Why competence matters more than confidence

Consultant Suzanne Doyle-Morris’ new book argues that a certain type of confidence has been overhyped – to the disadvantage of many, including women, and that business would improve if self promotion took a back seat to competence.

Woman works on laptop in cafe


We have for too long emphasised confidence over competence in the workplace and the result leaves many talented people marginalised and damages business, according to a new book.

Consultant Suzanne Doyle-Morris’s book, The Con Job, says we need to challenge the pursuit of confidence above all else. “It’s a con job, a hoax, a fallacy to value what is both a fleeting feeling and a relatively worthless trait so highly,” she says. “We risk rewarding the very people of whom we need to be a bit warier and overlooking the people who could add real value.”

Doyle-Morris charts how our attitudes to confidence have changed over time. In the old days, confidence was something you earned and was something other people had in you, she says. Now it is more about show and hype, the kind of self-promotion that we see in everything from business to politics and which has taken the place of the basic ability to do a job well.


Our embrace of hype has come at the expense of historically disadvantaged groups, says Doyle-Morris, including many women, who are often blamed for their supposed lack of confidence. “By creating a system where certain people feel less confident, we render them less likely to challenge gaps at work. This self-blame and quiet acceptance of inequality affects everything from leadership teams that don’t look like their consumers to gaps in pay packers. This internalisation of blame runs deep as research shows female university students will pay themselves less than they will pay male students who are doing the same job,” she states.

Disadvantaged groups are then counselled to fake confidence, she says, or to big themselves up, but doing so often leaves them feeling exposed and fearful of being found out, of feeling like impostors. Without developing competence, she says, faking confidence just leaves those people more vulnerable. She adds that harassment in the workplace undermines confidence and says it is more difficult to challenge the status quo and to take risks if you are an outsider.

Doyle-Morris also points out the dangers of overconfidence, saying that it can lead to risky behaviour which is damaging to business.

The book makes the point that men too can be victims of the ‘con job’ and she highlights how it affects a whole range of marginalised groups, from BAME workers to those with disabilities. She adds that the pressure for members of those groups who do make it to senior roles to represent the whole group is unfair and runs counter to the need to cultivate diversity of thought.

Doyle-Morris has several suggestions for how organisations can change things and promote competence over confidence. These include giving 360 degree feedback rather than self assessments, inviting people who are working remotely to speak in meetings, inviting the quieter members of the team to be involved in discussions, giving due credit to the person who originated an idea and ensuring that activities like mentoring count in appraisals.

Redefining confidence

She says that confidence needs to be redefined as absolute self-awareness, having the courage of your convictions and being able to go against the grain and challenge the status quo.

Doyle-Morris says: “If we redefined confidence it would fundamentally shift what we value. Plus, it would equalise the playing field far more than unconscious bias training or any vanilla statements about how much an organisation ‘values diversity’ even when continuing to promote the status quo. Beyond that, it would force organisations to recognise what behaviours they are really rewarding when they hire and promote people. It would likely also highlight which skills or insights they’re missing. All in all, the biggest gains would be a truly competent workforce where actions speak louder than words and that’s worth feeling confident about.”

*The Con Job: Getting Ahead for Competence in a World Obsessed with Confidence by Suzanne Doyle-Morris is published by Wit & Wisdom Press, price £11.39.



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