When the guy in 12A thinks he can land the plane...
My colleague Bob Sutton, an author and professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, recently posted a tweet that stirred a lot of response. Bob was sharing a link to some research showing that nearly 50% of men feel confident that they could safely land a commercial jet if the pilot were to become incapacitated.
Pilots, by contrast, find the assertion laughable.
Bob suggested that the men’s belief in their own untested skills was a great example of overconfidence, a cognitive bias that research shows is more prevalent among men than among women. In fact, the percentage of women who reported believing they could safely land a jet in an emergency rests below 20%.
I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not talking about confidence here. We’re talking about overconfidence. It’s a distinction that has long fascinated me, especially as it applies to leadership. Confidence is firmly rooted in one’s actual skills and competence (“I know how to do this job”). Overconfidence, by contrast, is rooted in little more than the dazzling self-belief of the I-alone-can-fix-it variety. It tends to be untethered to any specific set of skills or demonstrable competencies that are required to perform a specific job. Those who are overconfident often view themselves as omnicompetent: that is, competent in everything.
Business scholar Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic did an extensive job of documenting the consequences of male overconfidence in his groundbreaking book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? The answer to the provocative question posed by his title is simply that those charged with hiring leaders– search teams, boards, executive committees– tend to do a terrible job of recognizing overconfidence in men. He notes that men who exhibit unwavering faith in their own greatness are likely to be viewed (at least by those who have not actually worked for them) as masterful and driven. In a word, leaderlike. The result is a disproportionate number of charismatic men who get promoted well beyond their competence level and occupy senior positions for which they are manifestly unqualified.
Chamorro-Premuzic’s comparative data shows that competence– the skills and qualities required to perform a job well– is in fact statistically far more aligned with and predictive of job performance than is confidence or self-belief. Yet competence is often dismissed as “mere competence” by those charged with choosing organizational leaders: nice to have, but not indicative of leadership potential.
Chamorro-Premuzic makes clear that when choosing leaders, the inability to spot or see through men with unearned faith in their own abilities penalizes not only women and others in underrepresented groups but a lot of highly competent men as well. It is also responsible for a wildly disproportionate amount of organizational dysfunction.
As psychologist Scott Plaus notes, “Overconfidence (is) the most pervasive and potentially catastrophic of all the cognitive biases to which human beings fall victim. It has been blamed for lawsuits, strikes, wars, and stock market bubbles and crashes.”
Speaking of crashes, let’s return to Bob Sutton’s tweet. Though I find it significant and amusing that 50% of men reported believing they could safely land a commercial jet, almost none of them will ever get the chance to do so. Their overconfidence remains in the realm of fantasy, and so poses little danger to themselves or their fellow passengers. And it’s not necessarily proof that they are overconfident in other areas.
When I shared Bob’s tweet, citing it as a great example of male overconfidence, my husband Bart, a reasonably humble man, agreed. But then he added: “I’m sure I’d be able to land that jet though, if I had to.”
I’m going to file that one under Oh Well!
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