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Could Overconfidence Hold You Back As a Leader?

Assessing Confidence

Being someone who provides leadership assessments and 360° evaluations, I’m often fascinated by the results I see. A recent Confidence Assessment survey I came across speaks to the overconfidence certain people seem to possess more than others. This particular assessment, discussed in the Huffington Post had been given to more than 10,000 people who were asked 50 true/false questions.

These were not the kinds of questions you could instantly look up or research, so if you were stumped by a question like “Is the area of Brazil greater than the area of Australia?”, you’d have to go with your gut. The assessment also asked people to rate their probability of correctness for each question- beforehand.

People have a tendency to be overconfident about their abilities.

Generally speaking, most people who took the assessment  answered about 60% of the questions correctly, many of which they probably didn’t have answers for to begin with. But despite this uncertainty, they forged ahead and estimated that their probability of being correct was 70%. One of the conclusions of this large study was that people have a tendency to be overconfident about their abilites. As a leader, could overconfidence hold you back? This is something worth looking at.

Could Overconfidence Hold You Back, or Worse?

Let’s think about these results in the context of leadership. In so many cases, you don’t know the answer to challenges you encounter in operations and cultures, do you? Yet, time and time again, we hear of new and emerging leaders who come in with solutions to problems without fully understanding the issues, the contexts or the unintended consequences of those “fixes.” They have all the confidence in the world that they’re correct when in fact- they’re dead wrong.

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It speaks to one specific action that can derail a leader’s career: Coming in with the answer.

See, this brand of overconfidence isn’t limited to getting the answers wrong on an assessment. When a leader is overconfident, we’re talking about getting the answers wrong on the direction of the company – and that can be a fatal flaw, indeed.

Consider how a leader’s overconfidence plays out in these other areas, beyond coming in with the answer every time:

  • The overconfidence of holding onto an underperformer for too long.
  • The overconfidence that you and only you can change the company culture
  • The overconfidence that because your plan worked somewhere else with a different set of personalities and talents, it will work the same way in this instance, too.
  • The overconfidence that leads to doing it all yourself.
  • The overconfidence that leads to you tackling too many initiatives at once.
  • The overconfidence to over-promise to your staff, clients and key stakeholders.

Over time, decisions that are made unilaterally and with overconfidence can cause a leader to be blind to innovation or novelty; out of alignment with the rest of the team; and ultimately, lack a winning strategy for success.

Don’t Let Overconfidence Hold You Back – Reset Yourself

In reality, confidence doesn’t come from making all the key decisions by yourself. Being in touch with your true confidence level comes from understanding when to go with your gut, when to study the analytics and when to have the courage to say, “If I make this decision on my own, I might be making a wrong move here. So, I’d better involve others and make the decision in a more collaborative and deliberate way.”

To put yourself in the best position to make decisions with the correct level of  confidence, there are at least two big elements that should be ever-present for a leader: data and communication.

Being in touch with your true confidence level comes from understanding when to go with your gut

If you lack data, you’re making decisions only knowing so much. If you lack communication with your team, you might assume the worst about them, for example, “Oh, they don’t know that,” or “They don’t care about that stuff.”.

If you don’t put into play real numbers and genuine conversations, what’s left? What you know (or think you know):

  • “I know what I bring to the table.”
  • “I know it worked before and can work again.”
  • “I know what’s best for everybody.”
  • “I know it’ll be done right if I do it myself.”
  • “I know what these Millennials are all about and what they want.”

In your head, you’re always right, except nobody can always be right. So when you’re wrong, you’ll be surprised, disappointed, frustrated, even ashamed. That’s the price of letting overconfidence hold you back. And we don’t want to see the pendulum swing the other way as a result of that, to the point where you lack confidence.

In your head, you’re always right, except nobody can always be right.

The Question that Keeps Overconfidence in Check

It’s quite simple, actually: “What do you think?”

I’m amazed by how often leaders never or rarely ask that one question. In that question alone, you have four little words that communicate so much about who you are as a leader.

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When you ask this one question, you are saying, “I don’t have all the answers and that’s okay. I want to involve you because I value your opinion. I also have the confidence to know that making all the decisions on my own isn’t good for the company and won’t yield a greater collection of possible ideas and solutions. So let’s get to the destination we want to together.”

“What do you think?” Say it over and over again if you have to. Get comfortable with it. Then ask it of many people in various areas of the company. And do not make the mistake other leaders make in thinking that asking such a question is a form of weakness. That’s their overconfidence – if not also fear – at work.

After Mastering “What Do You Think,” Ask This Next

There’s another question you should be asking on regular basis, but it takes a lot of courage to say it. It’s just five simple words that you should be asking your boss, employees, customers and vendors on a regular basis. These five words are: “What can I do better?”

This will allow you to discover constructive, tangible changes you can make to improve how you’re perceived by others, increase the impact you make, accelerate the growth of your company, and enhance your profitability.

Can overconfidence hold you back from being a great leader? Absolutely. Asking the right questions takes courage, but that’s the easy part. Listening to the feedback can be even more challenging, but that’s how you start to realize the benefits of being vulnerable.

About Lee Eisenstaedt

Lee Eisenstaedt is the Co-Founder of the Leading With Courage℠ Academy and author of the Amazon best seller, "Being A Leader With Courage." Lee helps new and emerging leaders make a bigger impact, sooner by increasing the self-awareness of their strengths and blind spots through the Academy’s assessments, workshops, and executive coaching. He has also…

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  • Sue Zisko says:

    Great points here, Lee!

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