Monday, September 12, 2016

[Over]confidence in the C-Suite, Politics, and the Employment Interview Process

Interesting research has been done on overconfidence in business leadership (see, e.g., herehere, and here) and political behavior (see, e.g., here and here).  I periodically consult the literature in this area for use in my work.  It is fascinating and often helpful.

In my continuing career development advice to law students, and as a member of our faculty appointments committee at UT Law this year, however, I recently have come to notice and be concerned about overconfidence in job searches.  Specifically, I see law students who, in testing out a new confidence in their knowledge and skills, overdo it a bit and over-claim or come across as unduly self-important.  I also see faculty candidates who have registered for the Association of American Law Schools Faculty Appointments Register (FAR) puff and oversell--using the comment areas to make cringe-worthy self-aggrandizing statements about their teaching or scholarly background or abilities.

Most of us prefer to associate with confident people.  Confidence in a leader or colleague is an attractive trait--one that we associate with strong governance and high levels of performance.  Confidence wins appointments, elections, and jobs.  Yet overconfidence, if recognized, is unattractive and often means lost opportunities.

Overconfidence is common.  Don Moore, a faculty member at Berkeley's Haas School of Business, notes this in a recent blog post on Overconfidence in Politics.

I study overconfidence among all sorts of people, from business leaders and politicians to college students and office workers. And my research shows that most people are vulnerable to overconfidence. We are excessively confident that we know the truth and have correctly seen the right path forward to prosperity, economic growth and moral standing. Research results consistently show that people express far more faith in the quality of their judgment than it actually warrants. . . .

How do those of us who advise law students enable them to be confident and show confidence without becoming overconfident--or projecting overconfidence?  In his post on résumés and interviews two years ago, co-blogger Haskell Murray advised students to avoid overstating their accomplishments.

Lawyers, perhaps more than other professionals, will call you out on any overstated items on your resume. While I have met plenty of arrogant lawyers, and perhaps was one, arrogance isn’t going to win you many supporters in the interview. Avoid vague self-congratulations (e.g., “provided excellent customer service.”). Stick to the specific, verifiable facts (e.g., “voted employee of the month in April 2012” or “responsible for a 35% increase in revenue from my clients.”).

I totally agree.  I also made a related point regarding the written word in my post on cover letters back in January.

. . . I see a significant number of cover letters that use strident adjectives and adverbs to help make their points. The sentences in these letters tend to smack of over-claiming. Also, in many cases, these adjectives and adverbs represent poor substitutes for well-chosen . . . stories. Most employers are likely to be more favorably disposed to the documentation of specific facts substantiating an applicant's suitability for an open position than they would be to sentences consisting of self-selected (and sometimes over-blown) characterizations of the applicant's suitability for that position.

But I have learned that the line between confidence and overconfidence, as important as it is in the job search process, can be a thin one.  And decisions about how to confidently--but not overconfidently--communicate with contacts, mentors, and prospective employers (among others) often must be made on one's own and quickly.  So, my bottom line advice to students is to focus generally in all communications, oral and written, on being other-regarding.  This article written by a Forbes Contributor makes some great observations and offers tips along those lines.  And if you can ask a trusted mentor to help you prepare for common questions or review the text of emails or letters, that's great.  

What else?  You tell me.  I am not confident that I know more . . . .  :>)

Behavioral Economics, Joan Heminway, Jobs, Psychology | Permalink


Helpful post, Joan. One thing I have learned is that the same conduct may be interpreted as "confidence" by some and "arrogance" by others. Mock interviews, ideally with a few different people who will give you good feedback, can be extremely helpful to get in touch with the range of opinions. You may not be able to please everyone, but you may be able to find out what conduct pleases most people.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Sep 13, 2016 11:59:32 AM

This is a valuable addition to the post, Haskell. I am so glad, always, to be in a conversation with you about how we can better help our students to achieve their [reasonable] career goals. Keep those thoughtful comments coming!

Posted by: joanheminway | Sep 13, 2016 12:08:35 PM

For employers we know well, we may ask for feedback that we can share with our students after they interview. Even if a student strikes out on that job interview, the feedback may be very helpful for the next job interview (and extremely credible if it comes from a firm they wanted to work for).

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Sep 13, 2016 12:16:55 PM

Also a nice point. The professionals in our Career Center at UT Law do try to get valuable information like this from employers. Occasionally, if I have made a referral, I also am able to let students know where they shine and where they fall short of the mark. In fact, this post was catalyzed in part by by some of those experiences recently. Again, many thanks.

Posted by: joanheminway | Sep 13, 2016 12:22:24 PM

This post makes insightful observations and highlights interesting research in other disciplines. Thank you Joan. I am covering board room diversity in my seminar today and, with that lens, wonder if the same dividing line between confidence and overconfidence are applied across gender, racial, ethnicity and other lines? My instinct is no. When I think of advice like this, and which is similar to what I received, I think about how it may be more likely internalized by "other" groups and not the majority. Interesting topic for sure!

Posted by: Anne Tucker | Sep 14, 2016 5:39:52 AM

Thanks for the love, Anne. And I am challenged by your question! I would want to research this angle independently, but my hunch is that both confidence and overconfidence are male-gendered, in principle part. I hope that all who tend to overconfidence, regardless of their sex or gender, do heed the warning and attempt to follow the advice, however . . . .

Posted by: joanheminway | Sep 14, 2016 9:48:09 PM

Great post/comments as always, BLPB team. As a related point, I recently reviewed a high-achieving undergrad business student's cover letter. Almost every phrase was couched in terms of what he might get out of the internship for which he was applying, as opposed to what he could offer the company. I know this wasn't intentional--as soon as I pointed it out, he was a little embarrassed and reworked the letter--but it demonstrates a strain of overconfidence that many top students possess. Yes, job seekers need to display their strengths in a confident way, but they must also remember that they're being hired to benefit the organization. By keeping that in focus, they'll come across much better as candidates.

Posted by: TJH | Sep 15, 2016 6:53:11 AM

TJH, thanks so much for sharing this. Your example jives with many experiences I have had. You offer wise counsel here, and your student is lucky to have you in his corner!

Posted by: joanheminway | Sep 15, 2016 8:31:23 AM

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