Sunday, May 28, 2017

Confessions of an overconfident, mediocre man

By Darren Saunders
Posted May 28, 2017


a growing body of research shows my masculine mettle is actually costing men, women and organisations dearly.

Thanks in large part to their brazen over-confidence, mediocre men are being promoted to senior roles — in science and other fields — ahead of vastly more qualified women, damaging productivity, research excellence and stunting everyone's performance as a result.

The good news, however, is that a reckoning is coming: evidence suggests the days of the mediocre man running the show are numbered.


Journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have coined this measurable effect — that is, the notion that men are more self-assured than women — the confidence gap.

Success, they write in their book, The Confidence Code, "correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence".

In other words, confidence has somehow become a proxy for competence as a basis for success.

Indeed, numerous studies support their thesis. A 2011 study on The Emergence of Male Leadership in Competitive Environments found that men have a natural tendency to overrate their past performance on maths tasks by 30 per cent.

Ernesto Reuben, one of the study authors, almost apologetically described this behaviour as honest overconfidence.

Men aren't deliberately trying to fool anyone, he says, they honestly believe their performance is better than it really is.

Similarly, a 2016 study of over 1,500 undergraduate biology students showed that being male was a prerequisite for "celebrity student" status.

The most renowned students in every class studied were male, and males tended to overestimate the performance of their male classmates.

So we don't just rate our own performance better, we're also biased to the performance of other men.

Importantly, this honest overconfidence has a huge influence on how we identify and promote leaders.

The same 2011 study showed that male overconfidence is a key reason why qualified women are not selected as leaders as often as they should be.

There's ample empirical evidence of the absence of women in senior leadership across many fields, and the negative impacts it has on decision-making, financial performance and other key outcomes.


Notions of equity aside, this is also problematic from the perspective of ensuring good leadership.

A meta-analysis of 45 studies of leadership styles showed that women tend to exhibit many of the character traits associated with effective leadership — such as effective communication, a tendency to empower subordinates, and creative problem solving — and are more likely to adopt effective leadership styles than men.

Are we picking the wrong kinds of leaders?

But our counterproductive tendency to exclude the most effective leaders raises a broader question. What if the traits on which we select leaders are not the ones that actually make them effective at the job?

This plays out in politics, when effective opposition leaders sometimes struggle to transition into successful prime ministers.

In sport, where strategy, motivation, courage, and vision are just as important for leadership as skill or talent, the most successful player on a team isn't always the most effective captain.


But in placing so much emphasis on selecting the most productive people, are we unintentionally selecting against empathy, ethics, courage, and other traits of successful leaders?

Clearly, in science and other fields, performance metrics need to be broadened and aligned with desired leadership qualities to recognise and promote all aspects of good leadership.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of Columbia University has suggested that instead of focusing on the obstacles impeding women aspiring to leadership, we should instead be addressing the lack of obstacles for incompetent men.

The result of not doing so, he writes, "is a pathological system that rewards men for their incompetence while punishing women for their competence, to everybody's detriment."

A more direct approach that should shake the confidence of blokes everywhere (but probably won't) is the example of the crisis of the mediocre man.

The adoption of gender quotas in Swedish politics in 1994 — and the consequent displacement of mediocre male leaders — saw an overall increase in the competence of politicians.

Analysis of this effect identified a 'virtuous cycle of higher competence', breaking a trend for mediocre leaders to maintain power by surrounding themselves with mediocre followers.


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