The dangers of overconfidence: Q&A with Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

We had a chat with Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, vice president of research and innovation at Hogan, to find out what exactly constitutes confidence in the workplace – and whether too much of it can be a bad thing.

What separates good confidence from bad? How do you define it in the workplace setting?

Good confidence is realistic and tied to actual abilities or competence, and bad confidence is basically just delusional. Contrary to what most people have been saying for a long time now, there are very few advantages of thinking that you're good when in fact you're not, and there are actually quite a few advantages in knowing or being aware of your limitations and weaknesses.
In broad terms, we could define confidence as your self-perceived or self-evaluated abilities relating to anything that has to do with your career or job – generally speaking, your ability to progress or advance in your career and make an important contribution to your employer.

What are some other common misconceptions people have about confidence, and how much we really need it?

If you look at the US, for example, you only need to read any article on career success to see how much people value self-belief. We've reached a point in time where I think even if you offered most employees the option of swallowing a pill that will make them smarter, more hard working or more competent at their jobs, or another pill that will make them more confident, they will probably go for the latter. It's almost funny that that is the case because thinking you're good has very few actual benefits or advantages – the important thing is for other people to rate your abilities and your talents. And that doesn't come from high levels of self-belief, but actually doing what it takes to demonstrate competence at work.

You've mentioned previously that there is a dark side to high confidence and a bright side to low confidence. What are the actual advantages of having low confidence?

There are three key benefits: the first one is that it makes you more aware of the potential threats or problems you might face, and you actually become more realistic the less confident you are. Secondly – as a consequence of that – you will probably be more motivated to work harder. If you think you're better than you actually are, you become entitled and complacent whereas if you're underestimating your abilities, that has a positive effect because it leads to higher levels of effort. Lastly, it actually reduces the chances of coming across as arrogant or cocky.

Is there a clear distinction between having low levels of confidence and simply being modest, or are they the same thing?

There is a difference, and the key distinction here is that one thing is how you feel internally and the other thing is how you're seen by other people. Sometimes these two things are connected and sometimes they're not, but ultimately the two meet at some point because people who are not confident in themselves are almost never seen as arrogant – on the contrary, they are seen as modest. At the same time, if you think you're really great and you're full of yourself, you will have to work really hard to fake modesty and come across as humble to other people.

How easy is it for people to manage, or strike the right balance between, over and under confidence?

You can definitely manage it yourself but it requires two things: first, you really need to have a certain degree of insight into your actual abilities; you need to be self-aware of how good you actually are. And that is a problem that people have anywhere. The fact that most people can overestimate their abilities, and that's especially true for men, not so much for women – there is a big sex difference here. The second thing is that once you are aware of your actual abilities, it's important to spend some time and effort managing your impressions. This would seem common sense to me, but it's in conflict with much of the popular advice that we hear people give, like “don't worry about what other people think of you” or “just be yourself”. This is nonsense because it does matter what other people think of you.

How far can tools such psychometrics and personality assessments help us in measuring whether someone has a 'healthy' level of confidence?

Good tests can provide you with a really good assessment of both your confidence and your competence. The critical thing is that these tests are designed to predict how other people are likely to see you. Many of the tests that are out there only deal with self-evaluations and that is a problem – you can't tell people how confident or competent they are if you're only relying on their own self-evaluations. The best tests compare people with different levels of confidence and competence and in terms of how their self-presentations are likely to correlate with actual behaviours.

What sort of link is there between confidence and personal branding?

Confidence is important to personal branding but I think employers or recruiters tend to pay too much attention to confidence. And I think that partly because in most domains of competence or ability, most people don't have enough expertise to actually distinguish between confidence and competence. When they see somebody who is behaving in a really assertive way in an interview, they assume that because they're confident, they must be good at their job. However, to the trained eye, if you really have the capacity, the background, the experience and knowledge to actually understand what skills and expertise look like, then you don't rely on confidence, you actually assess a person's actual capabilities.

One of the problems is that it's a lot easier to do this with hard skills, but if you're trying to evaluate candidates for managerial positions, then you're mostly looking at things to do with soft skills, like emotional intelligence, judgement and learning ability. In those circumstances, it's very hard to evaluate these things via an interview because of the confidence of the candidate would tend to intoxicate or bias your evaluation of their actual skills.