· 3 min read · Features

The case for lowering leaders' confidence


The solution to our leadership issues is to reduce leaders' sense of self-assurance (unless they are female)

Not a single day goes by without someone suggesting that the solution to our gender diversity problem is to boost women’s confidence. This is the fundamental premise of Sheryl Sandberg’s 'lean in' movement, though the idea dates back many decades.

Consider that since the 1940s Gallup polls have highlighted consistent stereotypes of women as less assertive, courageous and decisive than men, and academic reviews have confirmed what we all already know: that people with higher levels of self-confidence and self-belief tend to achieve higher levels of success in life. In other words: think highly of yourself – to the point that others notice it – and you will increase your chances of being a leader.

But what if the solution to our leadership issues was to lower men’s confidence rather than elevate women’s? Imagine for instance a new paradigm in executive coaching and leadership development designed to lower leaders’ self-esteem so it aligns with reality. Absurd? Not according to science.

Consider the following findings from academic research:

Overconfidence is the norm

Few biases are as pervasive and consistently documented as the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive events while underestimating the likelihood of negative events. This optimism bias is particularly striking when our own competence and egos are at stake. Most people would rather see the world in a flattering and self-serving way than experience an unpleasant reality check. So much so that the technical term to describe those capable of facing the facts and escaping reality distortion is 'depressive realists'. This is why most people see themselves as better than average on any domain of competence – a statistical impossibility since most people are by definition average.

Overconfidence is toxic

'OK,' you may say, 'surely there are lots of benefits to being overconfident'. Or you might think this is at least preferable to the alternative of being underconfident. When I recently mentioned to a BBC journalist that we would be better off with a higher representation of leaders (both in business and politics) capable of questioning themselves and displaying a healthy degree of self-doubt, her response was: “But who wants to follow a leader who says ‘I don’t know?'” Well, any rational person.

If our main criterion for picking leaders is their self-perceived knowledge, we will surely end up with people in charge who are unaware of their limitations and unjustifiably pleased with themselves. This is the point I illustrate in my latest book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? Sadly overconfidence is a pervasive trait underlying most of the narcissistic, psychopathic and Machiavellian behaviours that are found in so many leaders (most of them men) who are toxic to their followers, teams and organisations.

Humble competence beats deluded incompetence every time

Although few would dispute the fact that we are better off having leaders who are competent, ethical and humble, most people appear to miss an important point: these traits are rarely associated with a surplus of confidence. Inevitably, then, when leader selection is based on confidence there comes a point when we start discriminating against people with higher levels of talent and integrity. By the same token, telling women they are 'too kind and caring' to be leaders will enable not just men, but also women, with an overconfident, abrasive, and hyper-masculine profile to rise to the top, irrespective of their actual competence.

In short, as Oliver Burkeman recently noted, 'the solution to a world with too many overconfident fools in charge is not to train everyone else to be overconfident'. In my 20 years of experience coaching leaders – most of them men – I have certainly achieved more progress when I managed to lower rather than boost their confidence, self-belief and egos. And anybody who has ever coached leaders will have noticed that one of the most reliable indicators of poor coachability is their inability to accept their limitations or align their self-views with other people’s views of them.

Sometimes the gap between who people think they are and who they actually are is just too big to close, and that is generally due to a surplus rather than lack of confidence.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, and author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?