A Must Read Guide for Businesses and Redundancies
Keep skilled people in tough times ...and who to shed
As we enter a new normal post-Covid, the new economy we are waking up to simply won’t allow for old definitions of ‘business as usual.’ Businesses have failed, jobs have been lost, new jobs have been created, and teams restructured. If this sounds familiar ask yourself - who will have to go, who should employers prioritise keeping and how do ensure the right skills are truly valued?
For my team, and I’d advise yours, prioritising competence is vital. Sounds obvious, but too often we hire, keep and promote those who wow us with their confidence. No more. This may be a missed step as organisations look to make significant cuts, they may overlook this vital stage. Ideally, employers should go through a process of selecting people against objective seletion criteria. However, in the rush to make headway, it will be easy for many to forgo this step. This may be more likely if they know the chances of employees taking them to court will be minimal in a recession.
We are entering the toughest job market in a generation. Vaccines may have been discovered hard decisions about who to keep and whom to shed will have to be made. The graph below, taken from Google trends, shows the huge spike in searches about 'unemployment' rising dramatically after most economies started to enter various lockdowns. It's certainly slowed since those original heights, but it certainly is nowhere near the optimistic pre-Covid lows of December 2019, and it's actually slowly crawling back up.
It’s a hard time to feel confident about work, yet amazingly people do. In fact, a US poll at the end of April 2020 found over ¾ of people thought they’d be returning to work with their previous employer after stay-at-home orders were lifted. It’s an odd time to feel confident in light of the statistical, economic, not to mention the ongoing economic and medical realities facing employees and their families around the world.
However, if anything speaks to the power of misplaced confidence, it’s this reality most people are ignoring. If you have to make tough choices, there’s never been a better time to forgo overoptimistic confidence in favour or competent evidence-based reality.
Vaccine's been found! Still thinking about job losses?
While the creation of the vaccine's is a great step forward, it's not a fail safe for you either as an employer or as an employee. Your organisation has no doubt already changed in unrecognisable ways, but it's a mistake to think it will be plan sailing from here on out for everyone. Roles will likely be redesigned, teams restructured and some may still have to go. In many ways offering voluntary redundancies seems a great option if still you need to make cuts, though be mindful of the legalities of the process. After all, why keep people who no longer are as committed to staying? For many businesses, offering voluntary redundancies, ideally with enhanced packages is therefore the first stop for deciding who to shed. This often comes before compulsory redundancies if that first round doesn’t attract enough leavers. Worrying, voluntary redundancies sometimes attract the people you actually would like to keep.
However, voluntary redundancies and early retirement, while attractive, can also be a real risk and they can deplete the ranks of some of your most effective employees. For example, PWC research shows that ’strategist leaders’ are the type who could best oversee the types of transformational change we’ll be going through in the next few year. These employees are unique in that they individually have a broader range of experience in different settings, use positive language and show humility which they often earn from disappointments or failure.
These traits and experiences all give them greater resilience when things go pear-shaped, as they inevitably can do. The demographic group with the most strategist leaders? Women over 55. However, this winning demographic is problematic for businesses, as they are a group that will be likely to leave unless employers make inroads to retain them.
It’s still wise to start with voluntary redundancies. However, they’re not always straightforward - I recently worked with an organisation where two older people leaving removed 70 years of experience and connections between them, in one team alone. It won’t be a quick process, as you’ll also need to have tough conversations ahead regarding who is too valuable or skilled to lose at this tough time - and who you could shed.
Groups disproportionately affected by Covid Job losses
We’re already seeing how job losses will fall irregularly on certain sectors, but also on different groups of people. For example, by the end of May, working mothers in the UK have already been 47% more likely to have lost their job or quit. Even if they held onto their roles, they were 14% more likely to have been furloughed.
Even amongst those who were able to hold onto their jobs, a lack of childcare is taking its toll with 67% of mothers forced to reduce their hours and 60% struggled to find any childcare provision.
To add insult to injury, mothers’ self-assessed productivity has fallen compared to working fathers. Parents, but mothers in particular, are now juggling children’s schooling in addition to their normal workload of paid work and unpaid household maintenance. This all contributes to widening gender inequalities and are a waste of skilled labour for the workplace.This decrease in productivity risks being misattributed to lack of competence rather than the day to day reality of most working mothers' lives.
So in light of decisions as to who will stay and who will go, let’s dig deeper to look at the difference between two words: confidence versus competence. If we don’t, you’re liable to make the same mistakes that have plagued the workplace for generations; biased choices that create prejudice in poor decision making. Those who put up on a good show of confident bravado are unfairly rewarded, and organisations miss out on the most skilled talent. After all, competence is how skilled you are, whereas confidence is how skilled you think you are.
However, when you think about who actually delivers, it’s often a different story. Ask your managers: ‘If your team halved tomorrow – who are the people you’d fight to keep?’ If you push those managers why they made the choices they did – it’s usually evidence - based. Only worry if they mention cultural fit as the primary reason, as that suggests it’s more about their comfort levels and prone to bias rather than the facts. So let’s look harder at the difference between the two words: vital as you make some tough hiring and redundancy decisions during the economic recovery.
Definitions of Confidence
We all think we know what confidence is - that x factor to which so many of us aspire, the supposed panacea for which people are often over-rewarded. However, for the workplace, as you make your decisions as to which staff to keep and which to shed, you’d be better off using the original 15th century Latin definition of confidence which focused on trust.
Do you trust this employee because they’ve historically done the right thing? This is a million miles away from the showy bluster we now associate with the word confidence. Modern confidence is the person who talks a good talk, without always delivering on the goods or backing it up with evidence or experience.
Indeed when employees say they want to be ‘more confident’, no one means ‘I want to be more trustworthy’. In reality, the only way you highlight your trustworthiness is through your actions. Indeed, when I asked nearly 40 leaders from over a dozen countries what confidence was, most people talked about body language, speech, eye contact, command of language and appearance.
- I'm confident I could figure that out
- I'm confident I'd be able to give that presentation
- I'm confident I could explain this to our most senior people
These are indeed visible, but have little to do with credibility, reliability or trust - things that employers must now be prioritising. Originally, confidence was always something other people could have in you - never something you could display. It was only when swindlers who could get unsuspecting victims to hand over their money because of the trust, faith and confidence they had in the perpetrators, that the term ‘confidence’ evolved in the 1850’s press, to become a quality you could ostensibly display. These early adaptations in turn gave us ‘con man’ and ‘confidence job’. Now, in common discussion, only more nuanced understandings of confidence refers to the trust you have in others as in:
- I’m confident she’ll make the right decision as she’s got great judgement
- I’m confident in my boss’s ability because he’s done this before
- I’m confident this company is one in which I can progress
What you’ll notice is that all of these rely on evidence and are based on the belief in someone or something else. None reward a false show or rely on big talk about what someone thinks they could achieve. Certainly most companies I work with want to be giving their employees a pathway, a career and a company to believe in. That’s the kind of confidence that should matter, not whether someone dazzles with their self-promotion skills or overpromises things they can’t ultimately deliver - which is what too often takes the spotlight.
Taking this stance should also help balance goals for gender equity as evidence shows women are consistently promoted on performance, and men on their perceived potential. Indeed judging people on ‘potential’ is akin to trying to predict the future. It would be far better for everyone to be judged on performance, rather than ‘what could be’.
Definitions of Competence
Skills and credible experiences are what all employers say they value, but even competence can be tricky to measure. It relies on someone having had the experience to undertake a task and repeated it frequently enough that they learned from it, and improved over time. It starts with being educated or well trained in a certain skill, but then given enough opportunity to practice it. It will feel like a challenge in the early days, until it almost becomes ‘routine’. That’s competence and those are the people to keep - the ones who always practice and seek to improve.
If you are wondering how to identify them - these are the skilled people on whom you rely. Rarely an exciting phrase, the competent are your proverbial ‘safe pair of hands’. They are the capable, the proficient, the functional and accurate; those on whom you can rely to get it right, as they’ve done it dozens of times before. However, too often competence falls by the wayside when feelings, connections or ‘gut instinct’ unwittingly becomes part of the deciding factors as to who should be hired, who should stay and who should go.
Getting an accurate read of someone’s confidence isn’t something most employers are concerned about. It’s often fairly self-evident who has confidence. However, it can be less visible who struggles with crises of confidence. indeed, in thinking who to keep don’t rule out those with impostor syndrome. The oft-dreaded impostor syndrome is actually a type of self-awareness, and one worth rewarding. Research shows that the best leaders express this type of self awareness and vulnerability and companies are better off for it.
Some suggest you look at appetite towards risk as a measure of confidence, though this has limitations. Most employees' acceptance of risk is deeply affected by three main factors. The first is how many wins they’ve historically had. The second is often affected by how many people are reliant on them (at work and at home). The third is how well supported they’d likely be when they do take that risk.
After all, it’s easier to take a risk if life has gone pretty well for you so far. Your confidence may be improved further if you are well-cushioned by an earning partner. Or perhaps you have well-connected friends who can find you a new role should this job not work out. These are not truisms for everyone and so will affect how confident your employees may appear.
To this point of the value of a ‘cushion’, employers putting women in senior positions in male dominated fields sounds a goal toward equity. However, if those employees lack active advocates and feel isolated after they arrive, those roles can be a bigger risk for them than for those whose ‘face fits.’ It’s not called a ‘glass cliff’ for nothing. Measuring confidence by itself is not useful.
Instead, let’s look at what matters far more - competence, and how to measure it. Many advise using a range of metrics, including giving people business tests or testing their skills. These are limited however in that they assess skills in simulated and artificial environments. Some suggest measuring engagement, morale and an assessment of the relationships employees have across the organisations. These are difficult to quantify, but they can underpin how successfully someone is working in their environment.
To that point, we’ve all known people who were technically great at their jobs, but who struggled with peers. This risks a few different problems. The first is that other employees have to learn to work around that technical genius, often ignoring inappropriate behaviour or comments, as if the technical genius is ‘untouchable’, which creates more work for everyone around them - and sends a message that bad behaviour is acceptable. Another challenge is that the competent employee’s contributions are overshadowed by how just poorly they manage others. Often this comes to light only when they’ve been given that evergreen sign of career progression - the responsibility of managing others.
For all employers, if you really want to measure competence, use 360 feedback as it’s widely recognised to be the most accurate. However, be mindful that even this most reliable of metrics has room for error. Douglas Morrison, Director of Operations and Future Skills at Construction Scotland Innovation Centre, who I interviewed for ‘The Con Job: Getting Ahead for Competence in a World Obsessed with Confidence’, sees a challenge in how we even measure competence.
Morrison suggests: Competence seems easy to judge for certain jobs, such as manufacturing. There it appears to be about volume – how much can one person produce in a set time. Sounds straightforward, but we can mistake quantity for quality. There’s a tacit acceptance that if you hit the basic benchmark, you’re competent. However, I don’t think we have a common understanding as to what competence means for us, so we fall back on those basic metrics I just mentioned. Realistically though, people know they aren’t the most important things.
You can overcome biases with clear metrics to some extent, but Morrison points out competency-based judgements are still subjective so prone to bias. It’s difficult to find metrics equally valued by everyone. What competencies are valued tends to be based on the preferences of one leader or what’s been valued before, which are often the same thing - but not necessarily the most valuable thing to measure.
As Morrison suggests, this is difficult and a risk. After all, getting people to agree on what competence looks like can be as fraught as deciding what confidence looks like. Plus, it’s a lot more intellectual work than just counting output. Morrison sees these challenges and says: So we default to agreeing upon essentially meaningless metrics. Things like how many hours they worked, the number of papers published or how many conferences at which they spoke.
The pitfalls of self-assessment
Most importantly when thinking of metrics to help you decide who to keep and who to shed, disavow self-assessments. While they can be interesting talking points, self-assessment creates anchoring bias, meaning managers will often inflate their own scores based on how highly the employee rates themself or is likely to rate themselves. A truism amongst the HR professionals with whom I’ve worked is that the confident will routinely rate themselves higher than they merit.
It should be easy to catch a liar out or someone who inflates their own value, right? Well, worryingly, the people who think they are the best at spotting liars are the worst. People can’t determine when others are lying or telling the truth, which is concerning as narcissists are more likely to work in managerial roles and are the most likely to overestimate their leadership potential and creativity. They are also the most likely to exploit others for fame, power or success.
This is particularly aligned to the destructive impact narcissists in particular can have on teams.
However, it deeply matters that we can’t tell who is lying or ‘stretching the truth’ and who is not. At its core, ‘reputation’ is just your competence according to others and people are wrong a lot of the time. So to minimise the gap between your confidence and competence, you have to understand how others see you, and the values they think you bring. The benefits for individuals and their employers are great when the focus is on competence instead of confidence.
For example, the competent will know how much they still don’t know, and so strive to improve their knowledge. Whereas we might have thought of these people as lacking in confidence it’s actually a sign of ‘self-aware realism’. This shows up in the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby highly skilled people underestimate their abilities while relatively unskilled individuals overestimate theirs. Simply put, the most confident are the least able and most susceptible to believing outlandish ideas – even after those ideas are disproven.
Douglas Morrison told me in our interview: ‘My issue with staff confidence isn’t that some are too under- confident to perform. It’s that some are overconfident yet don’t always understand what they are doing. That’s a real problem because they’re often not open to negotiation or compromise or even admitting they need help.'
While they may be hugely charismatic, look at the evidence; have these people really delivered? Do people know they can rely on them? If the answer is ‘no’, no matter how popular they are, trim these people first.
Competence in the eye of the beholder
Self-assessment and even 360 assessment plays out very differently, based on who is making the judgement. Evidence shows men being harsher on their female colleagues in a way women don’t seem to negatively judge their male colleagues. This happens whether they are post-graduate students or working professionals. In a review of 95 separate leadership studies on self-assessments, men rated themselves more favourably than their female colleagues rated themselves.
However, when this changed to 360 feedback (the verdict coming from colleagues at all levels) female leaders were judged more competent by everyone around them. Their reputation at all levels is vital as it’s a far more accurate predictor of competence than self-reviews. It’s valuable as it’s based on the types of people any employee has to work with - colleagues of all levels of seniority, and this finding has been proven time and time again.
Whether looking at employees, students or entrepreneurs, the evidence shows men and women are equally confident in themselves. These findings are vital for us to recognise. They help us understand that women’s lower confidence, a factor even many women blame for their lack of progress, just isn’t accurate. Interestingly, the researchers also found no evidence of a female ‘modesty effect’, again suggesting that confidence was not an issue for women.
Focusing on your 360° feedback alone should work no matter where someone is on the career scale. It’s particularly important the larger the gap between self-ratings and the ratings their supervisors give. Studies show that self-ratings of performance are only weakly related to supervisors’ ratings for two main reasons. The first is that employees are too lenient in their self-evaluations (mainly when they perform poorly). This is particularly prevalent in Western workplaces, where employees are less self-critical and less modest about their accomplishments. Plus in these workplaces, rewards often go to self- promoters.
This makes sense as others are better able to observe your behaviours than you can. Leaders who describe themselves more closely to how others describe them tend to be more productive than those without that self-awareness. To this point, 360°s are useful not just in seeing how other people view them, but also in measuring the real way self-awareness translates into higher leadership performance.
How HR professionals make judgement errors
When interviewing leaders for ‘The Con Job: Getting Ahead for Competence in a World Obsessed with Confidence’, many remarked how easy it was to misjudge someone based on a confident appearance. For example, Amanda Jones, a Partner at the global law firm Dentons, says confidence looks like someone ‘Who presents well and is well dressed. They speak with authority and look you in the eye.’ To her, those behaviours are vital. She explains: ‘It takes longer to undo that first impression’ but admits like most other interviewers, she’s been fooled by those who turned out to be more confident than competent.
The risk, she says is that ‘You’ll give them more autonomy when you should be monitoring their work before that trust is allowed. But I won’t be alone in making that mistake.’ For many, their impressions of confidence focused on public performance, using descriptors like ‘bravado’, ‘loudness’ and that oft used word ‘presence’. They suggest a sense of theatre amongst those who command an audience, almost as part of an ‘unofficial’ show. This again highlights the truism that confidence is only what others can see, not with how skilled you actually are.
Other leaders also admitted their sectors sometimes over-rewarded confidence. Sarah Douglas is the CEO of AMV BBDO, a creative agency which works across all aspects of online and broadcast media for their clients. Douglas notes: Because of the focus on sales and client-facing work, I think the creative industries perhaps see more than our fair share of noisy personalities. We tend to focus on the bewitching magnetism of personality, but that can mask incompetence. Essentially, their personality is writing cheques their skill level simply can’t cash.
Douglas continues: When I’m hiring, like anyone, I’m initially attracted to confidence. At that point, though, it becomes all the more important for me to dig deeper. I’ve got to find examples of what they’ve done, so I don’t fall victim to their well-rehearsed spiel. Their competence has to be at least as good at the confidence they have no trouble displaying.
Avoiding mistakes in interviews and appraisals
Interviews and appraisals are a key time to be mindful of the inverse relationship between confidence and competence. This means the more your confidence increases, the less concerned you are about your skills and competence. The evidence behind this inverse relationship flies in the face of most assumptions, but should concern any employer. There is actually an abundant body of research showing that those who have ‘depressive realism’ actually have a higher accuracy of judgement and self-views.
Not necessarily the ‘sexiest’ of traits to have, but the ‘depressively realistic’ are more likely to accurately judge others’ perception of their reputation, competence and social status than non-depressed individuals. In many ways, a ‘glass-half-empty’ perspective helps these employees. Certainly, the under-confident spend more time building their expertise which benefits us all. The non-depressed individuals instead were called by the researchers the ‘unrealistically optimistic’. In the wider world, we’d no doubt call them ‘confident’.
It’s vital to dig deeper, and ask about how poor decisions have impacted them and their teams and how they overcame them. Anyone who either can’t recall poor decisions or admit to them is not someone you want to keep. Plus, to assess more widely, find out what they read, when they’ve delayed gratification, when they’ve worked on projects bigger than themselves. Ask what they contributed and learned from those experiences - what they’d repeat and what they wouldn’t.
By contrast, if someone displays confidence in the way the status quo, that is our current crop of leaders, defines it, we’ll often overlook their shortcomings. Looking for evidence of competence in selection is undoubtedly a big step forward. However, using such frameworks can falsely reassure us that interview bias couldn’t have played a part in any decisions.
As Neil Stevenson, the CEO of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission says: We trick ourselves into thinking we’re objective and this only gets worse as you go up the chain of command. By senior level, interviewers assume incompetent people wouldn’t get through the door. It’s then primarily about picking people who will let them sleep at night, which goes back to their emotional comfort.
Maria Camila Vargas, a South American Talent Management expert told me in ‘The Con Job’: Everyone knows we need more competence in the hires we make, but we’re human. Humans respond to the x factor which is confidence. The move towards competency-based interviewing is great in theory. However, many interviewers I spoke with saw that the danger is in how it falsely reassures people they’re making decisions based solely on facts and that feeling couldn’t have clouded their judgement.
Vargas now routinely advises companies on how to build teams, so I asked if she had seen this destructive tendency. Her frustrated response? Absolutely! We’ve developed metrics to identify top talent. We use hard data including everything from the size of budgets they’ve managed, to the size of teams they’ve overseen, to their 360° feedback and more. However, when our algorithms recommend who would be in their critical roles based on that data, we immediately get pushback. She says managers complain: ‘Why isn’t his person on your list?’ or ‘I think your model missed something – can we skew it a little bit?’ They’re ultimately looking for the people they deem confident. It’s frustrating. No matter how good your model is, the ultimate decision is still made by people.
For Sandy Kennedy, the CEO of Entrepreneurial Scotland, this is where it then becomes a competence vs confidence issue, as he explains: When only 10% of our applicants get a placement, the stakes are high. So I need to make sure the 180 who get placements are the most competent. We can’t choose the ones who wowed the judges with their presentation skills or knew how to write a killer CV. Because it’s a quick and easy judgement to make, I worry that confidence in an interview becomes a surrogate marker for competence.
Rosemary McGinness has spent over 25 years leading HR teams in the UK and beyond. McGinness agrees the difference between ‘bluster’ and experience can be hard to detect particularly during interviews. The reality only shows up after the person has been hired. She smiles: I’m always nervous interviewing salespeople because they can tell a great story. It’s what they do, which makes them easier to believe.
After being part of the C-suite herself within several companies, McGinness admits she’s become better at this, but it takes time and a few hard lessons. She advises: Dig deeper when an interviewee mostly uses ‘I’ when talking about their wins. It’s easy to take on face value but it means we overlook people who speak in the ‘we’. That person could probably go into much more detail about their individual part. So why is this step so frequently overlooked?
McGinness reflects: It’s simply harder work for the interviewer to dig deeper. I can lead them by asking: ‘What did you do?’ But if they still aren’t getting it or responding to my guidance, it makes me worry about their listening skills. If they can’t read the moment, another essential skill set, particularly at the higher levels where I’m hiring, that would give me caution. But by that point, the under-confident have possibly self- selected out, as the less confident people may never apply for a senior role. This self-selection makes it all the more critical to ensure senior people, in particular, are very competent. You can’t let their confidence sway you.
Plus, the overconfident will often dodge questions for which they don’t know the answer. They may deflect to answer a different question instead, one on which they are on safer ground. However, a competent person is more likely to recognise they don’t know the answer, but that there would be ways to find out.
If someone tells you they ‘don’t know’, believe them. They are being honest, which means they are more worthy of having confidence in. A genuinely competent person will be curious about a question they perhaps haven’t considered before. Remember, the competent want to improve and so knowing more will only motivate them.
Similarly, the overconfident will often advise a single course of action, giving a definitive answer to questions. While this may make them seem experienced, the competent know there are usually several ways to tackle a problem and can talk you through the factors that would affect their decisions. If you think you’re dealing with an overconfident blagger, ask them ‘And how did you get to that answer?’....
We react well to those displaying confidence, even if it’s false or ill-informed, and often favours the status quo - that is current leadership which is disproportionately led by white male leaders. This tendency means confidence rules the day and often leads to risk at best and bad decisions at worst. These trends are something we see daily in the press.
The why & how of reducing risk takers in organisations
Boosting confidence, the underlying goal of so much workplace training expenditure, would be a great goal if it helped us be more successful or increased our skills and competence. However, this isn’t how it works. Instead, evidence shows overconfidence leads to complacency and increased risk-taking. Simply put, higher confidence causes people to overestimate their abilities, making them less attentive and focused than their less confident counterparts who work harder at getting the task right.
Countless studies show that over the last 50 years, integrity has been the most essential attribute for successful corporate managers, followed by trustworthiness, kindness and empathy. Confidence didn’t even come close. Other people I interviewed for ‘The Con Job’ were also concerned how easy it was to overlook self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
For example, Douglas Morrison showed frustration with the much lauded ‘competency-based framework’ in many organisations. According to Morrison, most employers only reward people who are visibly doing well on a certain set of narrow metrics. These supposedly competent employees get bigger projects and larger teams to manage. Plus, they get more budget to oversee. It’s all because they’re working well to highly visible and easily measurable metrics.
However, as he points out, they couldn’t do any of it without their more socially skilled, but supposedly less ‘competent’ colleagues. These are often the people who fix communication problems when tensions between teams emerge, or things don’t go to plan ‒ which invariably they often don’t. Identifying with this challenge, Morrison sighs: That’s when I need those high EQ people at the front. Let’s get clearer definitions of competence, even those skills often ignored or hard to measure. If we don’t recognise the value of those soft skills as a key part of competence, we’re missing a trick.
The willingness to do this is affected by myriad factors including sector and the tenor of the current leadership. For example, while widely lauded, confidence is far from a virtue in finance. It isn’t profitable in the long run, as research in the finance sector found the most confident traders performed the most trades, yet they underperformed in the market overall and were deeply affected by the chemical make-up, notably of testosterone, of traders.
With the pace of global change, both politically and in the business world, challenges to our ‘old normal’ will likely only increase. We increasingly operate in settings that are so volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous that the term ‘VUCA’ has now become commonplace. We are so overloaded with stimulation on any given day that simplicity must prevail. You’ll subconsciously work with the information you already have, even if that information is incomplete, not relevant or even biased.
The inherent danger, however, is that the considered decision-making processes for which we should be aiming could be regarded as too time-consuming to warrant. Considered and well-researched decisions are certainly harder to make. People trust their guts to quickly make decisions.
Brewing on the job confidence and narcissism
Two of the most recent high-profile business related cases of confidence resting on little competence are Elizabeth Holmes (ex-CEO Theranos) and Bill McFarland (creator of the defunct Fyre Festival). Both were most often praised for their confidence with investors, social media influencers and future clients. It’s what attracted people to them – yet also led to their downfall.
I’d also argue that Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein were also cut from the same overconfident cloth. The warning is that no one is born overconfident, or indeed narcissistic. Instead, these people are rewarded for confidence until it grows out of proportion, compared to the effects on people around them.
Suspect you work with someone more confident than perhaps they’ve earned the right to be? The best way to recognise them is to question their knowledge or experience to see their response. People with the highest confidence are the most likely to dismiss or disqualify sources of constructive feedback and praise highly those who think favourably of them, creating a feedback loop. We see this in employees all the way up to politicians, but at every level and in every sector - it’s a risk you don’t need.
Tell overconfident people they haven’t quite hit the mark and they will respond in one of two ways: they will either confront or diminish you. While it’s rarely comfortable for anyone to be questioned directly, narcissists respond with rash anger and vitriol. In fact, the more self-obsessed and deluded they are, the angrier any questioning makes them.
Too often, this poor behaviour is overlooked or even praised until it sinks teams or even the companies. That should be a warning for us all on what confidence ‒ if allowed to grow into narcissism ‒ can ultimately cost.
Instead, we need not only more competence in our own skills, but also in how we bring others with us, for everyone’s benefit.
Selecting the right staff to build a strong team
As we move the economy into a new normal, your need for a strong team will never be greater. However, as every business will have a bit of a shake-up, this is the perfect time to redefine the skills, and the types of people, you’ll need going forward.
For example, we often praise extroverts for their confident style. However, it’s actually ambiverts, those who fall somewhere between extroverted and introverted personality types, who make the most successful sales people.
For example, in the sales functions of many of my corporate clients, sales teams are noticeably even unwittingly split along personality and even gender lines. Extroverts and often men work in the initial sales function for ‘new client acquisition’. Introverts and more women sit in the relationship management roles that generate ongoing sales from existing clients and keep these clients happy on a consistent basis via listening and ongoing negotiation.
Both types of sales are necessary, but landing a new client is often deemed far more exciting than getting an old client to renew or even to take on a bigger contract. This again speaks to which types of confidence are valued, how and by whom. Indeed, it even speaks to the value of under-confidence as the sales maintenance are less likely to be noted for their brash confidence.
Derek Watson, the COO of St. Andrew’s University also understood the upsides of under-confidence. They are the people he most readily solicits for advice. He explains: They’re the ones I can approach when I need the detail on something I don’t quite understand. I’ll ask: ‘I’m getting some figures that don’t make sense to me. Can we have a quick chat?’ Alternatively, I might say: ‘A mistake was made that I can’t get my head around. Can you help me understand how this could have happened?
He continues on their value:
These people, while often in the lower rungs, are like gold dust to me. They know their stuff so bloom when I ask their opinion. They can spot if a process wasn’t followed or an error was made much better than I can. It can be intimidating as what I’m asking may be ‘above their pay grade’, as I’ve been told. But they want to make a difference; often because they’ll be the ones who either take the blame or who have to clean up a mess if it all goes wrong.
As organisations use 2020 and beyond to think about who to keep and who to shed, they should be mindful of keeping balanced numbers of men and women, even if some criticise these moves as virtual quotas. We have seen the wider financial benefits of more gender balanced leadership for several years.
However, other research has shown that even instituting quotas does not diminish the quality of candidates for roles. Indeed, it offers an additional benefit of inspiring role models to more junior members of staff - making it more likely people from under-represented backgrounds will apply in the first place.
The skills of historically under-represented groups are directly linked to profitability. For example, McKinsey & Company found organisations with at least three senior female leaders had an operating margin and market capitalisation that was more than twice as high as those with no women in senior leadership. Finding nine specific behaviours 118 associated with profitability, they found men only outperformed women on two of the nine behaviours: ‘individualistic decision-making’ and ‘control and corrective action’. Let’s be clear, both are valuable behaviours and form the backbone of what we ‘expect from leaders’. However, they’re only profitable when used with enough of the seven other behaviours.
By comparison, amongst the remaining seven behaviours women and men did equally well at ‘Intellectual Stimulation’ and ‘Efficient Communication’. So clearly, women don’t corner the market on communication skills. Women were a bit more likely to outperform men on ‘Participative Decision-Making’ and ‘Inspiration’. However, it was on the three factors of ‘People development’, ‘Offering clear expectations and rewards’ and on ‘Role- modelling behaviours’ where women significantly outscored the men. In short, according to McKinsey, women do as well as, and even outperform men on seven of the nine practices correlated with making money.
Focusing on these types of skills, rather than rewarding confidence, is something any forward thinking business should prioritise. Another study found large organisations with executive-level gender diversity were 21% more likely to outperform their industry peers with the lowest female representation on profitability and 27% more likely to create superior long-term value.
However, it’s worth noting that as teams consolidate, focusing on under-represented groups, while clearly worth the effort in terms of profitability, will feel like a challenge to many status quo members. Even when looking at human faces, both men and women assume masculine faces are the most competent. In fact, gender was even more important than the 'attractiveness halo' of which many people are aware.
There is a prevailing respect for male agency often characterised as confidence and a ‘can-do attitude’ whereas women who display similar characteristics are much more likely to be judged as hostile, abrasive, manipulative, untrustworthy and selfish in these settings. Overall, these ‘can-do’ women are viewed as less compelling colleagues.Indeed, these barriers are highest for women in male-dominated fields and they are more likely to be criticised by onlookers. Even when they make a single mistake, they are judged less competent.
These judgements about the value of a ‘can-do’ attitude can also hinder introverts, as competency frameworks are built around a bias towards risk takers and quick decision makers. This has huge ramifications for who gets awarded certain roles but also who will be most likely to be kept on as the economy corrects itself.
As you think through who to keep and who to lose, do as much as you can to keep your current employees - not always easy in straightened financial times, but vital all the same. Even before you look at CV’s to help you grow; you likely already have many of the best people already on your team and keeping them can save you time and money in the long- run. Indeed, it takes three years for external hires to perform as well as the internal hires, and externals were more likely to leave during that time. However, it takes seven years before the pay of the internal hires caught up with the salaries of external hires.
While not a failsafe way to ensure competence, education is not a bad place to start when you are looking to ensure competence. Steer clear on favouring graduates only from the best universities, as you may get better results from high performers from second-tier institutions. Ensuring your employees are well-trained is key for modern employers - and shouldn’t start with hiring younger versions of the status quo of leaders.
Notably, proportionally, more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students in the UK enrol in higher education than their White counterparts. If you drill down further, Black girls are the only ethnic group that outnumber their male peers in studying for STEM A-levels. Given the workforce we need, these subjects have the most opportunity for growth and high earnings. However, this isn’t translating into wins for BAME graduates as they enter the workforce.
Even so, experiencing systemic racism doesn’t get in the way of ambition. Amongst UK employees more than 25% of BAME employees highly valued career progression compared to just 10% of white employees. These are the ambitious people any employer would be smart to keep.
At university level, 57% of first-time graduates across the OECD are women. Before we delve further, it is essential to understand men’s enrolment isn’t actually down over historical trends. It’s just that the rise in female participation has so dramatically improved since the 1970’s. Men are simply more likely to drop-out than women, particularly at higher levels of education.
Plus, women are more likely to continue with formal education even after they’ve entered the workplace. Indeed, the difference between male and female participation amongst graduates in ‘ongoing learning’ in the UK after starting work is a full 10%. This rather unpicks the argument that women, particularly mothers, are ‘too busy’ or not committed enough to undertake the type of training employers value. These rates again show confidence, or certainly, ambition is not the problem.
In reality, as most HR professionals know, it’s your most confident employees who think they just don’t need additional training. By contrast, the competent always want to get better and further training is one of the quickest ways to improve. This belief is particularly true if you, as a non-status quo member, are often overlooked for the stretches that would make you ‘promotion-ready’.
Once you’ve done the training however, it’s time to seek out the stretches that will build your competence. Those experiences will improve your confidence naturally, as a byproduct. Naomi Pryde, Head of Commercial Litigation at the law firm DWF, told me in our interview that like others, she considered a lack of confidence as almost a secret weapon: I do well because I feel anxious or uncertain about how well I’m doing. It means I just work harder. It also makes me a good litigator because I go through a hundred different ways a situation could go wrong in my mind. I’m aware of the traps. In my line of work, it’s no bad thing!
This outlook is fascinating as it highlights how supreme confidence, even in what can be very theatrical outlets like litigation, isn’t always necessary. She continues: I’m constantly thinking about the worst-case scenario, so my team now has great processes in place. I don’t want anything falling through the cracks or deadlines unmet. It’s an old school assumption that litigators have to be uber- aggressive. It’s more about adapting your style to the case itself. Some of the best litigators aren’t big talkers.
Pryde notes: Because I’m nervous, I have to zone out everyone else in the courtroom. For me, it’s about being confident for just the one person I have to impress in that one moment ‒ a judge or a witness. Most people can handle a one-to-one conversation with confidence. That’s far easier to face than commanding an audience of hundreds!
This approach keeps Pryde feeling authentic as well. She laughs: ‘Does anyone really love giving speeches to big audiences? I’ve never heard anyone say: ‘I can’t wait to give more big presentations!’
This is a point with which Sasha Mooney, a Barrister at Law also identifies. For her, striving for competence was solely as a means of earning confidence. She remembers: My confidence was initially so fragile, I had to focus on my competence. It was the only thing I could access. I love the law because it’s a tool, and you can always get better at using tools!’
For Mooney, she takes pride in wielding this tool to benefit her clients. Mooney continues: I only developed my confidence, not by assuming I belonged or deserved to have it, but by doing the things I dreaded. I volunteered for speeches and client presentations, organised events and wrote articles for the press outside of my day job. I didn’t have the luxury of ‘winging it’.
For Pryde and Mooney, as well as countless other leaders with whom I spoke, sustainable confidence only comes from the time and effort they put in at being skilled, experienced and ultimately competent. Their type of hard-earned confidence, derived from getting better at their skills, is the type you must prioritize as you think through restructuring for 2020 and beyond. For those of you wanting to dig a bit deeper into this subject, Suzanne Doyle-Morris's new book is out now and available on Amazon or signed copies are here.
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