Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Confidence: fine in moderation

Edited by Jill Wright,

While a lack of self-confidence can impose all sorts of unwelcome limits on someone's life - which is why we help clients with low self-esteem counselling, including a class on improving self-confidence - according to Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman, recent research indicates that when empty of competence, expertise or trustworthiness, confidence is over-rated. 

A study aimed at improving group decision-making and performance, led by Dr Bryan Bonner, an associate professor at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business, suggested that groups that separate actual experts from those who talk big perform better than those who listen to loudmouths. 

An article on the research in the Wall St Journal also offered some clues for preventing the most confident people from taking over a meeting, while warning that sometimes the most vocal members actually do know best.

Our organisational psychologists keep very much up to date with research in this area.

As the article in The Guardian indicates, a new book, by Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an expert on personality profiling and Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, suggests that individuals with high confidence are less likeable, less employable and less successful in the long run.

Appropriately titled Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity and Self-Doubt  the book suggests people with less confidence are  more self-aware and motivated, and have had to learn some pretty desirable skills, including knowing how to get ahead at work and "when to fake it".

There is no shortage of studies connecting confidence to success. However, Prof Chamorro-Premuzic's data suggests that the by now trite linking of confidence to success actually works the other way round: successful people might all be confident, but it was the success that produced their confidence. 

His advice is to stop obsessing about self-belief and instead concentrate on achieving competence. 
Chamorro-Premuzic maintains a blog at the Harvard Business Review, and in one of his posts last year he explained the difference between extremely low confidence and just-low-enough-confidence, and how the latter works to help someone accomplish their goals.

Quoting figures from Gallup polling that indicate that most of the more than 60 per cent of employees who are unhappy at work regard their bosses as narcissistic, Chamorro-Premuzic claims that "If managers were less arrogant, fewer employees would be spending their working hours on Facebook, productivity rates would go up and turnover rates would go down."

That produced a storm of comments. I couldn't help but wonder how many of the more irate ones might have come from particularly confident individuals.

Some links:

The Guardian blog post.

Bryan Bonner and some suggestions for better meetings.

The Wall Street Journal view on the office loudmouth.

Chamorro-Premuzic's book and his blog post on just-low-enough confidence.


About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the APS Victorian branch Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.

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