The Paradox of Confidence
by Rick Brenner
Most of us interpret a confident manner as evidence of competence, and a hesitant manner as evidence of lesser ability. Recent research suggests that confidence and competence are inversely correlated. If so, our assessments of credibility and competence are thrown into question.
In this culture, and others, we value confidence in leaders, mechanics, doctors, generals, and even strangers we've asked for directions. But in all these cases, and more, we're actually seeking expertise, knowledge, and capability — in short, competence.
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin (left) with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan in discussion before meeting with the House Banking Committee on 20 May 1999, just six months before the work of Kruger and Dunning appeared. They were then both at the height of their power, which both used liberally to resist calls for regulation of new and growing sectors of the financial markets — the very sectors that contributed so much to the financial crisis at the end of 2008. Both men were studies in confidence, and that confidence played a role in persuading officials and the population at large that the U.S. economy was healthy and on course. Yet, on 23 October 2008, under questioning by Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives, former Chairman Greenspan testified, with regard to his "conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality," that, "…I found a flaw, I don't know how significant or permanent it is, but I have been very distressed by that fact." He went on, "I found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works…I was shocked." One model of what might have happened to him is that he had discovered the limits of his competence. The fourth factor observed by Dunning and Kruger states that, "Incompetent individuals can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by gaining competence." If this model applies, one might conclude that by October, 2008, Mr. Greenspan was somewhat more competent than he had been in 1999. Read Mr. Greenspan's complete testimony and view other documents related to the hearing. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of the Treasury.
We usually assume that confidence comes from competence. We apply this assumption personally when we seek health care, investment advice or other services. But we also apply it at work — when we make hiring decisions, when we evaluate the assertions of superiors and subordinates, and when we get advice from consultants.
Trouble is, the assumption is wrong.
We know this because of the pioneering work of Justin Kruger and David Dunning, who, working at Cornell in 1999, discovered a phenomenon now called the Dunning-Kruger effect. They performed experiments that yielded results consistent with these four principles (paraphrasing):
- Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, dramatically overestimate their ability and performance.
- Incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it.
- Incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance.
- Incompetent individuals can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by gaining competence.
Taken together, these four factors contribute to an inverse correlation between confidence and competence — exactly the opposite of what most of us assume.
If we can't rely on confidence as an indicator of competence, on what can we rely? In assessing competence, when we do consider factors beyond confidence, we tend to focus on domain-specific content. That helps, but it's not enough. Here are four generic indicators of competence for application in the workplace.
- Awareness of limitations
- The truly competent understand that their competence is limited — that there are things they can't do or don't know. This knowledge drives a continued desire to learn.
- Desire to learn
- Curiosity, practice, questioning, and continued study are signs of a drive to enhance competence. It is this drive that established the existing level of competence. Where this drive is weak, competence is questionable.
- Constructive response to failure
- Responding to Incompetent individuals, compared
with their more competent peers,
dramatically overestimate their
ability and performancefailure in constructive ways is another important way to build competence. This ability is probably essential to building competence.
- Ability to assess risk realistically
- Realistic risk assessment requires a reservoir of experience — competence — in the relevant domains. Incompetence leads to mis-assessment of risk. The fearful and incompetent tend to overestimate risks; the brash and incompetent tend to underestimate them. Competence tempers both.
I'm not 100% sure that these indicators are necessary and sufficient — probably not. But they've come to me through a lifetime of experience. If you have others you rely on, send them to me and I'll consider adding them to my list. Top Next Issue
Read Kruger and Dunning's original paper, courtesy the American Psychological Association.
For applications of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "How to Reject Expert Opinion: Part II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012, and "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012.
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness
- The Mind Reading Trap
- When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else, that's a recipe for trouble.
- Abraham, Mark, and Henny
- Our plans, products, and processes are often awkward, bulky, and complex. They lack a certain spiritual quality that some might call elegance. Yet we all recognize elegance when we see it. Why do we make things so complicated?
- Let Me Finish, Please
- We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
- Obstacles to Compromise
- Compromise is the art of devising an approach acceptable to all parties. A talent for compromise is rare. What makes finding compromises so difficult?
- Most of us follow paths through our careers, or through life. We get nervous when we're off the path. We feel better when we're doing what everyone else is doing. But is that sensible?
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 24: The Perils of Novel Argument
- When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen? Available here and by RSS on December 24
- And on December 31: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I
- Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. Available here and by RSS on December 31
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Human-Centered Risk Management
- Most of us can assess technological risks, but risks related to human behavior tend to resist our best efforts. This session provides a framework for evaluating risks related to the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations and people generally. Human-centered risk differs from technological or market risk, because objective evaluation requires acknowledging personal and organizational limitations and failures. Since some of those limitations and failures might apply to the people assessing the risks, or to their superiors, there's a tendency to deny them or to explain them away. Our approach examines capability, organization, context, risk mitigation, and workplace politics. It has tools for guiding the assessment and management of human-centered risk, and we show how to extend these tools to suit your situation. You'll learn how to identify sources of risk in human behavior; recognize systemic and individual barriers to acknowledging risk; assess the effects of organizational turbulence; determine the risk associated with inappropriate internal risk transfer; estimate the effects of team dysfunction, toxic conflict and turnover; and measure the impact of workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: