As part of my work a regular question I ask to my clients is “What are your strengths” and a regular answer I get is a long silence. In one of my workshops we had an exercise to dig out the key competencies. A participant raised the hand and said “My competency is nothing special. Everybody has it”. I asked if anybody else had it, there was no one.
I see it around me all the time. People who are well educated, who are very good at what they do, who care about others and the world stay silent. When it is time to speak, when they can actually make a difference for the world, for their surrounding and for themselves they stay silent. They don’t feel what they have to say is something special. They don’t see that they have special talents or competencies. They stay silent, passive, inactive and the world looses, all of us loose.
There are also other people: people who are not that competent, but get pride in their accomplishments and get really confident about themselves. This confidence helps them to get into new ventures, create new possibilities for them. And in every new venture, they create successes for themselves and get even surer of their talents.
By time, a huge discrepancy arises between these two people. One stays as an expert professional in an organization, whereas the other climbs up the corporate and societal ladder and become managers of companies, big organizations and even the countries. (I am sure you all can find “one example” for this person)
That bothers me.
I don’t want to be led by people who are incompetent, who do not value and respect others, who only follow up their own agenda regardless of the wellbeing of others, the society and the world.
But how can we start this change? How can the good competent people get empowered and gain charge?
The relationship between competence and confidence
First of all by acknowledging this phenomenon: the difference of confidence levels between competent and incompetent people.
David Dunning and Justin Kruger explained this difference with their paper Unskilled and Unaware of It. The title has “unskilled” in it because their starting point was a funny happening: McArthur Wheeler walked into two banks in Pittsburgh and robbed them during day time with all the security cameras on, without trying to hide his face. Of course he got caught immediately. When they asked what he was thinking he said he used the invisible ink on his face, which was lemon juice. When he was shown the camera footage, he refused the reality; it couldn’t be true! Because he smeared his face in the hidden ink!!!
Being inspired about this incident Dunning and Kruger started experiments and found out that the people who lack competence overestimate their competencies and get overly confident which in turn makes them blind to their incompetence levels and create disasters. But they also found the opposite. The people who scored high in competence levels underestimated their abilities and were less confident about them than the average. This phenomenon today is known as “Duning-Kruger” effect.
Why might highly confident people have less confidence?
According to Dunning and Kruger low confidence of the competent people result from the fact that they know how much more there is to know than they know!
The second reason is that the competent people also make an assumption that the rest knows as much as them, so they think their skills and knowledge are nothing special! (exactly as my workshop participant put it)
Realize that this is an assumption. Verify this assumption and even if it would be true, why would that matter?
The benefit of confidence
Confidence is an interesting phenomenon. Having confidence can create opportunities even in the areas where one is not competent because people favor confident people.
In 2009 psychologist Cameron Anderson conducted tests among college students. He discovered that the less competent students, who thought they knew more than they did, were nonetheless accorded higher social status even when they came across as excessively confident. Confidence often wins over competence.
We all have bias about confident people. We assume confident people should also be competent. But they might not be. In fact as the Dunning Kruger effect suggests, some really incompetent people are overly confident.
We now know that a confident person will enjoy advantages in the society and overly competent people tend to have lower confidence levels. How can very competent people win over that? By appearing confident.
How to appear confident
The people who form an opinion about us are using the visual and sensual cues. This can be our body posture, the pitch of our voice, our mood and the level of engagement. They can be learned by practice. When we become aware the signals we send outside, we can change them, we can change our body posture (power pose), we can deepen our voice, make intentional breaks and speak more. We can learn to talk about ourselves. Who we are, what skills we have, what we care about. Having a list of past successes helps us to believe in our competencies and backs us up against our beliefs of being nothing special. Having stories of things we enjoy doing helps us to tell who we are so it is a joy to talk about it and people would enjoy listening to us. We can learn to appear confident so that we beat the odds of being treated unfairly due to the bias. And acting will in turn make us feel more confident. (Fake it till you make it.)
We can actually benefit from low confidence
Our self confidence is luckily not always visible to the others. If that’s the case, it might be advantageous to have low confidence.
Psychologist Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of Confidence: suggests a lack of confidence might actually be vital for success.
He sees success composed of two parts: 90% preparation and 10% performance. He claims that low level of confidence gives the person an advantage because he can work on himself and his skills to get better. He would also be more open to outside feedback, which he can incorporate in his development.
Don’t give up
The biggest danger in having low levels of confidence and high level of competence is to focus on the negative, on what you don’t know and stop trying, stop creating, stop speaking.
You can change that. You are something special and you are here in this world to make a change, only you can make.
How you can empower yourself when you are competent but lack confidence
For anyone who is competent but lack competence, I have three tips:
1. Create goals and make them your focus
2. Be aware of your competencies by having facts such as successes
3. Make confidence irrelevant and focus on taking all the chances to get to your goal
Dunning Kruger phenomenon is real and that the confident/incompetent people might steal some spot light from the competent, but remember it is only lemon juice.