How to avoid the (over)confidence trap

Hubris can lead you to ignore critical feedback, but it's not easy to know if you're overconfident or just really good.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 17 Aug 2020

It is perhaps unsurprising that research shows the more confident a CEO is the less likely they are to learn from feedback.

But a new study by Vienna University of Economics and Business shows that this is particularly the case when the financial situation of the company is so bad that its survival is at stake.

Overconfident CEOs “interpret the precarious situation much more positively and only react with a change when it might already be too late,” says researcher Christian Schumacher of the study, which looked at S&P1500 companies between 1992 and 2014.

Confidence itself is something you would expect among senior executives - crippling self-doubt is hardly consistent with career progression, and there’s nothing like success to increase self-belief. Indeed, a Sutton Trust analysis of BBC data found that those who were more confident and assertive had a 25 per cent higher chance of being in a higher-earning job. 

The problem is how to avoid becoming overconfident, or even arrogant, when it’s in the nature of such things to blind you to their existence.

And even if you do become aware of it, how do you avoid going too far the other way, and constantly second-guessing yourself? Getting the balance right requires returning to where we started: feedback. 

In the Vienna study, feedback was construed around financial performance relative to previous years and to competitors. But as with all such feedback, there can be a myriad of reasons to explain away things you don’t want to believe. 

Fortunately there are ways to see past your own hubris. Do you ever ask the question ‘but what if I’m wrong’, and genuinely entertain the answer? Have you sought honest and constructive feedback - specifically for your own performance and how it could be better - from a trusted source? Do you have a mentor, coach or peer who can tell it how it is? 

It requires getting uncomfortable and really listening to what people have to say, at all levels in the hierarchy. It could be for example that the impact you intend to have on your team and the wider business is not the impact others actually experience.

Being open to gaining self-awareness can inspire behavioural change: by being more cognisant of your own personality and biases, you will have a clearer view of your own limitations and where you could improve (and you can always improve). 

Occasional self-doubt may be the price you just have to pay to keep your feet on the ground.

Image credit: China Photo/Getty Images

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