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Inspiration for the Timid: Confidence Does Not Equal Competence

Inspiration for the Timid: Confidence Does Not Equal Competence

I’m not going to lie: Confidence wins. But there are warnings that should accompany the easy feeling that confidence inspires, and many benefits of doubt are often overlooked.

One day, in the car, my husband and I are debating X. I am sure of A and he is sure of B. Because he’s sure, now I’m unsure. I pull out my phone and Google it. I’m right. He’s wrong. I am frustrated by his overconfidence. He is completely unbothered that he was wrong. I make a mental note of this mini-drama.

The drama continues to play out similarly in future debates between us. Not that he is always or even frequently wrong, but that he is always confident. It took years and years for me to learn that his confidence in his own position does not correlate to the likelihood that he is right. And if that is true for him, it’s true for others, too.

Research reveals that I am not alone, that we are not alone, in these interactions. In a Florida State University study of men and women’s confidence in test scores, the results showed that the men consistently rated themselves as having performed better on a math test than their fellow women students rated their own performance, despite similar scores.

These scenarios, of course, show up in the workplace as well. Early in my career as an attorney, I would hear both clients and attorneys say things like “It’s just your standard insurance policy..." or, "just a standard term sheet..." or, "just standard payment terms.” Damn, I would think, I wish I knew the standard insurance policy so I could talk intelligently about this contract question. I still hear these statements fairly regularly.

Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as a “standard” anything when it comes to the law. No two contracts are ever the same and the relevant facts about the contract performance is never the same. Why did it take so long to learn this when law school is all about injecting doubt into statements of fact or law? The confidence with which information is delivered can be misleading.

1.  Confidence does not correlate with competence.

According to Daniel Kahneman, “Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it.” It turns out that confidence does not correlate to accuracy. More than that, those who develop “expertise” in a field often develop increased confidence without increased accuracy. This is something to consider in a world where everyone seems to value confidence. It makes us feel better, safer when our adviser is confident. But what if that confidence actually blinds the expert to other possibilities and opportunities?

[Related: The Real Reason Women Experience Self-Doubt at Work]

2.  Use doubt to explore.

Some would argue that action is king, so confidence is valuable because it helps people act. But there are situations in which fluency is better than certainty, like: brainstorming, weighing big decisions, creativity, fact gathering, and investigating. Instead of trying to eliminate your doubts, use your doubts to explore possibilities.

3.  Questions are powerful.

Law school teaches that questions are one of our most valuable tools. As a young attorney, I did not want to ask questions because it would show how little I knew. But I had a very experienced attorney mentor who was not afraid to ask these questions. It would surprise me to hear him ask, “What does that mean?” or “What do you mean when you say X?” Amazingly, those same attorneys and clients who confidently characterized something as “standard” had trouble defining what it was, and by talking through it, we would all have a better understanding of the circumstances and key information.

I also saw both clients and attorneys who viewed questions as weakness or lack of knowledge. They were the clients and attorneys who saw disputes and the law as black and white, right and wrong answers. They were, in turn, less likely to be creative and be able to solve complex problems.

[Related: This is How to Close the Confidence Gap]

4.  Know there is rarely, if ever, one right answer or course of action.

It’s not about knowing the right answer. It’s about knowing that this solution can work, though there may be many other solutions that would also. Once you have explored the possibilities and asked the questions, pick a path knowing that your choice is one among many that will be successful.

5.  Divorce yourself from your ideas.

You are not your ideas, so criticism of one of your ideas is not a criticism of you. Let those ideas flow and don’t let the evaluation of ideas affect your view of yourself.  

6.  Don't try to fake confidence.

Studies show that people can detect false confidence. Trying to be something you are not makes you less trustworthy. By following the steps above, you can foster your own confidence and lessen the negative consequences of others’ over-confidence.

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Allison Beckham is an experienced attorney who started A. Beckham Law, PLLC to help people help themselves through the legal process with limited scope representation. Through her virtual law practice, she counsels businesses and individuals in business law, estate planning, and family law. She has been named a Texas Super Lawyer - Rising Star for the last five years.


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