Competence vs. Confidence

A stock photo of a female manager displaying casual confidence by pointing her hand like a gun.

Today, a friend told me they were worried about getting a promotion because they didn’t feel confident in deeply knowing the tools and technologies their team uses. They were afraid that their C-Level manager wouldn’t see them as an expert level if they didn’t have all the answers ready to go.

I told them I don’t look for confidence from my managers - I look for competence. Confidence tells me “Don’t worry - “I’ve got it.” and leaves it at that. Competence asks me questions, verifies assumptions, and is not concerned about knowing all the answers right away. Competence comes back with a Plan A and Plan B after some due diligence.

Confidence should not be used falsely.

Most people are capable of projecting confidence, even if it is not based on reality. This makes it a less than ideal measure of someone’s ability to deliver results. Over-confidence is hugely damaging - it can erode trust, it is blind to assumptions, it can compromise decision-making, and it can put undue pressure on teams and set them up for failure.

Competence is the application of experience.

An experienced leader acknowledges that there are risky unknowns involved in any task (even familiar tasks) and makes them important. They establish criteria for success and create agreements instead of expectations. They validate assumptions and evaluate progress often.

Competence means keeping your head in a crisis, sticking with a task even when it seems hopeless, and improvising good solutions to tough problems when every second counts. It encompasses ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything. - Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth

A stakeholder’s confidence in you is not based on your confidence.

Your stakeholders have confidence in you based on your ability to understand the problem, explain tradeoffs, negotiate contingencies, and provide updates in a way that is easily understood. Don’t obfuscate your competence behind a layer of confidence - give your stakeholders visibility into your preparedness and thought process.