Coaches, therapists, teachers and self help writers spend a lot of their time trying to boost people's confidence. But is confidence always a good thing?
This week's tip explores.
'All you need is ignorance and confidence and success is sure'. Mark Twain
A few years ago there was a series on Channel 4 called 'Faking It'. Somebody would be taken under the wing of a team of teachers, coaches, body language specialists, and they would be taught, for one month, a new skill. That skill was usually obliquely related to their usual occupation. For example, an Irish sheep shearer was taught to cut hair in a West End salon, a classical violinist was turned into a hip hop MC. At the end of the month they would have to perform, alongside three professionals of the art, and a panel of judges would be tasked with spotting the fake. The most remarkable thing about it was that more often than not the fake escaped notice. Even the ex-marine who became a drag queen...
There was one woman in particular against whom the odds seemed to be stacked more than most. Her usual job was cleaning the lavatories on cross channel ferries. She had the confidence of a kitten. Her task? To skipper a yacht in a forthcoming race in Cowes week. Can you imagine? This mouse of a woman, whose voice rarely rose above a whisper, having to shout out orders to an all male crew and make crucial decisions about direction and wind while trying to win a race against Guernsey clad yachtsmen with booming voices, whose sailing credentials stretched back generations, probably to the Vikings. The finale of Faking It was always tense, but we were more anxious than usual for this sweet and terrified woman. Her crew looked dubious, carrying out her orders reluctantly. She looked as robust as an ice cream in a sauna. They crossed the starting line, they were moving, but behind. Sheeted boats shot through the waves ahead of them. Then there came a crucial point. She had to decide on direction and, boldly, she decided to tack away from the main stream of boats. Yachtsmen on other boats looked across, surprised, unnerved. What on earth? But suddenly she caught the wind, as she'd hoped, and off they went! Twenty minutes later they crossed the finishing line - in first place.
A contrasting participant that I remember vividly was a young taxi driver from Newcastle. He was to drive in a race at Silverstone. From the start he was extraordinarily cocky. He was a great driver, what could anyone teach him? As you can imagine, he was less than impressed when his teacher turned out to be a woman. He pouted and grumbled his way through the training period and when it came to the contest he was spotted by the panel immediately.
From these two stories came the irrefutable message - lack of confidence is not a barrier to competence, but too much confidence is.
In 1999 a paper about competence was presented in the States. It became a classic. Dunning and Kruger reported a series of studies in which they tested students' competence in humour, logical reasoning and English grammar, and compared it with their self-assessed competence. They found, firstly, that students consistently reported their competence as above average for their peer group and, secondly, the level of overestimation increased with each step down the ladder of test scores. In other words the people who scored worst had the most inaccurately inflated perception of their incompetence. It seems that you have to know a bit about something before you can know if you're any good at it, and that ignorance is indeed bliss in this case.
These findings are actually quite scary. One can't help wondering if the Dunning-Kruger effect was at play in the banking industry prior to the meltdown of 2008. And because most of us are pretty incompetent when it comes to investment banking, we will probably never know. However, if we were trained in the subject, we might. Another finding from the study was that if they taught the relevant skill to the students at the bottom of the pile, not only their competence, but their ability to recognize incompetence, increased.
But why don't people realize they are incompetent? Clearly we don't all think we're competent at everything. Few of us would take on Tom Jones in a singing competition, or challenge Federer to a game of tennis. But are likely to be areas of life for everyone where we are unconsciously incompetent. An uncomfortable example of this is when people audition for x-factor. Some people clearly think they are very good at singing, whereas the reverse is obviously and painfully the case. How does this happen?
There are various ways in which this kind of unconsciousness may be maintained:
1. People in day to day life tend not to give negative feedback. If you went to work in an ill-fitting outfit of clashing colours it is unlikely that anyone will mention it.
2. Some activities are carried out in situations where feedback, especially bad feedback, is unlikely. Such as singing in the bath.
3. There is usually more than one possible reason for failure and it is more appealing to place the blame elsewhere. My colleagues have no taste, the judges have no expertise.
4. Incompetence reduces your ability to recognize incompetence so you are caught in a self-perpetuating cycle.
5. The rose-tinted spectacles effect, also present in our assessment of personal risk, which protects us from harsh reality.
I've been involved over the years in coaching a number of doctors and dentists who have fallen foul of the system, and I know what fitness to practice panels are looking for when they assess these people. The person is incompetent? That can be sorted with additional training. Lacking in confidence? Yes, that can be sorted too. Lack of insight? Ah now, that's a different story. Lack of insight is one of those big clanging gongs. It will have any fitness to practice panel twitching as their pens hover over the word 'unfit'.
Kruger and Dunning recognize that their work has often been hijacked in service of a blame culture, to deride and scapegoat. However, as Dunning says, 'The presence of the Dunning-Kruger effect, as it has come to be called, is that one should pause to worry about one's own certainty, not the certainty of others'.
'Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science'. Charles Darwin
In what areas of your life do you believe yourself to be above average in competence? It may be practical or intellectual pursuits - social skills, parenting, sports, driving, writing - but may also concern opinions, traditions, beliefs.
Pick one of these areas. How do you know that you're competent at it? How often do you get feedback, and how open are you to that feedback? What actually is your expertise in this area? What is your evidence you are competent? Is there any evidence that you might not be? If you're brave you might ask someone...
The idea of these questions is not to undermine, but to see if there is in fact room for improvement in certain areas where you think you're pretty good. Perhaps it's time for a refresher course?
Have a good week!