Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Competence vs confidence

Recently, I posted a (Dutch) question: why is competence no longer required in political management? My question does not imply that incompetence rules. No. The same phenomenon exists in businesses, whether privately owned or publicly listed. Last but not least, my question is gender neutral.

In his 1969 book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, Canadian educator Laurence J Peter (1919-1990) made a satirical assertion, which has become knowns as the Peter principle:

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence… [I]n time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties… Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.” (Wiki)

The Peter principle may indeed explain the foolish behaviour of some businesses and organisations.

In his 2013 Harvard Business Review article and 2019 book, organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic made a similar stunning assertion: Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? He stated “three popular explanations for the clear under-representation of women in management”, being:

  1. “they are not capable”;
  2. “they are not interested”;
  3. “they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass-ceiling: an invisible career barrier, based on prejudiced stereotypes, that prevents women from accessing the ranks of power.”
    while adding his fourth personal observation:
  4. “In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence.” Note: bold markings in quote added by LO.

I think, feel and believe that his 4th explanation is generally valid for all businesses and/or organisations.

In politics, there is another – perverse – reason for putting people in positions in which they will look and feel incompetent: these people are a (future) patsy or scapegoat for the ultimate leader(s). Their failure may ruin their chances for ultimate leadership. Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu argued the same:

“Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer.” (various similar quotes)

Why are we unable to differentiate between competence and confidence?

Probably, we associate a perceived lack of confidence with expected incompetence. That association may indeed hold – for men. Probably, we assume that the opposite is also true. Hence, our notion that confidence = competence. As a result, parents raise their children to be confident, and in particular boys.

How do we differentiate between competence and confidence?

In my experience, there’s a simple solution: just ask Why questions. Competent people will give thorough and usually valid answers. Incompetent people will beat around the bush and/or bluff their way through your question. Their confidence usually refrains us from asking the Why question. We assume they know.

Confidence (2002) by Garbage
artists, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2, Wiki-3

You’re confident
So confident
You’re full of it
You’re full of shit

Note: all markings (bold, italic, underlining) by LO unless in quotes or stated otherwise.


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