Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor at University College London, on how confidence masks incompetence. For more, read Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt.
SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast, from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green. Today, I’m talking with Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a regular contributor to HBR, and the author of the book, Confidence. He’s Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, and Vice President of Innovation at Hogan Assessments. Tomas, thanks so much for talking with us today.
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: My pleasure.
SARAH GREEN: So I thought we would just start by talking about how you define confidence. Is it the same thing as being charismatic or extroverted?
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: Well, confidence has two faces an external face and an internal face. And the external face of confidence looks a lot like extroversion– and extroverts are usually more charismatic than introverts, at least in most Western societies. However, one can be internally confident without projecting that to others. And when people see was overly confident, you will be seen as arrogant and even obnoxious, rather than charming are extroverted. Narcissists are a very good example of this.
SARAH GREEN: I guess that kind of raises the question– why do we find confident people so compelling? Why are we drawn to them– even though, as you just pointed out, some of the side effects are not all that great?
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: I think there are two main reasons. So the first one is that confident people tend to be more charismatic, extroverted, and socially skilled– which in most cultures are highly desirable features. The second one is that in virtually every culture, and especially the Western world, we tend to equate confidence with competence. So we automatically assume that confident people are also more able-skilled or talented.
In reality however, there is a very big difference between confidence and competence. Competent people are generally confident, but confident people are generally not competent. There are just good at hiding their incompetence and their insecurities– mostly because they are self-deceived themselves, so they generally think that they are much better than they actually are.
SARAH GREEN: Well this seems worth digging into a little bit more deeply, I think. Tell me, why is it so hard for us to tell the difference between confidence and competence?
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: I think mostly it has to do with us or the judges– whoever is the rating other people– not having the necessary expertise to distinguish between their confidence and their competence. So in short term interactions, it is very hard to get a sense of how competent people are, especially when they use confidence to fake competence, and especially when we’re not experts in that field. There are exceptions. So if you look at American Idol, or singing competitions, we can tell straight away whether somebody is just being confident or whether they have talent.
But then in the long term, or when we do have the necessary expertise to judge competence in a given domain, it is quite easy to discern between confidence and competence. You just look for signals of actual talent, and disregard confidence as just noise. This is why we never offered jobs on the sole basis of an interview– instead, you look for credentials– a track record of achievement in a field, or competence. And I would say that an additional problem is that we mostly have been brainwashed into thinking that confidence will eventually cause competence. Phrases like, “If you believe in yourself you will make it.” Or Henry Ford’s famous, “Whether you think you can do it or not, you’re usually right.” I think it’s much more appropriate to think of confidence as a compensatory strategy for lower competence.
Confidence– it’s just a decoy– it’s the dog that barks because he doesn’t bite.
SARAH GREEN: I want to just pause a little bit on this and ask you, you’ve been pointing out that it’s difficult for a lot of people to tell the difference between some who’s confident and someone who’s actually competent. But as you point out, it seems like confident people may sort of bamboozle the rest of us into giving them maybe more chances to prove that they’re actually also competent. You know, someone sort of walks and says, I can do this job– maybe we’ll give them the opportunity to do it, and maybe they actually will be able to do it. So if you’re even looking at someone’s track record, is that always reliable? Or are people sort of promoted to the highest level of income today– and what looks like a good track record might actually hide some actual incompetence? And I know this is very convoluted, but it’s hard to talk about this stuff.
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: No, I understand. Look, Sarah, the most important thing to understand here is that mostly what we want to know is how competent others are. And you have various ways or paths to get to that. And confidence is a method or a path that most people tend to take. But in reality, it mostly leads to inaccurate evaluations of people’s competence– as said, because the correlation between confidence and competence is very low and because it acts as a detractor. So for example, most people who interview really, really well– if you didn’t have evidence or information on their actual talent or competence, you would assume that they’re great. But in reality, they’re just charming the interviewers during that session. So we tend to rely on confident signs, but our goal is always to understand how competent somebody is– whether that’s a prospective employee, whether that’s a prospective partner, a colleague, a friend, somebody you engage with in a business transaction. So people need to understand that the goal is to know how competent others are. We don’t really care how confident they are.
SARAH GREEN: That’s interesting. I’m wondering– this sort of relates back to something you mentioned earlier as well about overconfidence– is confidence itself in a way dangerous? Or is it only overconfidence that’s dangerous?
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: Well in the right amount, confidence is not dangerous. However, the right amount is a lot less or lower than what people think. It’s confidence that is fully aligned with one’s actual ability. In other words, confidence that helps you understand how good or how bad you are at something– being self-aware and capable of really judging your competence– I think that’s really the original function that confidence was designed to have. And that’s when confidence is really adoptive– when it acts as an accurate barometer or measure what you can do.
But people are generally overconfident– and for the most popular discussions on confidence, imply that confidence is always better when it’s high, regardless of whether it’s accurate. This is unfortunate because we end up ignoring all the toxic effects that confidence has when it’s high. It distorts our perception of danger. So for example drinking, gambling, smoking, driving accidents, reckless risk taking are all caused by having too much confidence. And it also makes us arrogant, lazy, and complacent– which ultimately harms self-improvement and growth. This is one of the main problems with Millennials– Generation Y– who are more narcissistic and entitled than any other generation. So that’s the problem– they think they’re better than they actually are, and this actually decreases the amount of effort and hard work they’re willing to put in.
SARAH GREEN: OK, but question about that– I mean, is that true because they’re Millennials, or just because they’re young and all young people kind of fall into that trap?
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: That’s a very good question, but there are studies who have done proper time lock comparisons between the generations. So you control for age effects on their own, by giving the same of questionnaires on the same test to people of the same age group at different periods of time. So you compare 22-year-olds in the ’70s with the 22 year-olds in the ’90s and now– and you see huge differences in narcissism, and self-worth, and in work ethic. And the more narcissistic they are, the less they want to work.
SARAH GREEN: Well, and it does seem that we do spend– especially in America– an awful lot of time fretting about our children’s self esteem. Maybe we can do our best today to kind of reverse or counteract some of that by talking about some of the benefits of humility. What are some of the benefits that you’ve seen in the research– the benefits of humility?
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And I think we need to look at humility from two different perspectives. First, internal humility operates as a reality check, and it helps you be aware of your weaknesses, it helps you be humble– which means to understand that you’re not a great as you would like to be– and to be more realistic. And you know, when humility can highlight a discrepancy between the person who you want to be and the person who you think you are, it actually drives self-improvement, because you will try to close that gap between your ideal self and you’re perceived self.
And then external humility is not just very important, but very underrated– especially in the US. All of the evidence from psychological research suggests that humility makes you more likable, even in the US. So that is when people perceive that you are more competent than you think you are, they will like you more. And conversely, when they see that you are less competent than you think you are, they will like you less.
SARAH GREEN: In that case, how do we know if what we’re feeling is actual genuine humility, or if we’re just being a bit insecure and actually under-rating our abilities?
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: Well, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s one all the other. Either way, our confidence is highlighting self-perceived deficits in our competence– which makes the case for trying to improve, unless you don’t really care about that area. So whether you’re being humble or insecure– you’re probability not going to start showing off to others, or bragging, or coming across as somebody who is bold and narcissistic, which I think in today’s world is a virtue on itself. And of course, in our short term interactions with others– first encounters, job interviews, first dates– I think to some extent it’s advantageous to hide our insecurities, especially when they’re very big. But really, you can see humility as just a milder version of insecurity. So yes– short term, try to hide it from others– but internally, being aware of your insecurities will actually keep you humble and modest.
SARAH GREEN: Well it’s interesting– you sort of raise an interesting point there that we have debated a lot on HBR.org, which is the merits of faking confidence that you don’t feel. “Fake it till you make it,” is a very popular saying. And you talked a little bit about some of the cases in which it makes sense to do that. But as a general rule, is that something that you think is OK, or would you caution people not to do that.
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: You know, I’ve thought about this a lot– and maybe more than most people– and I did come to a general rule or advice that I have on the faking confidence issue. And my advice is that you should only fake confidence when you’re unable to fake competence. So if you can’t pretend that you’re good at something, then pretend that you’re confident. But when you really are competent– so when you really have skills or talent in a domain– you’re much better off taking modesty than confidence. It will even enhance others’ perceptions of your talent.
But I think there’s one fundamental point that is hardly ever discussed. Which is that the short-term personal benefits of faking confidence come at a very high price– which are the collective deficits in competence. Imagine a world where doctors, teachers, engineers, or pilots are selected on their bases build their confidence, as opposed to their actual ability. I mean, that already happens in the world of politics, and we can see the results.
SARAH GREEN: That is some very good food for thought. And it kind of makes me want to just ask you one more question, which is, putting the shoe now on the other foot, and thinking about a manager who’s leading a team of people and trying to decide who to promote. How can you be sure you’re really rewarding actual competence, and not just throwing the promotions and the raises at the people who maybe seem the most confident, or who self-promote the best? You know, I see a lot of stuff now, telling people to promote yourself and have your personal brand out there. So if people are doing all that stuff, and you’re a manager trying to fairly evaluate who’s actually contributing the most your team, how do you be sure that you’re really rewarding competence, and not just fake confidence?
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: Well the key is first to understand that it’s for everybody’s benefit to do so, basically. So it’s not an act of fake compassion or political correctness or a PR exercise, but something that will boost competitiveness. So you’re quite right– most organizations will promote self-promoters who are quite incompetent except when it comes to taking credit for other people’s achievements, or blaming others for their own mistakes, at the expense of promoting colleagues who are more competent but humble. And then, as you say, we have all these popular essays and blogs written about how to sell brands and how to become more confident speaker– and they’re really just sending the wrong message, which is, this is how you should fool other people into thinking that you’re actually good at this.
So on the other hand, it’s a well-known fact that humility or modesty is the key ingredient of great leadership. So until we stop making decisions on the basis of confidence rather than competence, we will keep having arrogant, impulsive, narcissistic people in charge. And also, we will keep making it hard for women, who are usually both more humble and competent than men in these domains, from rising to the top. So once we accept this, all we need to do is focus on assessing actual talent instead of getting distracted by people’s confidence– and then we will actually see humility as an important added bonus. So once you know that somebody’s good at something, if they are humble– that’s an extra asset, as opposed to a career killer, which unfortunately in most places humility and modesty is a career killer for most people.
SARAH GREEN: I want to just pause on one aspect of what you said because that I’m guessing some listeners may be cleaning out their ears. I just want to make sure we got that right. You mentioned that women are often more humble. And this is something that actually is usually presented as a problem, I think in most of the literature that I’ve seen about it. People say male medical students raided their ability to perform a certain procedure higher and women rated their ability less, and that’s a problem– women have this confidence gap they need to overcome. But actually, what I hear you saying is that’s actually not a bad thing for the women. Is that right?
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: Absolutely. And I think there are two issues here. First is that much of the literature and the popular writings in this area seem to focus on trying to enhance confidence in women. So in other words, they try to make women more like men. The world will be a much better place if we manage make men more than women, because the problem is not the women lack confidence– but that men have too much of it. And it’s the second issue which exacerbates that– is that the standards or criteria we use to evaluate the men are different than those we used to evaluate women. So when men come across the confident or even arrogant, we assume that they are good at what they do and we call them charismatic. And when women behave in the same way, we tend to see them as psychopathic or a threat to society or an organization. So society punishes manifestations of confidence in women, and rewards them in men– which only reinforces this natural differences between the genders.
SARAH GREEN: Well, Tomas, this has been a fascinating and very wide-ranging conversation today. And I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to spend with us.
TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: Thank you for having me.
SARAH GREEN: That was Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of Confidence. For more, visit HBR.org.
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