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‘Appearing confident’ is over-rated

We are told that confidence is the key to success. Many of us participate in training on building and demonstrating confidence – presentation skills, influencing skills, women in leadership, etc. We miss out on jobs because we don’t come across as confident.


There are two problems with over-focusing on appearing confident.


First, people who look like they are confident are not always actually confident. You may know people who look and speak confidently, but when given corrective feedback they get defensive, aggressive or shut down. It’s a hint that there’s a bit of confidence and self-esteem missing when we are unable to receive feedback. Truly confident people are able to take feedback, discern what’s useful, admit that they are working on things and that they make mistakes. Confident people are able to be strong and vulnerable.


PsyBlog article Being A Narcissist And Having High Self-Esteem Are Totally Different Things describes the difference between:

  • People who have high self-esteem see value in themselves but do not see themselves as more valuable than others, versus
  • Narcissists who feel superior to others but aren’t necessarily satisfied with themselves. They have a desire to be admired by others and can easily become aggressive and angry.


Second, over-emphasising the importance of appearing confident has downsides:

  • We could end up with over-confident, arrogant, hubristic or narcissistic leaders who don’t listen to others, think they have all the answers, believe they are invincible. (see Power Poisoning) There are plenty of examples where hubris has led to poor decisions and business disasters (see HBR article Rooting out hubris before a fall).
  • Leaders, believing they need to show that they are confident, fail to show their vulnerabilities or admit their mistakes. In these instances, courage is more important than appearing confident.
  • Appearance of confidence is mistaken as competence. Businesses suffer from incompetent hires because they are seduced by the confident exterior and fail to dig deeper to understand their competence.
  • We miss the opportunity to hire, retain or promote highly competent individuals who may not come across as confident, based on our assumptions about what confidence looks like. Some people are quietly confident and don’t show it overtly. There may also be gender and cultural differences in how confidence shows up.


My previous article, I don’t want to be a leader, refers to the issue of over-emphasis of ‘masculine’ qualities over ‘feminine’ qualities in leadership. While confidence is still important, it may be time to rethink how much we focus on ‘appearing confident’ as a leadership quality.


What if we looked for competence, humility and courage before focusing on appearing confident? How would recruitment, promotion and reward decisions change?


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