Confidence vs. Competence

We have an enormous tendency to conflate the concepts of confidence and competence. That is an arguably dangerous proposition.

We want people to be competent. When they take things on for us, whether we are their client, their boss or their sponsor, we want assurance that they know what they are doing. We want to know, in delegating work, that it will be done properly and well. We seek a level of assurance that people have the skills, aptitude and interest to do the work we need.

What we often use as a proxy for that assurance is the measure of confidence that is demonstrated. We respond ridiculously well to how confidence is exhibited. The more that is demonstrated, the more competence we ascribe. Conversely, the less confidence that we observe, the more we presume that someone is completely out of their depth. Red flags get raised, buzzers go off, and our inner stress bunny kicks into overdrive.

I’ve had a number of opportunities to see this play out in real life. Nowhere is it more obvious than as part of the sales cycle. As a management consultant, my ability to earn a livelihood fundamentally depends upon me selling my services. Clients across the table are essentially wanting a level of reassurance that the work that I do will solve their problems. The degree to which they feel confident is strongly influenced by the confidence that I demonstrate.

Of course, it’s not just enough to be confident; there is also a requirement to be competent. Having won the work, I need to follow through on delivering it. And it’s fascinating the number of times that customers have been (pleasantly) surprised by the quality of the work that they’ve received. Apparently many of them have become somewhat conditioned to expect less than the performance in the boardroom promises—which in no way displaces the expectation that solution providers should be confident.

I’ve occasionally had the opportunity to witness the sales performances of other consultants. I’ve also had the opportunity to experience the pitches of people that worked for me. Both situations have been incredibly revealing in showing the impact that a lack of confidence can instil. When a presenter appears uncertain, hesitant, unprepared and is unable to draw on key facts, the inevitable conclusion is that they haven’t got a hot clue what they are doing.

The irony is that they may, in fact, have a great deal of insight and expertise to share. They may be entirely on top of their game, and yet incapable of functioning in a presentation situation. In fact, they may be over-prepared, and as a consequence be so committed and invested in making sure they touch on all of their speaking points that they are oblivious to the lack of resonance with their audience. They may be incredibly nervous, horrible at public speaking or having a bad day. Regardless of the cause, they have lost their audience.

If the evidence isn’t there that the person standing in front of us knows what they are talking about, then our mental reaction is to discredit what they have to say. The consequence is that we will also dismiss them as a potential candidate in helping us solve our problems.

By contrast, the polished, prepared, on-their-game speaker is presumed to be capable and competent. If they have a quip for every query, confidently move through their content and glibly ad lib their response to every challenge, we assume as self-evident that they know what they are talking about. It may be that they are just well rehearsed—or that they have an innate ability to tell you what you want to hear. Regardless, we apportion them far greater credibility than their less-confident competitor.

I was reminded of this in the most direct way possible earlier this morning. A couple of months ago, I had a sewage backup in my condo (not something I expect on the sixteenth floor of a building). It’s taken this long to finally get the insurance sorted and contractors to start work on repairing the unit. Today was the first day of construction. The start of the day saw me, the estimator responsible for the project and one lonely contractor surveying what needed to be done.

Unquestionably, there is a very great deal to be done. The unit isn’t big, there is a considerable amount of furniture (and even more books) and all of it is staying. The first order of business is ripping out the remainder of the flooring that wasn’t contaminated, in preparation for installation of the new flooring later this week.

In dealing with remediation, the company I’ve been dealing with has been impressive, and responsive. A fleet of contractors descended shortly after the accident to clean up the suite, pack our belongings and survey the damage. Since then, I have been negotiating next steps between insurance companies, condo corporations and contractors, where the only person invested in protecting my interests was me. To start the day with one lonely person, who spent the entire conversation shaking his head and questioning what he was hearing, did not infuse me with comfort.

The amount of work to be done was considerable. I was questioning what was required, and what was necessary, and where the army of other resources was hiding that would get this all done. I voiced as much during the meeting, indicating that I had a great deal of anxiety about what needed to be done and the ability of the company to deliver. The estimator assured me it would all be fine, and promptly left to go deal with another job.

Over the course of the day, however, my opinion changed considerably. The person doing the work was careful and cautious. He took the time to make sure our property was taken care of. He lifted furniture rather than dragging it. He progressively organized what he had to work with, and made things fit as best they could in the small space that we had to work with. He slowly but surely tackled the problem, disassembling furniture, packing boxes and creating order as he went. By the end of the day, what I feared would be two or three days of work was very nearly done.

My initial observations of the contractor did nothing to inspire confidence. He was cautious, he was questioning, he was skeptical and he was uncertain. He lacked confidence, questioned what he was being asked to do and visibly demonstrated his healthy suspicion that he was being set up for an impossible task. At the outset, I was entirely ready to agree with him.

And yet, by the end of the day, I had nothing but respect for his work ethic, his attention to detail and his energy and effort. He simply started at the beginning and kept on going, one step at a time. Over the course of less than eight hours, the initial chaos had been ordered and it was possible to see a path by which the work could actually be done.

What I was most concerned about in the initial meeting was focussed on the work. I wanted the work to get done, first and foremost. I wanted it done on time (that’s already blown out of the water for reasons completely separate and out of the control of the person working on site. I wanted to make sure that my possessions would be taken care of, that furniture would be disassembled carefully and that nothing would get damaged.

During the initial meeting, I didn’t know how to get assurances on all of the above. And that’s the challenge. Because I wasn’t seeing the answers to the questions I cared about most, I looked for the answer to a different question. I took the difficult, messy questions of whether the work would be done well, and substituted a simpler one in its place. It was harder to test for competence and understanding, and I went with looking for confidence instead.

This is the exact challenge that we face when stakes are high and we are looking for good but difficult answers. When we have to make a judgement that is complex and difficult, we substitute a simpler heuristic. Technically, this is referred to as attribute substitution. It is one of the many cognitive biases that we as human beings have and operate with, that we don’t even recognizing being employed. First identified in the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (and summarized in Kahneman’s exceptional book, Thinking Fast and Slow), it points to all manner of challenges in how we unconsciously undermine our decision making process.

Because it is an unconscious bias influencing our decision making, we may not recognize it when it occurs. Very often, we will not. Kahneman in his book famously acknowledges that while he himself is an expert in the identification and testing of cognitive biases in others, he is still entirely subject to them himself. What we can do is be sensitive to situations where we may be tempted into seeking substitutes. When situations are complex, difficult and uncertain is the time we are most likely to look for an easy out.

The reason that we do this is quite simple: we are cognitively lazy. We like simple answers, and when faced with cosmic messiness we would really, really like a silver bullet that solves our problems. When we feel the buzz of uncertainty and the gnawing of anxiousness about how to proceed, that’s a very good indicator that we’re not yet happy about something. Probing deeply about why we’re not happy, and being willing to ask the hard questions (persistently, where necessary) is critical.

I was fortunate in my experiences today. I wound up with a successful outcome to my concerns. The work is being done the way that I had hoped, and it will—in time—get completed. There’s also still the opportunity for challenges, but the probability of a successful outcome is higher than I originally feared.

Confidence is a lovely and reassuring thing. But confidence doesn’t make up for talent and ability. When we use it is a guide to decision making, we are using confidence as a proxy for competence and ability. What we really want, but what we have a harder time recognizing, are the skills, talent, perseverance and work ethic necessary to get things done. We want people to not just try, but to persist. We value substance, but are often swayed by style.

If what we want are results, then we need to focus on the capabilities necessary to deliver on them. We need to be willing to stop and take the time to get our real concerns addressed. Good delegation, for example, isn’t simply a product of one-way communication, with us simply explaining what to do and how to do it. It is about getting assurances and developing understanding of what will be done. How will they approach the work? How will they work to ensure the things we care most about happen? How will they address and mitigate the things we are most concerned about?

Testing for competence—and avoiding reliance on confidence as a substitute—requires taking time. It means communicating what we want, being clear about what we need, and recognizing the difference between the two. It means striving for greater clarity, particularly when situations are complex and uncertain. Most particularly, it means being aware of our own biases and how relying on them might be getting in the way of what we really care about.

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