Seem familiar?

You notice that once again Pete is not doing his job the way he should. Or, maybe you hear Jane speaking to a colleague in an inappropriate way. Then again, maybe you recognise that Kevin’s attitude is really starting to affect team morale. Whatever the situation, you realise that something needs to be said, and that you are the person responsible for saying it.

Have you ever had to have a ‘difficult’ conversation with a team member or colleague? Chances are that if you haven’t yet, the day will come—especially if you are in a leadership role.

Just believe in yourself—right?

Have you ever seen someone deliver a persuasive business presentation, successfully manage a meeting full of strong opinions or calmly organise a team during a crisis and thought, ‘I wish I had their level of confidence’?

I read a business blog recently claiming that successful people never doubt themselves. The idea that absolute confidence is the key to success is very popular. But is that true? More importantly, is it useful to think that way—will it lead to success?

The facts would suggest otherwise.

The risk of being overconfident

Research clearly shows that in general we are bad at realistically evaluating our skills and abilities. Ask any group of people how good they are at driving a car and more than 80% of them will typically say they are above average. Add a bit of ‘motivational hype’ about ‘believing in yourself’ and you might even get them saying they are the best drivers that had ever been on the road. On average, we also over-estimate our influence, skills and popularity.

Thinking you are a great driver might make you feel good. But it does not mean you are a good or safe driver—it might mean you are a real menace on the roads.

Overconfidence and an unrealistic view of our abilities can make us blind to improvements we need to make. It can also make us blind to dangers we need to avoid. Studies have shown that people who overestimate their abilities are more likely to dismiss negative feedback and end up performing even worse than others with a more realistic view.

Sadly, there are more than a few examples of overconfidence leading to disaster. Rather than helping us to be successful, focusing on trying to feel and be confident can set us up for failure.

It’s not that confidence is a bad thing, but seeing confidence as the key to success is a problem.

A little self-doubt can be very useful

By contrast, if you lack confidence in your abilities you are more likely to put effort into working harder for what you want to achieve. Even a measure of anxiety will help you be more alert to danger so you can avoid it. With a realistic view of what we are capable of, we are more inclined to seek advice and listen to it. The result is increased improvement and long-term success.

Success does not begin with attaining an emotive feeling of confident self-belief. Genuinely successful people focus on developing realistic confidence or self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a belief in our abilities, based on the development and demonstration of competence. As we develop and demonstrate competence, we receive feedback from others and gain our own insights, based on the results we produce. This then gives us the drive or confidence to continue developing and demonstrating our competence.

Confidence is not a prerequisite for great performance. Confidence is a result of competence developed and demonstrated.

The next time you see someone deliver a persuasive business presentation, successfully manage a meeting full of strong opinions or calmly organise a team during a crisis, ask yourself, ‘What do I need to do to develop and demonstrate that level of competence?’

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