Is confidence a little overrated?

When I was 15 I signed up for choir. Not because I had singing talent. Not because I had a knack for music. I was simply young and foolish and uninhibited by reason and rationality. F it, I thought, I'm going to SING. That's what I want to do, and that's what I'm going to register for. So I sang (poorly), every first period from September to January of 1998 when my dreams of sweeping American Idol were suddenly destroyed by a mandatory course for athletes called Advanced Conditioning. Damn you, Coach Bowles!

hmv circa 1997

hmv circa 1997

During my brief career as choir singer #47, I made some important realizations. Firstly, I realized I had a lot to learn. The lingo was completely foreign to me. I barely knew the difference between soprano and alto and I only picked alto because my volleyball friend did too. Secondly -and this is either really fortunate or really sad depending on your perspective- our conductor was incredibly gifted. His advice was spot-on and perfectly articulated. He seemed to be able to hear all our terribly teenage voices at once, and he could pinpoint exactly what needed to be done to improve the sound. But he never came right out and told us that we should keep our day jobs because we were a motley crew of no-talent fools because, again, this guy was a pro.

Somehow my 15-year-old brain was able to simmer on this information and form a pretty incredible plan: I sucked at singing and had no idea what I was doing; our conductor was amazingly brilliant; perhaps I should listen to every single thing he told us to do, and DO IT. And holy poop you guys, the plan WORKED.

If he told us that we sounded too breathy, I would assume he was talking about me and try to scale back the breathiness, and *ta-da* the next time he would tell us that we sounded much better.

Seems so simple looking back. But it wasn't. Did I mention that I was an ego-inflated 15-year-old? The fact I was willing to really listen was kind of incredible.

Why? Making the decision to listen to my instructor required putting aside my confidence and really getting comfortable with my lack of competence. I had to embrace the fact that I didn't know anything before I could get any better. It was the kind of move that goes exactly against the advice I've been reading lately.

Consider the Confidence Gap. The authors learned that men tend to try for better jobs, bigger salaries, and they get them, simply by acting with more confidence.

In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.
Women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.

And guess who tended to reach the top first?

The authors found, essentially, that confidence mattered more than competence. Confidence was a stronger indicator of higher salaries, better jobs, more interesting assignments, etc. And men had higher confidence based on their studies, so men typically rose to the top. We all know that men rise to the top faster than women and more frequently. But here is what I'm trying to say... 

Is all of this a good thing? 

Is it good for us to be promoting the most confident workers? The ones who ask more frequently, who demand more? Is it good to emulate that logic? It is good to say to one's self, don't worry about getting that next certification or training, just TELL them that you're the smartest, wickedest person for the job and then TAKE it! After all, men do it and it works, so why shouldn't we?

Well, let me propose two reasons: 1) you're not a man so this isn't going to work quite like that, and 2) it's not right. It's just not right. I refuse to buy into the idea that confidence SHOULD outweigh competence. I know it apparently DOES outweigh competence, but it shouldn't. That's not how to run a business, or determine promotions, or create a beautiful sound from a young choir. Competence is what matters. Competence (with a healthy side of confidence) is what strengthens the team and builds the better workforces.

And here's another thing: Women may have much to gain by getting more confident, but a lack of confidence can be a secret asset, and everyone seems to be overlooking it.

When I think about the times, like high school choir, when I turned down the dial on my confidence and really tried to improve my skills, I got much much better at whatever I was doing. I know this is true of men as well. I've had conversations with male coworkers or friends that I am comfortable with, and I've asked them, "Can you admit for a moment that you don't understand everything about this issue? Can you set aside your argument for a second, and consider this other point of view?" And when they do that (when we ALL do that), we tend to have a deeper discussion and we both truly learn more. Because we aren't trying to postulate and impress each other with our ridiculous fake confidence.

And I see women do this artfully at work too. The cleverest women I've seen do this are actually just using a lack of confidence to get to a result that they were really pretty confident about all along. You've seen these moves too:

"Can you help me understand your reasoning?"
"I'm sure you've already thought of this, but what if we...."
"That sounds like a great plan, but I guess I'm not sure how [this other thing] would fit in? What if we tried..."

It isn't rocket science. But it isn't blind confidence either. Blind confidence is just lack of competence dressed up to look pretty. Good managers can see through it. And if they can't, I don't think they're really that good. Because you can hire a company full of peacocks and prance around acting like you know what you're doing ... but for only so long. Eventually that team of nerds down the road is going to catch up and catch on.

This I believe is true. Who cares if I have the data to prove it?