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Even experts have doubts

Most people respect the assurance that a confident leader exudes. But like all good things, confidence also has to be measured. While too little is indicative of insecurity, an overdose can also spell trouble, especially for leaders. In an article in Scientific American Mind, management consultant Khatera Sahibzada, gives us pointers to avoid getting sucked in by the persuasive pull of overconfident people.

Be aware that we often conflate confidence with competence. Haven’t we all felt safer in the hands of a doctor who comes up with a pat diagnosis instead of dithering over several possibilities? Don’t we prefer professors who answer our questions instead of those who hem and haw saying they need to think about them? According to psychologist Maria Konnikova, this is because humans prefer certainty over ambiguity. To avoid a sense of unease, we may buy into the definitive assertions of confident people. However, confidence is not a proxy for accuracy. Instead, if we learn to tolerate ambivalence, we are more open to other possibilities and thus less likely to fall under the spell of overconfidence.

We also need to identify and appreciate what Sahibzada calls “intellectual humility.” While expertise in any domain is always welcome, remember that even experts too have their doubts and limits. Those with hubris are unlikely to reveal their vulnerabilities as they do not want their reputation tainted. Besides, as noted Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, says experts,

including doctors, “who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance” don’t necessarily impress their clients.

Gather the facts

Another telltale sign of overconfidence is when people fail to pay heed to their subordinates, even if their juniors are more knowledgeable in certain areas. Leaders, who seldom take advice from others, can be blinded by their egos and may fail to avert avoidable crises. Be it a CFO or a senior surgeon, watch out for those who dismiss the concerns of a junior offhandedly.

You also need to be skeptical of bold claims that overconfident people make. Ask for data that backs up their assertions. If they avoid giving you concrete evidence or fail to specify sources to support their stance, your antennae should be raised. When someone, especially in a position of power, is unwilling to field questions, then you are possibly smelling a rat.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Elizabeth Tenney, Nathan Meikle and David Hunsaker, observe that overconfidence is expressed through two channels. When people make assertions like, “I am 99% certain,” their claims can usually be tested against “actual performance and outcomes.” Hence, we are more likely to spot instances of overconfidence. A more subtle, but nevertheless, forceful manner in which overconfidence is communicated is using non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and gestures. When confidence is signalled non-verbally, we may be swayed without necessarily being aware. Thus, the authors coax us to watch out for behaviours like “standing tall, speaking loudly, and dominating conversation.” If you feel a person is exhibiting overconfidence, you can ask questions or gather data to verify their claims.

(The writer is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2020 2:43:32 PM |

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