Yang: Appearing Confident ≠ Being Competent

Appearing Confident ≠ Being Competent
By ELENA YANG

Do we know, with high confidence, how to discern competence from confidence? I am sure we have encountered, or dare I say, even been fooled, by people who act confidently but who really are borderline nincompoops. If we were fooled, we usually keep quiet lest we appear incompetent ourselves.

Last week, my column focused on Amy Cuddy’s research that demonstrates the value of “faking it till making it.” She would argue, from her own experience and research, that there are plenty of people who are genuinely competent but doubt themselves and therefore appear to lack confidence. Her research basically offers one strategy to help truly competent people to realize their potential. 

In today’s column, I offer a slightly different take on this topic: adopting a confident appearance is often used to mask the lack of skills. Recently, HBR (Harvard Business Review) Blog Network posted an article with blatantly provocative title, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” (link below), written by Professor Tomas Charmorro-Premuzic, of University College of London. He tosses a few morsels, in this article, for us to chew upon and debate. 

Professor Charmorro-Premuzic argues that men tend to act as if they have more leadership skills than they actually possess, and thus get promoted. Women tend not to do so, and that’s partly responsible for the lack of women in leadership positions, especially at the higher levels. And the reason for such disparity is that most of us don’t discern, can’t or won’t, between competence and confidence, or between genuine sills or talents and charm & charisma. 

Indeed, many competent people don’t feel the need to act confidently, and too many confident-looking people are actually insecure. 

One of Charmorro-Premuzic’s arguments is that “arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent.” While research does bear out this notion, it is yet another tendency most organizations ignore. Put another way, we can say, “The best leaders are usually humble.” (From Jim Collins’ “Level-5 leaders” in “Good to Great,” which I discussed before. Link below) However, humility doesn’t get much media coverage nor academic research emphasis. (I guess humility is not exciting unless the humble leader is acting counter-culturally, as Pope Francis has recently been saying and doing.)

And part of what makes a person humble is manifested in his/her level of “emotional intelligence.” On that dimension, in general, women outperform men. Let me state this once more: men who exhibit emotional intelligence tend to be regarded as “weak,” “indecisive,” and/or perhaps, “lacking leadership.” In abstract, we say we want to see respect, humility, or emotional intelligence in leaders, yet, we keep “rewarding” managers and leaders exhibiting the opposite behavior. Sheryl Sandberg in her “Lean In” (link below) still advocates for women to behave more like men in order to climb up. 

One of the most interesting passages in Charmorro-Premuzic’s article is this: 

“…the mythical image of a “leader” embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favorite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or Steve Ballmer)or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician) personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager will fail precisely for having these characteristics.

My fault with this passage is that while there are plenty of “average” managers exhibiting these mythical characters (and failing), there are just as many of them who don’t “fail.” In fact, so many of them get rewarded that others want only to copy their “behaviors,” acting as if they are confident, as a means to the top. 

Needless to say, this article got a lot of readers’ responses. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, nor do I care, to wade through all of them. The few top comments on this article, mostly objecting or critical, seemed to be penned by men. However, one of them offered a legitimate alternative to the article’s title, “Why Do Many Incompetent People (emphasis mine) Become Leaders?” Indeed, thus far, most women who have gotten to the top levels seem to be just as belligerent, arrogant, and self-centered as many of their male counterparts are. 

While there are pockets of remarkable leaders in politics, businesses, and other arenas, they usually don’t attract attention. And by definition, people with humility would not seek attention. Our society (and there are plenty of others, I am afraid) is obsessed with the charismatic leaders who may or may not have true humility – which is ironic, recalling how George Washington was so adamant about yielding the Presidency after his second term (“ … I had rather be in my grave than in my present situation…”) and only reluctantly accepted the office in the first place (“…my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties…”)

Are there ways to restore our cultural admiration for humility? I am thinking…  If you have any wisdom to offer, please speak up, confidently and competently.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Referenced Links:

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.

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