Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 1;   January 7, 2009: The Paradox of Confidence

The Paradox of Confidence

by

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

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):

  1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, dramatically overestimate their ability and performance.
  2. Incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it.
  3. Incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance.
  4. 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 performance
failure 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Asking Clarifying Questions  Next Issue

Read Kruger and Dunning's original paper, courtesy the American Psychological Association.

For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "How to Reject Expert Opinion: II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012; "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012; "Overconfidence at Work," Point Lookout for April 15, 2015; "Wishful Thinking and Perception: II," Point Lookout for November 4, 2015; "Wishful Significance: II," Point Lookout for December 23, 2015; "Cognitive Biases and Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2016; and "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016.

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre 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? rbreneeUHpqqVRZMHOorTner@ChacIMcjLYIFFDyZalsYoCanyon.comSend 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.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

StonehengeHigh Falutin' Goofy Talk
Business speech and business writing are sometimes little more than high falutin' goofy talk, filled with pretentious, overused images and puff phrases of unknown meaning. Here are some phrases that are so common that we barely notice them.
Senator Susan Collins of MaineDiscussion Distractions: I
Meetings could be far more productive, if only we could learn to recognize and prevent the distractions that lead us off topic and into the woods. Here is Part I of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
A 1928 Ford Model A Business CoupeClueless on the Concept
When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening" is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
The business end of a spark plugWacky Words of Wisdom: III
Adages are so elegantly stated that we have difficulty doubting them. Here's Part III of a collection of often-misapplied adages.
President Obama meets with Congressional leadersEthical Debate at Work: II
Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others, but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates toward wise outcomes.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningComing July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.
Masonry archesAnd on July 12: Performance Issues for Non-Supervisors
If, in part of your job, you're a non-supervisory leader, such as a team lead or a project manager, you face special challenges when dealing with performance issues. Here are some guidelines for non-supervisors. Available here and by RSS on July 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrensTjDzyOMhjZzDtecner@ChacKxgWQfGfKjUYbsvQoCanyon.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

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers 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 organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.