Everyone likes a confident person… don’t they? Extroverted, confident people make it to the top because their self-belief can convince other people of their competence – even if it’s unfounded. People commonly mistake confidence for competence.

According to Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, in his talk at TED@NYC, self-confident people believe they are great, give the impression that they are great, and – even if they are deluded – other people believe their high opinion of themselves.


The confidence and leadership gender gap

In corporate culture, in development organisations, and in life, men are generally more confident than women, who tend to be more modest – especially in business.

A 2015 study of more than 985,000 men and women in 48 countries by Dr Wiebke Bleidorn (University of California), reviewed in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology  found that men everywhere have higher self-esteem than women. And oddly enough, in Western countries (e.g. U.S. and Australia) the self-esteem gender gap is wider than it is in developing countries.

Margie Warrell summarises: “the gap between how little women think of themselves compared to how highly men do grows in the more developed, egalitarian, countries – the very ones one might expect it to be the least”.

Bleidorn surmises that this is because western women have more access to careers and more readily compare themselves to their male counterparts, rather than to other women.

Although women leaders are numerous and even high-profile in the States, only 4.2% of S&P 500 CEOs are female. A well-publicised 2016 study mentioned in Women’s Agenda found that in  Australia, there are more men named Peter (6.5%) in charge of ASX 200 companies than all the female leaders in total (5.75%).


Female modesty


A male senior manager, who is a coaching client of mine, works in a tech company with a 97% male workforce. They want to improve the company’s gender balance, so their new job adverts openly proudly state their commitment to attracting more diverse talent. But not a single woman applied! The senior management were bewildered and dismayed.

When we looked, together, at the recruitment materials, I saw that the person spec listed 13 ‘essential’ and ‘desired’ competencies. We discussed the fact that men in general are confident and will apply for jobs even if they’re not completely qualified, skilled or experienced in every area. They will gloss over any criteria they don’t meet; confident in the belief that they can do the job and will ‘pick up’ any other skills along the way. However, when a woman looks at a job description, they tend to be more modest and if they don’t fulfil all the desirable criteria, they focus on this lack and disqualify themselves – not even bothering to apply.

We reviewed and changed the wording of the criteria, adding encouraging words rather than a stark list, and as a result, numerous women applied.


 Is over-confidence the answer?

No, according to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in his article Less-Confident People Are More Successful in Harvard Business Review (July 06, 2012): “If your confidence is low, rather than extremely low, you stand a better chance of succeeding than if you have high self-confidence”.

He gives three reasons:

  1. “Lower self-confidence makes you pay attention to negative feedback and be self-critical…
  2. Lower self-confidence can motivate you to work harder and prepare more…
  3. Lower self-confidence reduces the chances of coming across as arrogant or being deluded…”

If someone is not wholly confident but is ambitious, they work harder to increase their competence and as a result, they perform highly, to achieve their goals.

Chamorro-Premuzic says, “To be the very best at anything, you will need to be your harshest critic, and that is almost impossible when your starting point is high self-confidence”.


The hazards of confident leaders

But what does this mean for extroverts and confident leaders – the ones who are able to ‘talk their way to the top’? Sure, they may rise, but overweening confidence can manifest as arrogance, and lack of competence leads to anger, frustration and a blame culture that makes working life difficult for all.

A Gallup poll found that more than 60% of staff dislike and even hate their jobs –most commonly because of narcissistic bosses. In such environments, job satisfaction and morale are low, productivity and profits are down, and staff turnover increases, as disaffected people leave. This is a dysfunctional set-up, largely a result of the culture created by overconfident leaders who don’t recognise or admit their inadequacies.

So, a realistic level of confidence – or even under-confidence, is a good thing. It “keeps us modest, attentive to negative feedback, and more coachable. It stops us from being complacent and makes us more likeable,” says Chamorro-Premuzic.

He recommends that people don’t rely on self-help books and confidence courses that boost our self-esteem and say “we’re great, no matter what”. He advocates working hard to make up the gap between who you are now and who you want to be.

Women have always felt that they must work harder than men, to prove themselves. Men, too, can learn a different kind of leadership from their example.

This creates a new generation of resilient, competent, empathetic leaders – just confident enough to take charge, without being arrogant or complacent. It’s the future.


Will you strike the right balance between confidence and competence?


If you would like to explore and develop more confidence or competence, or feel you could benefit from coaching, please get in touch.


If you would like to, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.

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