Don’t Fake It till You Make It: Match Confidence to Competence

July 19, 2021

Match Confidence to Competence

Don’t Fake It till You Make It: Match Confidence to Competence

If you are going to choose an individual to lead you to victory or safety, chances are you will choose the most confident person. Their confidence will inspire and motivate you to achieve great things. That’s what makes them a great leader, right?

But there is a darker side to confidence that erodes trust and turns away once eager followers. That side is the overconfidence that is considered arrogance.

In my research with Zenger Folkman, I looked at the data on the impact of confidence and discovered several interesting realities. What causes greater self-confidence that will benefit a leader is nuanced and complex, but greater self-confidence (or what some consider overconfidence or arrogance) does hurt a small subset of leaders.

I measured self-confidence using a 10 item self-assessment with 12,000 leaders. For a subset of that group, consisting of 1,525 leaders, I combined the self-assessment data with 360-degree assessments.

When I examined the confidence data, I found a significant trend between a leader’s confidence and their overall leadership effectiveness rating. The self-assessment confidence rating has a range in its score from -10 to +10.  In the graph below, the results show the impact of confidence on overall leadership effectiveness.

(These results were all statistically significant with an F-Value of 5.59, Sig. 0.00.)

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Logically, there is a correlation between confidence and leadership effectiveness. A person with low confidence will have difficulty with many management duties ranging from conducting meetings, initiating performance discussions, and leading the organization.

The Negative Impacts of Over Confidence

Examining the relationship between 16 leadership skills and confidence, I discovered that nine leadership behaviors showed a significant improvement with increased confidence. Note in the table below, I again displayed three levels of confidence:

  • -10 to 0 is a low level
  • 1 to 5 moderate level
  • 6 to 10 high levels of confidence

The percentile scores shown for each level of confidence show a positive increase with the first nine leadership skills. In other words, there is a strong correlation between improved confidence and these leadership skills. This is GREAT NEWS! It would appear that there are no downsides to high levels of confidence until we get to the last two skills.

As you can see in the table below, the bottom two leadership skills (e.g., Displays Integrity and Honesty and Relationship Building) showed a decreased level of effectiveness with increased confidence.

Impact of Confidence Level on Specific Leadership Skills

Impact of Confidence Level on Specific Leadership Skills

I found this perplexing. How could a capability that enabled nine leadership skills to improve also cause two skills to decline? To understand this phenomenon, I took a closer look at the data and examined all the cases of data where leaders had high levels of confidence.

A Tale of Two Confident Groups of Leaders

I discovered that while the OVERALL average did decline slightly on two competencies, this was not the case for every leader.

GROUP 1 – I found that for 336 leaders with high confidence, their effectiveness on both competencies increased with greater confidence.

GROUP 2- However, for 362 leaders, their effectiveness remained low despite higher levels of confidence.

In the graph, I show the results for Overall Leadership Effectiveness, Integrity/Honesty, and Builds Relationships. Note that the overall leadership effectiveness score (which is the average of all items and skills) remained low at the 30.8th percentile for Group 2, where confidence did not help, and significantly higher for Group 1, where confidence helped. For both competencies, the trends are very similar.

What is Group 2: Non-Improvers Doing Wrong?

What inhibited some leaders who had high confidence from improving? This is a case where averages are deceiving. I needed to look inside to see what skewed these averages. I found significant differences between those who improved and those who did not.

This group’s results strongly affected the overall average pulling down the mean scores for the entire group with high confidence.

The Importance of Raising Your Competence With Your Confidence

The leaders with high confidence who did not improve had a manager who was assessed as being less competent. Perhaps this lack of an effective role model combined with their high confidence gave them the impression that they were competent. Their focus on giving negative feedback and avoiding positive feedback can create a toxic work environment. The engagement level of direct reports for those who did not improve was at the 43rd percentile compared to the 60th percentile for those who improved.

For 90% of the 1,564 leaders in this study, increasing leadership competence was strongly connected with increasing confidence.  The problem with those who did not improve was that their confidence came before their competence. They assumed they were competent, but their results and the feedback from others did not validate their assumptions.

Can too much confidence hurt leaders? In 90% of the cases, confidence seems to enable leaders to improve, and the higher the confidence, the better the leader. But, in 10% of the cases when confidence preceded competence, it did have a damaging impact. What can help those leaders who were overconfident? I recommend that leaders regularly receive a valid assessment of their leadership effectiveness so they can align their confidence with their competence.

—Joe Folkman
Connect with Joe Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter,  or Facebook.

(This article first appeared on Forbes)