Journal

The Perils of Mistaking Confidence for Competence

By Zul Andra

The more you know, the more you know that you don’t know. What do we know about tooting horns that drown the noise of incompetence?

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Peter rose up the ranks to become a director-level hire in an advertising agency. We haven’t had a coaching session in a while.

Then, out of the blue, he texted me to schedule a meet. “It’s about work,” the message read. As I later found out, Peter–not his real name in respect of client confidentiality–was facing a crisis of confidence.

The trigger? A client went over Peter’s head and emailed his boss to complain about his disastrous pitch.

The boss forwarded Peter that scathing email. (Why managers do this at all is for another article.)

For Peter, the message was clear: it was an attack on his competence; confirmed by an act of disempowerment by his boss. Peter also drummed up similar past experiences as a justification for his incompetence.

It was like someone else passed the sentences, and Peter has been swinging the sword on his own neck.

“What’s your takeaway when you experience those moments?” I asked. “That I’m way in over my head,” Peter replied, his spirit sinking into himself. “What would the next course of action tend to be?” Quit!–He scoffed.

A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked

Now, I’ve seen Peter’s work and it’s nothing to scoff about. I’ve met his former direct report, whose loyalty to Peter was nothing short of motivating, and who ended up working with him in the same company.

Peter is eloquent. He translates ideas into pragmatic actions and actually does the work. A good head between the shoulders and one who refuses to entertain the crown of office politics. So what happened to Peter?

As our session continued at the alfresco of a bar, the balmy evening seems to blanket us as Peter retreats deeper into a spiral of negativity.

With his permission, I was allowed to create a clarity of distance on the concept of competency–an act of boiling down his experience and defining the separate and distinct residual ingredients.

The idea of competency in the workplace is, or should be, rather straightforward. If you suck at your job, you might get reprimanded or worse, fired. If you’re good, you get to keep your job and at best, get promoted.

But one of the many factors that blur the clarity of competency is confidence. And the clearest way to illustrate this confusion is the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The more you know…

In a nutshell, the Dunning-Kruger effect–a cognitive bias observed by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger–suggests that the less a person knows, the more confident they seem to be.

And the more a person knows, the less confident they are. As of the adage: “The more you know, the more you know that you don’t know.” Where is Peter on the Dunning-Kruger scale?

Peter might be somewhere in the middle of this scale, you opine, and that might be true.

If we look at the confidence axis, how sure one is of their competencies peak at two points: when a person is unaware of their inability and when a person is aware of their mastery.

This leads to another illustration: the four levels of competence.

The gateway to mastery is suck-ery

Think of the four levels of competence as an iceberg. The visible top of the iceberg are abilities that you know that you are good at or suck at.

The hidden bottom are the abilities —or inabilities—that you are not even aware of. Here’s the kicker, 95% of brain activity is unconscious. So what do the four levels of competence look like?

It’s like riding a bike

Picture a kid who has never ridden a bicycle before. The kid might think that it’s the easiest thing to do in the whole wide world. (Unaware of ability in the four levels of competence scale. High-confidence, low-competence in the Dunning-Kruger scale.)

The kid rides a bicycle for the first time. Falls all over the place–on the street, in the bushes, trips on the bicycle–and realises that this sucks. (Aware of inability. Low-confidence, low-competence.)

Now, two things might happen at this point: the kid quits or learns. The kid decides to ask the parents for training wheels and keep on keeping on.

A few months later, the kid rides freely without training wheels or any help. Easy does it. The kid now knows how to ride a bike. (Aware of ability. Mid-confidence, mid-competence.)

In the resulting adult years, he is at the pole position of the Tour de France. He’s here to maintain his top spot of the race, winning the yellow jersey from the previous year.

He doesn’t think about how he paddles or which feet comes after the other. He is making higher-level decisions, shaving milliseconds off his time. (Unaware of ability. High-confidence, high-competence.)

After he retires, he opens a chain of bike shops–thinking it’d be easy since he is the best cyclist in the whole wide world.

He refuses to listen to competent business advisors, the chain suffers, his investors are fuming and he cycles just to remind himself how good he was. (Unaware of inability to being aware of inability.)

“Does this resonate with you?” I asked Peter; though sharing with him a shorter version of the stories. “Yes,” he replied.

“What would it look like if you can reclaim your power? Would that be something that interests you?”

Peter starts to light up, as though rising from the darkness of despair and stepping off the guillotine he built for himself.

Confidence does not necessarily equal to competence

I stumbled upon a screengrab of President Donald Trump walking pass a scornful climate activist Greta Thunberg. There’s much to unpack from the image as both public figures drastically contrast each other.

One denies environmental concerns while the other campaigns for change. One is a businessman and the other is a student on a sabbatical. One sits in the most powerful office in the world and the other is challenging people in power.

Oddly, what struck me the most is that both of them share a similar trait–they are highly confident in delivering their opposing message but, yet, lack the competency to fulfil it.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Boyan Slat, who at 17 years old presented a TEDx talk on the technology he invented to clean up the ocean. Greta was 15 when she first protested and made rallying speeches in the school climate strikes.

Boyan and Greta are making powerful strides in climate change. But where confidence and competence lies, the focus should be on the repercussion of their actions.

Greta is a flag-bearer of what needs to be done, she holds it up high and people listen. Boyan continues to work as the CEO of his non-profit company, The Ocean Cleanup, and is taking action to drive his mission.

Similarly in a workplace, just because someone is confident, doesn’t mean that they are competent or vice-versa. It’s important to peer under the skin of confidence and competence to identify what supports it.

If someone is confident but is incompetent, what intervention can be done to raise the level of competency?

Of if someone lacks the confidence but is highly competent, what form of empowerment supports the person’s reclaiming of power?

Or, from the point of coaching, is this what they’d like to explore in the first place?

Peter mapped the learnings onto his experience and realised that he misconstrued his lack of confidence as incompetency. To measure both with a different yardstick creates clarity for action.

He ascertained that quitting was a self-imposed pattern from the perils of mistaking confidence for competence. He stopped doling out unjustifiable sentences on his own head. He still has a good head between the shoulders. And clearer at that.