The confidence trap

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The confidence trap

 Kang Hye-ryun
The author is a professor of business management at Ewha Womans University.

What is the success rate of people in leadership positions in private and public sectors? A Harvard Business School professor conducted a study by asking 10,000 HR specialists around the world to evaluate leaders in each field. The outcome was disappointing, as the success rate of the leaders was a mere 26 percent. It shows it’s not easy for leaders to be recognized as successful after going through troubles and rising to leadership positions.
Leadership and personality traits are closely linked. The most notable factor is confidence. We don’t really care about the level of confidence of the people we meet in our daily lives. However, politicians who lack confidence are not likely to be elected as leaders. People tend to see strong confidence and self-absorption as leadership traits. Then, are people showing strong confidence actually competent?
Confidence has two faces. First, as confident people are energetic and appealing — and as they have an advantage in garnering support — it can positively affect their performance. But at the same time, they can portray their lack of competence as “confidence” after deceiving themselves. It is hard to tell if one is competent because abilities are not often visible on the surface. For example, strong confidence of an applicant in a job interview can cover up for shortcomings in ability and they can get ahead of competitors who are actually more competent but seems ordinary.
I wonder where such overconfidence comes from. More than 20 years ago, two Cornell University psychologists — David Dunning and Justin Kruger — conducted a simple experiment. They had students take a logical reasoning test and also had them write their expected score. Here, the difference between self-prediction and the actual score is viewed as the confidence score. Interestingly, students who scored lower made predictions of higher scores, and students with higher scores underestimated their scores.
In other words, students lacking competence showed higher confidence while competent students didn’t show overconfidence. The outcome was verified in various follow-up studies. It is called the “Dunning-Kruger effect.”
The reason to overly trust one’s ability and fall for a “delusional sense of superiority” is simple. You don’t know “how much you don’t know.” It reminds us how insightful Socrates had been as he said, “Know thyself.” Those people who lack ability or expertise in a certain subject doesn’t know the entire range of things to know, so they often mistake their own narrow vision for a whole. They are delusional to think that they know everything they should and do not accept feedback for improvement. That’s why failing leaders often miss the chance to recover.
When the government and important social leaders make rash and reckless decisions in areas where they lack competency and expertise, the seriousness of the problem gets out of control. The real estate policy that drove people to panic, the worsening employment situation due to the sharp minimum wage increases, and the rash energy policy ignoring our industrial reality can be the outcomes of the leader’s overconfidence.
Then how can someone challenging to become an important leader get over self-delusion of overconfidence?
The sooner the leader stops thinking he can provide everything to every citizen, the better for the organization. In the rapidly changing world, if an overconfident leader thinks he can lead an organization to the best outcomes, that’s only a fantasy. As a leader should realize how incomplete he or she is, they are demanded to have the virtue of an “incomplete leader” to propose and persuade how the shortcomings can be supplemented.
For the next year’s presidential election, many candidates exude confidence. They show off their competency and attack the supposed incompetence of others. The candidates who are running now don’t have any experience of being the president. So I wonder what makes them so confident. The confidence of the ruling party candidate stands out. Media reports often single out his strong confidence that he can achieve everything as his biggest strength.
The trial and error we face in reality is that we are attracted to the confidence and select a leader, but that leadership fails because of the trait.
We must not forget that if you pick a leader because of the refreshing and confident language and flash performance, people can end up in regret because of that.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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