How Overconfidence Affects Leadership

Can having too much confidence get leaders into trouble? Research shows that highly confident leaders tend to be popular and take more-informed risks, but being too self-assured also has some serious pitfalls.

Overconfident people can come across as bold and strong in the best of times—or as obnoxious in the worst of times. Their teams look up to them as leaders and trust their decisions. But if they’re not careful, that same supreme confidence “can cause detrimental and sometimes disastrous results in their organization,” leadership advisor Lynn Flinn writes in a guest column for the Journal Record of Oklahoma City.

“Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness,” Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economics, writes in an article for The New York Times. He is talking specifically about investors. According to Kahneman, successful investors have an abundance of confidence because they have learned over time that they can trust their own judgment and know where to get the best advice when needed. What they’ve learned has made them strong contenders in their field. “True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes,” Kahneman continues. But he goes on to warn that “overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts, and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”

Here are some of the hallmarks of an overconfident leader:

They take more risks (and sometimes it pays off). A leader’s overconfidence can spill over into his or her project planning and management practices, especially during decision-making. It’s OK to take risks when making an informed decision. Very confident leaders know whom and what to ask beforehand. But be wary of those who convince themselves that they know the correct course with no facts to back it up—as Kahneman  writes, they have the “illusion of validity.” “In general … you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about,” he writes.

They’re popular, even if sometimes wrong. Look at the people you follow on Twitter. You trust them as sources, and the more followers they have, the more credible they seem. But a recent study looking at sports prognosticators on Twitter showed that the size of their followings might have a lot to do with how confident they seem. Generally, those who make an accurate prediction saw a single-digit percentage bump in their number of followers. But those who presented themselves as supremely confident saw their followings jump by up to 20 percent. By and large, their utter certainty attracts people to their Twitter pages. “There is some psychological literature on the idea that people hate uncertainty,” researcher Ben Smith, a doctoral candidate in economics at the Washington State University, told ScienceDaily. “The fact that people don’t like uncertainty would suggest that they don’t like the idea of a Nate Silver sort of person standing up there and saying, ‘I’m only 90 percent sure.'”

They make a good first impression. It takes a mere 100 milliseconds to make a first impression, and confidence is key in that interaction. In a recent study, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis and Wake Forest University in North Carolina asked people how confident they were about having had a positive interaction with a person they had just met. Those who said they were most confident had actually made the best first impressions. The secret lies in trusting your own performance. “For the most part, people understand when they’re right and when they’re wrong,” Washington University researcher Erika N. Carlson told ScienceDaily. “If you want to know if you’ve made the right impression, trust your gut.”


Anita Ferrer

By Anita Ferrer

Anita Ferrer is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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