Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Ann Althouse "Chalk artist"

How Can Confidence Hurt Your Organization?

I’ve been thinking a lot about competence lately. Apparently, so have Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of the new book Think Like a Freak. In their recent podcast, I think the duo missed an important point.

First, I’ll suggest you give this a listen:

Levitt and Dubner made the point that people have a particularly difficult time saying, “I don’t know.” They make the claim that this is especially true in business, as employees are supposed experts in their domains. The boss can’t ask a question to which you reply, “I don’t know” too often before she’ll hire someone who does.

They go on to claim that the only way to learn is through feedback, and that the first step toward receiving feedback is to admit when you don’t have the answer. It would seem then, that organizational leadership would value knowing honestly when something isn’t known. But that’s not what they find.

They discuss many instances when organizational barriers are consistently erected to hamper the pathway toward truth. For instance, at one company, they described a proposal made by Levitt to run an experiment where newspapers ads would not run in select markets to measure their effectiveness. The proposal was summarily rejected, Levitt believed, because they were afraid to admit they didn’t already know whether the ads were effective.

I think this highlights two conflicting interests not discussed in the podcast.

Magee and Galinsky (2008) have claimed that there are two major functions to hierarchical organization:

  • Social order and coordination
  • Individual incentives

The first is in the interest of the organization. Organizations exist to get work done. The second, however, is in the interest of the individual. Individuals may be motivated to reach higher levels in a hierarchy.

Anderson and Kilduff (2009) found people high in trait dominance ascend to positions of status in social hierarchies. They further found that they do so by displaying competence cues: expressing opinions more frequently, speaking in a more assertive tone, making more direct eye contact, and using a more relaxed and expansive posture. They found that displaying these cues predicted ascension in the hierarchy regardless of actual competence.

In other words, rising in an organization seems to be contingent on acting like you’re competent.

In other words, rising in an organization seems to be contingent on acting like you’re competent.

It may therefore be that individuals who want to ascend the hierarchy are incentivized to act like they are competent, even when they are not.

This is in direct conflict with the incentive of the organization- to actually achieve competence.

The authors of the podcast seem to try to make an employee attempting to display competence in a work setting seem foolish or irrational. In my opinion, an organization would do better to attempt to align the incentives of the employees with those of the company. How does a company do so? . . . I don’t know.

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