Warning: Overconfidence trumps competence

Warning: Overconfidence trumps competence

Bidvest CIO Campbell Such investigates why it’s a problem, how to recognise it and what to do about it.

Overconfidence is like the chameleon that’s difficult to see.

Campbell Such, Bidvest

Little did I know, at the time, the awful mistake I had just made. I’d helped interview someone for an assistant manager role in another team. He interviewed well and I recommended him for the job. In a short time, the existing team manager left and he took over managing that team.

Over the next 12 months an increasing number of complaints began surfacing from two key staff he dealt with, in Australia and New Zealand, about his approach and way of interacting. What I saw, however, was a guy who appeared reasonable, confident and in control. It seemed like they were being unreasonable. I even helped him with ideas on how to deal with them.

Then my direct reports started to raise concerns about him: the disrespectful way he dealt with people at lower levels in the organisation, the “mis-truths” he spoke and the way he always blamed others when anything went wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe my direct reports. It was just at that stage, I had hadn’t seen any evidence of this.

However, over time, I became more and more aware of how he operated. Consistent expression of certainty that he had everything under control and that delivery was imminent; consistent failure to deliver; consistently believable reasons that explained he was never the reason for the delays; always deflecting blame to someone or something else; and “mis-truths” becoming evident. My relationship with him began to deteriorate.

Overconfidence is someone’s flawed, overly positive view of their skills or knowledge.

And yet, at the same time, I kept finding myself believing the promises he made with such conviction. Knowing he was unlikely to deliver and yet finding myself believing him. Seduced by what I now know was overconfidence. He was a master at it. And he was a disaster in our business. And just as hard as it was for my team members to convince me he was the problem, it was as hard for me to convince my manager, when I finally realised the truth. He did go…eventually, but not without causing a lot of problems. What I didn’t realise at the time, what I’ve since learned, and what he had in abundance, was overconfidence

It turns out that overconfidence is like the chameleon that’s difficult to see. Overconfidence slips unnoticed past our natural resistances and suspicions. It can make us believe someone is far more capable than they are and often leads us to listen to, believe and follow people who are not capable of the things we attribute to them. This can have major negative impacts on your business and social environments. Here’s how to recognise it and what to do about it.

First up let’s define overconfidence

Overconfidence is someone’s flawed, overly positive view of their skills or knowledge. It can take several forms:

  • Believing they are more capable than objective measures would show
  • Believing they are better than others by either more than they actually are, or even when they’re worse than others.

It turns out that we’re all overconfident sometimes, and for some things.

Ask yourself if you’re a better driver than average. Almost everyone says that they are, “knows” that they are. And yet, ‘average’ means at least half of us have to be worse than the average. So we can't all be better than average. We’re blind to our own overconfidence.

For the vast majority of us, we’re only overconfident occasionally; for some things, in some situations. Not a major issue. The real issue is the people who are overconfident for most, or all, of the time. And especially when they are in key roles that impact the rest of us. It turns out that we’re not only blind to our own overconfidence; we also can’t see it in others.

Let’s dig into the research

A study by Professor Anderson at the Haas School of Business found: “In organisations, people are very easily swayed by others’ confidence even when that confidence is unjustified. Displays of confidence are given an inordinate amount of weight.” This means those people are often promoted over those who are more competent, as their peers and superiors mistake their confidence for talent. Could this be the reason for the Peter Principle? (Peter Principle is the idea that in business, people are promoted into jobs with duties they cannot fulfil)

The research found that at work, people with overconfidence or big egos often make more mistakes and don’t perform as well as others. However their overconfident behaviour gives them a huge amount of influence and means these mistakes are consistently missed. And, most disconcertingly, at the same time, the person is considered to be “terrific” or “beloved”.

Recognising it isn’t easy because they appear to know what they’re doing

What Prof Anderson and his team found is that overconfident individuals talked more and participated more extensively in group tasks, even when they were less competent. Their body language, vocal tone, and rate of participation were all influencing factors. They spoke more often, spoke with confidence and provided more information and answers, and they acted calmly and relaxed as they worked with their peers.

The study showed that this made them appear to be more competent than others who were actually more competent. For example, in a general knowledge tests as part of the study, those who made loud claims to know the right answers were held in highest regard, even when they got the answers wrong.

Look for a consistent pattern of expressed confidence to deliver and repeated failure.

Campbell Such, Bidvest

You might think that, surely overconfidence wouldn’t work on you.

Or, that you wouldn’t be affected by it. That you’d see right through it. Perhaps that’s our own overconfidence in our ability to spot overconfidence. It turns out we’re all highly susceptible to its influence.

Professor Anderson’s research shows that we’re very poor at assessing competence in others. Instead we rely on other indicators, or proxies, to help us work out if someone is capable and competent. And one of the critical factors we use, to do that is confidence.

The Haas study shows that we all unconsciously use someone’s level of confidence as a strong indicator of:

  • their level of ability to do the job
  • whether they know what they are talking about
  • what they are saying is right

It’s as difficult to see the difference between confidence and overconfidence, as it was to pick the winner in the 2016 US presidential election. So how do we recognise it?

Look for a consistent pattern of expressed confidence to deliver and repeated failure.

This is the recipe to recognising it. Look for irrepressible confidence that they can still achieve it. Difficult as it may be, it’s critical to look past their display of confidence to their actual capability and competence. And when you do, like the demister on your windscreen finally clearing a patch to see through, you can start to see past the blindness they’ve had you driving in.

The key is awareness

Ask yourself: Does this person exhibiting a strong conviction that they can do or achieve something, have the skills, experience, tools and track record to do it? Are they “certain” that what they are saying is right, when you’ve seen them express that certainty many times before, when they were totally wrong?

If so it’s highly likely they’re demonstrating overconfidence. As the research shows we actually tend to see the people exhibiting it as “wonderful” and “terrific”. So you’ll have to continually challenge yourself to see through it.

Can you inoculate yourself against it?

Probably not. Our natural tendency is to believe it. And for most people most of the time, it’s not an issue. The occasional overconfidence we all exhibit at times isn’t the problem. It’s when you start to see a pattern of behaviour or suspect that it’s overconfidence at work, then it’s time to do a reality check. Ask yourself: Is this person showing confidence because they can do it, or overconfidence because they can't?

You’ve recognised it, but how do you get others to see it? You might have to explain the Haas research to them and help them see through their own susceptibility to other people’s overconfidence. A tough road. But worth it. Because someone like this can be a disaster in your business, in your teams, in clubs, organisations and charities you’re involved with, and in your social networks.

To summarise what we’ve covered:

  • Overconfidence is someone’s flawed, overly positive view of their skills or knowledge.
  • We unconsciously use confidence as a proxy to assess competence in others.
  • Occasional overconfidence is not the problem (we all exhibit it sometimes for some things) – it’s the persistently overconfident person that can be so problematic.
  • Recognising it is so hard because their behaviour makes them appear to know what they’re doing and to be more competent than others when they are actually less competent.
  • Look for a consistent pattern of expressed confidence to deliver and repeated failure.
  • Use the Haas research as a reference to help others see the problem

Like the mistake I made in recommending the assistant manager for the role, there’s a high chance you won’t initially recognise an over-confident person. They appear so reasonable, confident and in control. It may take some time before you put all the pieces together. And even then, don’t be surprised if you find yourself continuing to believe them in spite of yourself. Eventually their inability to deliver what they promise will help unmask their chameleon like capacity to appear so competent, when they’re not.

So keep a lookout for people around you who are seducing you and your colleagues with their overconfidence alongside their incompetence. This could be at work, in your professional organisations or your social groups. When you see someone time and again promise with conviction, pronounce with certainty, and yet repeatedly get it wrong – you’re looking at one. Be careful, it will be tough to have others see them for what they are. But they are truly a problem. It may not be easy, but you need to find a way to help them to move on.

"The key is awareness Ask yourself: 'Does this person exhibiting a strong conviction that they can do or achieve something, have the skills, experience, tools and track record to do it?'"
"The key is awareness Ask yourself: 'Does this person exhibiting a strong conviction that they can do or achieve something, have the skills, experience, tools and track record to do it?'"

Campbell Such is GM IT for Bidvest, a wholesale food distribution business and a top 50 company in NZ. He has a varied career in New Zealand and internationally, working in technology, management and roles in marketing and sales. Reach him at and through his blog.

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