Don’t Confuse Confidence With Competence

The higher you get in the management hierarchy the more confidence you need to exude. No one is going to follow a leader who looks confused and lost. You still want to listen to what others have to say but you also need to make it clear what the direction is, and that you believe wholeheartedly that it is the right direction. You need to inspire.

Over time you get more and more confident. You will feel invincible, especially if you have a series of successes and you get the feeling that whatever you lay your hands on it turns to gold.

And then the danger starts creeping in. Because of your track record your confidence surges and become overconfidence. You listen less and less to the others around you. You listen less and less to the real experts in their fields believing in your own abilities to the level that it starts hurting you.

You have to chip in into whatever conversation takes place and you always have your opinion. And you always believe you are right. No, you “know” you are right. You are the smartest person in the room. You start believing to your own propaganda and you ignore opinions of others.

You start patronizing everyone around you and you micromanage. You need to make every single decision because only you know how to do things right. You start using sarcasm when talking about abilities of others. It generates laughs from your “inspired” followers, but it also antagonizes the A players on your team. You mock their abilities. You ignore their contributions. You don’t need them. And so they leave.

The fans on the team will still follow you. They mistake your confidence with competence. Until things start to go wrong. The best people are either discourage to do their best work or leave altogether. The deadlines slip. Decisions you made turns out to be suboptimal.

You, with your blinders on, start blaming everyone around you. What an incompetent bunch, you think. You start replacing people, making rush reorganizations, and you create a lot of confusion within the team. No one is clear what their responsibilities are, the tasks are handed over to people in erratic manner.

All this feeds back to your self-image of godhood and paranoia steps in. Maybe it is not only people being incompetent, maybe they are after you. How else to explain the sheer amount of incompetence you see all around you? So you start to be more and more guarded. You accelerate the amount of blame distributed to others.

People stop following you. They may not tell it to your face since they fear what your paranoid reaction might be, so they give you the lip service and keep praising what you do and complain about the same things you do, but they don’t trust you anymore.

And then the day comes that someone higher up actually recognizes the amount of pain you are bringing the organization. You get fired. Or you may actually decide to leave this incompetent organization on your own.

Read the signs

I love the quote attributed to Confucius, “if you are the smartest person in the room then you are in the wrong room.” I would adapt the usual interpretation a bit. The thing is, if you truly are the smartest person in the room, you are extremely prone to becoming the person described above. And if you do, you may find yourself to be the only person in the room left.

In my time as a manager, and a coach I’ve met many people who were smart, enthusiastic, great communicators. People you want to follow. Way too many of them eventually turned bad. They crumbled under their success and isolated themselves from other capable people. They surrounded themselves with yes-men and it eventually led to their downfall. And the organizations suffered.

So how do you recognize whether someone masks the lack of competence with overconfidence? And how do you prevent yourself to succumbing to the same trap?

No one knows everything – even the smartest people are not experts on everything. If they always have a strong opinion on any topic and present it convincingly like they are the real experts that is a huge red flag.

You can tell who truly listens – if people just pretend to be listening and impatiently jump in to end your sentences for you, or to start arguing with you even before you had a chance to finish your thought you know they don’t listen. Instead of listening they are already thinking about counter arguments and dismiss your opinion and often you as someone not worthy listening to.

Not going deep – with time you can learn to differentiate when the person truly knows what they are talking about and when they just pose as confident by digging deep. They are able to dive into details on topics they truly know about but are reluctant to get into details in areas where they are not so sure. Just beware that they may mask it by seemingly giving you opportunity to come up with answers on your own. Sort of fake coaching.

Inventing stories and facts – overconfident people live in their imaginary world. They are very good at telling convincing stories that support their arguments. I even know a manager who would without hesitation quote numbers and statistics to show his expertise. Unfortunately, these numbers and statistics are often made up. On the spot. Quite an achievement and fast thinking, but also an ultimate show of overconfidence, and even arrogance. It would always shut down any opposing argument since other people didn’t have numbers that would counter his own. He has the facts. So, he is right.

Using sarcasm – sarcastic comments have no place in business. They show a lack of respect for other people, and they often mask a lack of knowledge. If someone can’t come up with a solid argument, they would come up with a sarcastic remark to show their superiority and put down the other person.

Abusing transparency to stab others in back – this is a red flag in disguise. Some people are oversharing in the name of transparency to discredit others. Years ago, I worked on a confidential project, I even signed an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), and in the course of the activity a peer on the same project disclosed some information in front of people who were not in the know ignoring the agreement with the upper management. He knew the best. The stated reason? “We want to be transparent in what we as team are doing.” I was the project manager who was left with the task to deal with the fall out. Not a pleasant thing to do, especially if you are still under NDA and can’t talk about all the details.

Ego protection as a priority – ego protects you in your imaginary bubble of greatness and it hurts you at the same time. Overconfident people have huge egos. That’s what gives them the power to be convincing. It is also what makes them vulnerable to lying to themselves. The moment you see someone taking everything personally and protecting their ego at any cost you know there is trouble.

Overcontributing – unsolicited input to every single conversation and oversharing your opinion is yet another sign that you may be confusing confidence with competence. Just ask yourself what is more valuable long-term, making your point, or letting others learn and be motivated by making their own decisions.

The need to be right – many overconfident people have the excessive need to be right at any cost. Again, ask yourself what is more valuable long-term, being right or having strong relationships with other people around you. And to be clear, there is only one correct answer.

As you can see there are many tell signs when people around you, or even yourself, are drifting towards being overconfident. In fact, the smarter you are, the bigger chance of you becoming overconfident. Because there are many things that you actually do know, because of the successes you had, your brain is more likely to figure out that there is nothing you can’t do.

The more successful you are, the more you believe this misconception. However, sooner or later, the natural laws will catch up with you and the virtual world in the bubble you build around yourself bursts. You will find yourself alone, unable to grow, unable to keep the successes coming, and with people around you not taking you seriously anymore.


How do you recognize whether someone is truly competent or whether they just fake it by being overconfident? Do you think this happens more with people with high IQ? What are your tricks for not falling prey to becoming this overconfident know-it-all yourself?

Photo: geralt /

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