Beware Confidence Masquerading as Competence
It’s a scenario many of us have experienced: You’re in a meeting when someone raises an issue that you are familiar with, and as you consider what clarifying questions to ask, someone else jumps in and very confidently proposes an answer—seemingly the answer. Your colleagues, impressed by the swiftness and assertiveness of the other person, quickly concur. You may then wonder whether it would have been better if you had interjected with a confident (if perhaps ill-informed) solution rather than taking the time to identify a good one.
These kinds of displays can be frustrating, but self-confidence is essential to tackling difficult problems. Without confidence, we might give up too easily and leave problems unsolved or only partially resolved. Where we need to be careful is not being falsely overconfident. What’s behind that overconfidence can either help or hinder your achieving a good result.
Sometimes apparent overconfidence can be a conscious attempt to influence an outcome. More often it’s unconscious. Social status may have something to do with it: A study correlates an elite upbringing with an inflated sense of ability, leading to unjustified overconfidence—which is perceived by many as competence. Some groups are swayed by someone who appears confident, regardless of their performance or the quality of their ideas.
Regardless of the motivation (or consciousness) of the unjustified confidence, approaching a problem with a lack of curiosity about the unknowns can cause problems. The responsibility for that is on the other members of the team.
If you’re part of that team, be wary of solutions offered before there’s any attempt at seeking clarification. Asking questions to define the situation can help both you and the problem-solver understand your problem. This doesn’t mean being overly skeptical of offered advice; people’s levels of expertise do differ, and being exceedingly doubtful can slow you down. But make sure that the person providing solutions takes the time to understand what you mean.
And if you find yourself wanting to be the one to jump in with a solution, making sure that you understand the problem before starting to solve it can save you time in the long run. While answering “Are you sure?” in the negative might lead your idea (and ultimately your value) to be dismissed in some organizations, that sort of culture is likely to miss out on the benefits of collaboration. Also be aware that expertise doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have increased confidence: The more experience you have, the more likely you are to be aware of how much you may not know.
Confident curiosity is different from self-doubt. You need confidence to push forward in the face of doubt. But being curious before jumping to a solution can only help you help your team be successful and avoid answering the wrong question. And forming a culture where uncertainty and curiosity are valued can help you prevent overconfidence from slowing you down.