What’s the upside to ‘under-confidence’?

A few weeks ago I worked with a group of senior managers on their picks for promotion. It was striking how frequently people used the excuse that a candidate ‘just needs a bit more confidence’ when barring someone from the next level – even when the evidence was that they did their job well. In the decision-makers minds, this stems from the belief that if the person somehow displays more outward confidence, surely then, they are ‘promotion ready’. However, it’s based on a falsehood that the outwardly confident are most worthy people of the next step ‘up’.

However, if you agree with the basic premise that people who are uber-confident versus those who second guess themselves (the under-confident), actually have the same number of good ideas – then it’s a falsehood at best, and dangerous at worst to promote a disproportionately high number of the uber-confident. The modern workplace loves the idea of the bold leader, the one always certain of the next step – the ‘salesperson’ one who can inspire followers. However, when taken to its extreme, it also explains the appeal of Donald Trump or other world leaders who don’t question themselves before moving down a potentially dangerous path. We now value confidence above competence. In the 21st century, we question the ‘gold standard of confidence’ if we want to avoid blindly following the confident off a potential cliff.

If you’re someone who recruits and promotes, ask yourself – When have you met someone who over-sold via their confidence but under-delivered? And when have you been pleasantly surprised by someone who had less confidence but over-delivered? What’s the risk to us all if we keep treating confidence as a gold standard?

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