seen or heard, such as hammering a nail or playing an instrument, competence can be gauged.  However, when it comes to leadership abilities, competence is much harder to assess.  These skills usually emerge over time based on situations and circumstances.  It is precisely because leadership talent is not outwardly visible – and therefore leadership competence is hard to spot — that confidence is inserted as a substitute for competence.

However, research shows that arrogance and high levels of confidence are inversely related to genuine leadership talent — as defined by the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group. Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders have been found to be humble — not people who pretend humility, but rather those who are genuinely humble.  And those who demonstrate strong “modesty behaviors” usually have a high level of emotional intelligence, which is also strongly tied to leadership.   So there is actually an inverse negative relationship between confidence and competence.

Attracted to Confidence

Research shows that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to choose highly confident individuals as leaders. In fact, they tend to gravitate toward self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic people.  Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud argued that the psychological process of leadership occurs because a group of people — the followers — have replaced their own narcissistic tendencies with those of the leader.  He explained that “Another person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own… as if we envied them for maintaining a blissful state of mind.”  That may or may not be the reason why people are drawn to highly confident people… but there is no doubt that they are.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, has written extensively on confidence.  His book, entitled Confidence, focuses on this personality trait.  Chamorrow-Premuzic sees this trait as closely related to promotions and professional upward mobility.  A review of various scientific studies shows that those individuals who were highly confident – to the point of arrogant – were more likely to be promoted to positions of leadership.  The study, which included thousands of managers from across all industry sectors and 40 countries, showed that people who were consistently highly confident (perhaps even boastful to the point of arrogant) were more likely to rise to the top of the corporate or political ladder.  Their strong confidence was, in large part, responsible for their rise to the top.

Ironically, the studies also showed that this same character trait was also responsible or correlated – in part — for their downfall.  Managers who were highly confident were found to have a much higher rate of failure than those who were modest.  Overconfidence was used to mask ineptitude.  So the quality it took to get the job was not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it took to do the job well.  Studies showed that too many incompetent people were promoted to management jobs and promoted over more competent (but modest) people.

In fact, it appears that the ideal image of “a great leader” embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders related to overconfidence…. narcissistic, psychopathic, histrionic or Machiavellian personalities.  As such, those highly-confident personality traits are found in abundance leading the top of Fortune 500 companies, high-level elected government offices, sports franchises and entertainment outlets.  And those outwardly confident leaders — whether in politics or business — also often fail.  A look at turnover rate, declining revenue, and plummeting approval ratings confirms that the majority of nations, companies, societies and organizations are – in fact — poorly managed.  For this reason, there is a huge imperative for hiring managers to look beyond confidence to genuine competence in the search for qualified people who can truly do a job.  Indeed, author and sociologist Malcolm Gladwell once said “Incompetence annoys me.  Overconfidence terrifies me.”

The Search for Competence

Most of the character traits that are truly advantageous for effective leadership are predominantly found in those who fail to impress others about their talent for management. There is compelling scientific evident that quietly confident, modest people are more likely to adopt more effective leadership strategies than highly-confident, boastful individuals. In a comprehensive review of studies, Alice Eagly and colleagues showed that quietly confident, genuinely competent managers were more likely to elicit respect and pride from their followers, communicate their vision effectively, empower and mentor subordinates, and approach problem-solving in a more flexible and creative way — all characteristics of “transformational leadership” — as well as fairly reward direct reports. In contrast, highly confident managers were statistically less likely to bond or connect with their subordinates, and they were relatively more inept at rewarding them for their actual performance.

The question then is how to avoid confusing confidence for competence especially for positions of leadership.  The search for genuine competence in leaders can be a challenging one.  The first step is in just knowing that this is a common error and working hard not to fall prey to the confidence trap.  The next step is in evaluating candidates for positions of leadership by judging them on qualities that are measurable…. skills that can be performed in person, certifications and degrees earned, jobs done, references from objective sources, a portfolio of work samples, and phone interviews where certain aspects of overconfidence carry less weight.  These measures are far more objective and point to competence rather than confidence.  Also, hiring managers should ask questions related to a candidate’s career failures and setbacks help gauge if a person can speak humbly about mistakes, missteps and lessons learned.  The goal is to find individuals with a real track record of competence combined with a quiet confidence that whispers, not screams.

Quote of the Week

“Overconfidence in one’s own ability is the root of much evil…. This type of vanity, combined with ignorance of conditions the knowledge of which is the very A B C of business and of life, produces more shipwrecks and heartaches than any other part of our mental make-up.” Alice Foote MacDougall


© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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