Competence and Confidence

I absolutely loved this article from the Harvard Business Review, with the provocative title “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”

I hasten to reassure my husband, three sons and many male friends that he focus wasn’t  on male incompetence; it was an inquiry into why incompetent men are more likely to be promoted into top levels of management than competent women. The opening paragraphs really tell the story.

There are three popular explanations for the clear under-representation of women in management, namely: (1) they are not capable; (2) they are not interested; (3) they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass-ceiling: an invisible career barrier, based on prejudiced stereotypes, that prevents women from accessing the ranks of power. Conservatives and chauvinists tend to endorse the first; liberals and feminists prefer the third; and those somewhere in the middle are usually drawn to the second. But what if they all missed the big picture?

In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.

A few other gems from the article’s recitation of research results:

This is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women….

Our normative data, which includes thousands of managers from across all industry sectors and 40 countries, shows that men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative and risk-prone than women.

The paradoxical implication is that the same psychological characteristics that enable male managers to rise to the top of the corporate or political ladder are actually responsible for their downfall. In other words, what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well. As a result, too many incompetent people are promoted to management jobs, and promoted over more competent people.

Um..calling Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump…

There is much, much more, and it’s all well worth the read….Nothing like having your darkest suspicions confirmed by researchers at Harvard!

25 thoughts on “Competence and Confidence

  1. People tend to believe that boldness and swagger are required to fight the tribe’s enemies, so intelligence and reasonableness are not favored. GWB comes to mind.

  2. When I was working in northern Indiana as an IT professional, we had several women managers. Some were awful and some where good. But one of the guys that made it management in the programming department had no business being there. None. They were good programmers but they absolutely were the worst managers ever. No backbone, no compassion, no knowledge of management processes etc. I was horrified when they hired one guy. He had no idea what he was doing. It was pathetic. I left soon after.

    To be fair, there was one woman manager that was awful. She would change her mind about something and announce to the team to rework all of their previous week’s work for no apparent reason. She lost several great IT staff because of her wishy washy decisions that caused a great deal of dissatisfaction with the staff.

    And why are women under-represented in business? Because we will never be part of the ole boy network. Never. And we’ll never make what they make so why bother?

  3. Obsolete corporations are organized hierarchically. Modern (and future) corporations are (will be) organized by connection. That will favor women.

    Explaining women’s fate in our old culture seems to be best done by, well, culture.

    Boys are brought up to compete. Some girls too but not the majority. They learn early the value of collaboration. Good for us (society) but not necessarily good for individual women. (I personally believe that in many organizations today women contribute much because of this cultural predisposition (and are rewarded for it) but not necessarily at the peak of the pyramid.

    Personally if most women in the world were like Carly Fiona I would have a big problem. I supposed it would be like a world full of Donald Trumps to women.

  4. “I hasten to reassure my husband, three sons and many male friends that he focus wasn’t on male incompetence; it was an inquiry into why incompetent men are more likely to be promoted into top levels of management than competent women.”

    You drew the wrong inference.

    There are four categories:

    Competent Men
    Competent Women
    Incompetent Men
    Incompetent Women

    Incompetence of either gender is likely to get you farther in business advancement than competence.

    That is, when a business doesn’t hire an incompetent man, it will look for an incompetent woman. Competent men and women are chosen last.

    Nobody in business wants to be threatened by a subordinate, so businesses hire and promote the dimwits. The dimwits may have high social skills or sexual willingness, so the office may be “happier” with the dimwits occupying the rungs of the corporate ladder, but the corporation isn’t well served by soft hiring practices.

  5. The Peter principle is a special case of a ubiquitous observation: Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails. This is the “generalized Peter principle”. There is much temptation to use what has worked before, even when it may exceed its effective scope. Laurence J. Peter observed this about humans.[1]

  6. “Modern (and future) corporations are (will be) organized by connection. That will favor women. ”

    Careful with that, Pete. Women in corporations often demand loyalty cults around them. The work doesn’t get done. The corporation ceases to be a place of business and becomes a place devoted to the daily service of the cult. The higher placed women in the cult are allowed to be savage and vicious towards everyone, and men are typically excluded from the cult unless they exhibit submissive or effeminate characteristics. Gossip is encouraged so the cult can identify any possible source of threat. New ideas dry up, as the loyalty cult feels threatened by talented staff, so the talented staff shuts up.

    Women in management roles are far nastier than men and need to be watched very closely.

    Male leadership cliques built around golf, football, drinking or bedding women still focus on getting the job done, while increasing loyalty to the group, thus the company.

    Allowing a company to become female-dominated drives the males out, but a male-dominated company doesn’t drive females out.

    Sheila should have considered collaborating with the Sociology Department for perspective on this blog post.

  7. @ Gopper: Your statements, copied below, illustrate the EXACT scenario that happens daily by the men running businesses. You obviously have a very small incompetent yet overly confident mind. I look forward to the day where I will have the opportunity to witness men like you be forced to be submissive and subservient to women. Only then will self-absorbed men like you truly know what it feels like to be a subordinate to an arrogant A*****e such as yourself.

    “The higher placed women in the cult are allowed to be savage and vicious towards everyone, and men are typically excluded from the cult unless they exhibit submissive or effeminate characteristics. Gossip is encouraged so the cult can identify any possible source of threat. New ideas dry up, as the loyalty cult feels threatened by talented staff, so the talented staff shuts up.

    Women in management roles are far nastier than men and need to be watched very closely.

    Male leadership cliques built around golf, football, drinking or bedding women still focus on getting the job done, while increasing loyalty to the group, thus the company.

    Allowing a company to become female-dominated drives the males out, but a male-dominated company doesn’t drive females out.”

  8. I was once told by a recruiter that men pay no attention to the requirements listed in job ads or descriptions. They are arrogant enough to BS their way into jobs that they are completely incapable of, have no relevant experience to offer, yet they get hired.

    She said women, on the other hand, feel that they must be proficient in every single requirement listed for jobs and most of the time do not apply unless they “have it all”.

    It seems that we women must work on bombarding potential employers with the same BS that men do, if we want to get ahead.

  9. Hierarchical organizations are built on power and competitiveness. Networked organizations on competance and connection. If anyone can help me do my job or extend my relationships why would there be friction Gopper?

    In corporations like that compensation is shared and based on product success not personal success. The means are owned by the corporation, the corporation by the employees. Borrowing if required is secured by debt not equity. Why would employees put up with owners with nothing but financial skin in the game?

    All of this is enabled by a paradigm change to corporations are temporary. One product cycle long. Then everybody moves on to the next product/corporation that they can contribute to.

    All of this is allowed by the change from hardware centric production to software and tooling. And to global rather than national government and busines.

    Obsolescence Gopper is a terrible thing. Ask any dinosaur. Adaptation is the new strength.

  10. “Hierarchical organizations are built on power and competitiveness. Networked organizations on competance and connection.”

    You’re wasting time, Pete. You’re talking about business. Show examples. Otherwise, we’re just discussing your fantasies.

  11. I have a young female friend who’s a pharmacist. Or was until she became a mother. She has asked me if women can have it all. My response? Nobody can spread themselves that thin and shouldn’t try. I can’t be an engineer, scientist, politician, parent and grandparent and old fart. That’s why God invented priorities. Frustrating perhaps but necessary.

    The question perhaps stems from our individual centricity. As part of a networked paradigm the question becomes can we have it all. The answer is still no. Why? Our resources are limited.

    So the secret of life lies in accepting the roles that we prioritize. That’s why I find that being a successful old fart is satisfying. I’m good at it.

  12. Gopper, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Again, look at dinosaurs. Kings of the mountain ’till the mountain changed.

    Some day you’ll notice (perhaps) that your ideas about life are more and more unique and unsuccessful. It’s a sign from God of failure to adapt and thrive. There will be a good dose in 2016. You can continue in denial, in fact I personally hope that you will. Your choice.

    I’m not looking for agreement or making a proposal. I’m reporting observations like good climate scientists do. Here’s what is.

    The faithful aren’t typically good at observations because they believe that they are powerful enough to impose what they wish was true on reality.

    Lots of luck with that.

  13. Beyond the vitriol, Gopper makes very valid points which I find difficult to ignore. First off, allow me to list credentials: I was drafted into the military in 1951, a mere four years after forced integration by HST. We in the Air Force called it the Brown Shoe Days because many were still issued brown shoes left over from the Army Air Corps. I was witness to all the ad hoc strategies and nuanced prejudices rampant throughout all the military. I know how the system works. Shortly thereafter, the military began to integrate women into the forces in greater numbers. My observations: Women are simply more manipulative. Both ways. More prone to manipulate and more susceptible to manipulation. I concluded this due to one factor which was codified by much greater minds than mine: “Woman, they name is vanity!”

    Women in the workplace can be vicious for reasons which have nothing to do with the job. Men are far less susceptible to theses distractions. It is disingenuous to consider no differences between the sexes as it is a subject beyond the capacities of this panel.

    Women act and look the way they do in order to remain competitive. Men do the same thing. They do it in different ways but I do not believe they can alter them without altering their complete sexualaity. You will note that when men opt to crossover, they very often become more feminine than females. It follows that when women do they become more masculine than most men.

    There have been few men of great power, the current president being a curious exception, who have not been compromised by their sexuality. I am sure that investigation would quickly reveal the same is true for women of power.

    It appears that women do not adhere to the good ole boy network because they don’t trust each other and rightly so. Men, being inherently polygamous, place far less importance on the personal relationship and more on the professional.

    Anybody else see it that away?

  14. Hubris and confidence can mask deficiencies easily if we let them. Frankly, with age, I came to appreciate those who didn’t think they knew all the answers and would cast a large net to accumulate the talent and facts to reach the best answers.

    Many years ago I had the chance to hear Vice President Nelson Rockefeller speak in Indianapolis on why he supported the Equal Rights Amendment. He had enjoyed years of interactions with state, national, and international business and political leaders. But Rockefeller said those interactions often left him amazed at how many times the men were less competent and reliable than the women they had married. Their wives were applying amazing leadership skills to charitable, religious, and other volunteer endeavors – often because their skills went unrecognized and unrewarded in private and public sectors. He said he was working for the day when America could reach higher heights by taking full advantage of the immense talents of American women.

  15. It’s amazing what can be said about some people and be assumed to apply to all. There are women, young and old, white and black, married and single, educated to every degree possible, well and sick, shy and outgoing, strong and fragile, angry and happy, bossy and retiring, Christian and Muslim and atheist and they are all profoundly different. Why try to say anything about them all or even try to figure out mean and average for stuff we don’t even know how to measure?

    Are they different from men? For sure. Are they better than men? No. Are the adapted to a different culture? For sure.

    The real questions are about individuals and there are billions. Both individuals and questions. And that’s only half of the story.

  16. Leaders and managers are two entirely different species and definitely not gender specific. I’m surprised the ‘Harvard Business Review’ used the terms interchangeably.

  17. The best response I can give to Gopper and his trusty sidekick, Earl Kennedy, is to quote the Scottish poetess Dylis Lainge:

    “Women receive the insults of men with tolerance, having been bitten in the nipple by their toothless gums.”

  18. @JoAnn, I suggest that nothing good will come from any mention of ‘nipple biting’ in the presence of some men; hence, because we lack mind-reading skills, my recommendation is to never mention ‘nipple biting’ in a professional conversation with any male.

    Thus ends my public service announcement for today.

  19. BSH; you are probably correct in your comments, especially considering the persons I directed my “nipple-biting” reference to. I forgot my little old Irish mother’s sage advice to “consider the source”. Thank you

  20. @Earl Kennedy, while you were being drafted into the military in 1951, I was somewhere between 4 and 5 years old, a Baby Boomer born on the cusp of another generation like Bill and Hillary Clinton. And, yes, over the years, I discovered there’s a huge thought difference between those born in the mid to late 1940’s and beyond, and those born in the early 1940’s and before. I find it amazing that only a couple of years in age can have such a profound difference in outlook likely explained by our generational backgrounds.

    On the other hand, you made some points in your earlier post that resonate with me as part of my personal experiential background, my professional background. Yes, throughout my high school years, undergrad years, graduate school years, and professional years, I learned my best friends were males, especially males who happened per chance to be gay before being gay was acknowledged. No, I’m not inventing some faux memory to start an argument with anyone, but I’m simply stating my life experience as a female who knew early on that some females could be, not always but could be, rather insincere, rather petty, and given to envy and perhaps downright jealousy over situations of their own creation. Putting it in simple terms, I have no experience with a male who ever attempted to backstab me in a personal or in a professional situation.

    As Pete wrote earlier, we are all different, there is no single set of behavior/experience for all men just as there is no single set of behavior/experience for all women.

  21. I have to agree with some of the above comments. I much prefer working with men. I have had jobs, government and private sector where various women had to be moved to different shifts, crews etc. because they could not get along. The men could argue, sometimes really disagree and still after work, leave together, have lunch, play pool, whatever. The women could never do that and most would never even speak again and often made vicious, untrue remarks about each other. I could never understand that, and avoided that kind of situation. I have worked with some women who were not like that, but not too many and I worked a lot of years!

  22. Well before women’s issues emerged as a political hot topic, countless women of competence and confidence demonstrated a strength of character that many contemporary females could never muster on their own.

    Emma Gatewood was the first woman to hike the entire 2,050 miles of the Appalachian Trail by herself in 1955. She was 67 years old at the time, a mother of 11 and grandmother of 23. She’d survived more than 20 years of marriage to a brutal husband who beat her repeatedly and regularly until the day she walked out in the early 1950’s and never looked back.

    https://vimeo.com/58414927

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