Challenging the myth that self confidence equals success

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. Photographer: Shannon Morris

A leading business psychologist takes aim at the belief that an abundance of self-confidence goes hand in hand with success.

Psychologist Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic exudes an air of quiet confidence. That makes him even more persuasive when he talks about one of the topics in which he specialises – appropriately, confidence. Chamorro-Premuzic has argued for some years that the rise of narcissism and the overestimation of one’s abilities is putting the wrong people in top jobs.

Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and visiting professor at Columbia University in New York, is an international authority in personality profiling. His research findings argue, among other things, that a less-confident person will be more successful than someone who is overconfident.

Indeed, he observes, overconfidence creates many problems.

“Most traffic accidents are caused by overconfident drivers,” he says.

“Most cheating is the result of overconfident individuals who thought they could get away with it. The same applies to financial gambling and individuals who have played fast and loose with other people’s money.”

Lower self-confidence, on the other hand, reduces not only the chances of coming across as arrogant, but also of being deluded. People with lower self-confidence are more likely to admit their mistakes instead of blaming others, and rarely take credit for other people’s accomplishments.

Chamorro-Premuzic calls this arguably the most important benefit of lower self-confidence: it can bring more successful outcomes “not just to individuals but also to organisations and society”.

The error of self-regard

It turns out that having a pretty high opinion of ourselves is quite a common trait. Research suggests most people think that they are more skilled, more good looking and more clever than they actually are.

“Idiots and geniuses don’t differ very much in the estimation of their own abilities,” says Chamorro-Premuzic.

"The assumption is that it’s good to put yourself forward, but it’s exactly the other way round.”

The self-regarding neighbour might be an annoyance, but alpha overachievers with teflon-coated self-belief are in a position to exert enormous power and influence at the helm of a major company. 

Chamorro-Premuzic questions whether we should be encouraging these behaviours in business.

“We should disentangle self-confidence from competence,” he says. “It’s impossible to talk about weaknesses in business anymore; they have become ‘developmental opportunities’. Some US companies have already eliminated negative thinking and vocabulary from assessments.”

Toxic assets

Even though more and more money is being spent on leadership development, people’s confidence in leadership has been declining, says Chamorro-Premuzic.

Working as a consultant over the past 15 years, he has witnessed how major corporations can become handicapped by the “toxic assets of personalities”. Too many high-functioning people, whose confidence might have advantages to a business in the short term, are trapped in what he calls an “optimistic bias” that makes them receptive to positive feedback while ignoring the negative stuff.

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The consequences of such a personality bias? According to US research company Gallup, more than 60 per cent of employees either dislike or hate their jobs – in the US, disengagement is costing US$300 billion each year in lost productivity. 

“The most common reason for this is that they have narcissistic bosses,” says Chamorro-Premuzic.

“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.” 

Women tend to be less secure and don’t advertise themselves, he notes, adding: “Most decision-makers think this is a problem. Why is it a problem to question oneself and have some self-doubts? 

“Take a look at the banking crises of recent years and perhaps we need more people who are less risk-taking in leadership roles. 

“The assumption is that it’s good to put yourself forward, to think of yourself highly. But it’s exactly the other way round.”

Slashing self-confidence

The good news? The overconfident can be coached – if not to change completely, then at least to become aware of the negative consequences of certain behaviours and to learn to inhibit their behaviours at critical moments.

If a leader can’t embrace change easily, Chamorro-Premuzic suggests getting them to surround themselves with people who can do those jobs, be nurturing or are able to give negative feedback.

With a loss of self-confidence comes an openness to self-criticism. 

“To be the very best at anything,” he says, “you will need to be your harshest critic – and that is almost impossible when your starting point is high self-confidence.” 

A version of this interview originally appeared in AHRI’s HR Monthly magazine.

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