When is confidence false? The answer is easy, even if spotting it requires a lot of skill and nuance. Confidence is false when it is not based on reality—on sound reasoning or sufficient evidence. When it’s based on the mistaken assumptions that managers:
- Have perfect control over their people
- Make flawless plans that always work
- Live a charmed life
- Are intrinsically special and brilliant in every subject and skill
- Must display all the signs of confidence even when they’re under-prepared
Effective leadership requires confidence. That’s a given.
But it is possible to be overconfident, especially if you’re in a position of authority. Misplacing our confidence (or overcommitting when we are less than certain) can lead to catastrophe. Knowing the difference between true confidence and false confidence, then, is almost as important as having confidence in the first place.
Here’s a simple guide for all of us who sometimes need to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves:
What is True Confidence?
We’ve all known someone who was the right kind of confident: smooth, unruffled, collected. Whatever it was that they were confident about, they knew how to step forward and get it done. Most of us—dare we say all of us—chase after that kind of mojo.
True confidence, at its core, is the trust that you are prepared; having faith that you are ready for the challenge. Compare this to its counterparts, fear and false confidence: fear is a lack of preparation, while false confidence disregards the need for it. Here’s an illustration:
Three actors prepare to take the stage during a performance. One has studied the script, and two have not. One is fearful due to his lack of preparation; one believes he will succeed despite not being prepared; one trusts that he is ready to perform because he prepared. When the fearful one refuses to stand before the audience, the director takes his place. He has performed the play before and has been studying the script with his actors. And when the overconfident one forgets his lines on stage, the director and the prepared actor carry the scene until he remembers, confident that they know how to improvise lines that will lead the performance in the right direction.
The (Ugly) Truth Behind False Confidence
The actor who doesn’t think he needs his script suffers from false confidence also called overconfidence. This is due to one of three misconceptions: over-estimation, over-precision, or over-placement.
- Over-estimation is an inflated belief in one’s chance of success or level of control. This can also be the belief that a task is easier than it really is. The actor may have believed that it would be easier to improvise his lines than it really was, leading him to think he had everything under control.
Likewise, an overconfident person might ride a motorcycle without a helmet or drive without a seatbelt, firmly believing that he or she can handle any driving situation—and that it’s not that far, in any case. In business, we may take a project’s success as a given or assume that it will be completed faster than it really will (this is also known as the “planning fallacy”). In leadership, we might convince ourselves that subordinates will be fully obedient (an illusion of control). This happens most often when a task is hard, or when the estimator has little experience in a given field.
- Over-precision is an inflated belief in one’s own knowledge. It could be that the actor believed he knew his lines well enough and had no need to practice further. Likewise, in our daily lives, we sometimes pretend to possess knowledge that we don’t really have. Studies have shown that this phenomenon occurs more frequently when the knowledge is more difficult and the topic is less familiar.
- Over-placement is an inflated belief in one’s own abilities, especially in relation to the abilities of others. The actor may think he’s smarter than the others, and thus has a reduced need to practice. This is perhaps the most visible sign of overconfidence, and it’s tied to vanity: over-placed people often feel a need to show off or convince others that they are right.
Wrestling with a Lack of Confidence
Fear follows a similar pattern to false confidence, but in just the opposite direction.
It comes in two forms: lack of preparation and a perceived lack of preparation. It may be that an individual actually is under-prepared for something, but that often leads them to confidently proclaim, “I can’t do that.” When we suffer from under-estimation, under-precision, and under-placement, we feel unsure of the outcome, not knowing if we can succeed or not. That lack of stability, that tension, leaves us in a state that undermines our ability to give a confident “yes” or “no.”
It’s important to note that confidence is not invincibility; it does not preclude failure. Rather, it is a belief that failure can be handled, a faith that a positive outcome is forthcoming, and a trust that the result is worth the risk. Confident people sometimes make mistakes, are sometimes wrong, and sometimes fail. One of the biggest components of confidence is the determination to pick ourselves up when we fall.
Prior performance can have a huge impact on confidence; it proves or disproves the presence of adequate preparation. Overconfident people often have experiences that fool them into having false confidence. Likewise, fearful types may have a history of crushing failures that cause them to undervalue their abilities and knowledge. But we can recover from failures and prepare ourselves for future challenges so that when they come, we can stand up with confidence and face the situation head on.
How Can I Build Higher Confidence?
To become a manager who is more like our proficient, professional actor, you can practice one or all of these three confidence-building strategies.
- Learn What Confidence Is Not
Managers are hurt when they believe myths about what confidence is. Have you ever met someone who was afraid to show any weakness or flaws? “I always believe I’m the best at everything,” they might say, “You just have to.” But that’s not reality-based confidence. We need to avoid displaying the signs of false confidence shown by managers who:
- Pretend they never make mistakes
- State their views in rude, aggressive, or self-centered ways
- Show off to prove they’re better than others
- Act like they don’t need help
- Insist on having their way
- Adopt a Growth Mindset
Many peer-reviewed studies suggest that people either believe they are stuck at a certain level of competence or that they can grow. Guess who is more successful? If you continually remind yourself that you are able to grow, you should develop these signs of quiet confidence:
- Not reacting defensively to criticism but using it to fuel your studies and practice
- Finding lessons in failure and applying those lessons in current and future projects
- Finding sources of training all around you—seminars, online talks, books, etc.—and taking advantage of them
- Gather Confidence-Boosting Evidence
When you’re starting an unfamiliar type of project, meet with 1–3 people who are experienced and successful in that area. Ask them how they know that they’re finished preparing for that project type. From their comments, compile a checklist you can use to make sure you’re also prepared. When you’ve checked off every task, move forward with energy, knowing you’re as ready as you can be.
With the proper preparation, we can even improvise our performance when things go sideways. Complications don’t have to stop us, and confident performance can often compensate for a lack of knowledge or ability that arises while pursuing the goal. The key is to keep trying. Above all else, confident people are determined. They admit fault and accept failure, adjust the course, and keep going. So, if we practice preparation and determination, each of us can lead by example and lead with true confidence.