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Contemporary pop culture has given serious thought to incompetent leaders with clear depictions of in shows like The Office or movies like Horrible Bosses. These characters, often depicted as a joke, starkly juxtapose the calm, cool, collected characters that become synonymous with competent leaders such as Bill Gates.
In reality, the incompetent leader is seldom viewed as a joke. Their confidence makes you take them seriously, and this is what makes them so dangerous. Luckily, academic researchers like Dr. Tomas Chamorro Premuzic from University College London have been researching the characteristics of incompetent leaders to help us understand what is going on.
At some point in your career, you have faced someone above you (from line manager to director) who were utterly incompetent. It could be anyone whose attitudes and behaviors have puzzled you, making you wonder why they made it to where they are. This level of incompetence could be the topic of gossip in the organization, but more often than not, it is hidden under a thick blanket self-confidence or even arrogance.
Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have identified this as the Dunning–Kruger effect, a perception bias that can lead you to mistakenly overestimate your cognitive ability. This means that the less someone understands or knows about something, the more confident they are in what they think they know. The fact that the vast majority of drivers rate their driving ability ‘higher than average’ is a classic example of this bias.
This can lead to an illusion of superiority that prevents them from acknowledging their ignorance. Importantly, this bias often means people who know very little about a topic manifest levels of confidence higher than actual experts. Within an organization, this creates the perfect storm. On the one hand, people who do not know that they don’t know are acting with the confidence of an expert; and on the other hand, people are impressed by people who can look the part regardless of actual competence.
How does this translate to leadership?
People favor people who look the part when selecting leaders. In general, this means leaders tend to be taller than the average and overly confident. Tall men are not better leaders, but they conform to the implicit bias society has towards what good leaders look like. There is an expectation that leaders should be confident, but extensive research has demonstrated that there is no link between confidence and competence.
Would you rather have an engineer in your team who is confident or capable? Or even better, would you rather be operated on by a surgeon who is confident or competent? Competence, with time and experience, can lead to confidence, but confidence by itself does not lead to competence.
Are you an incompetent manager?
Now the question that some people may be asking is how do they know if they might be an incompetent manager, director, or leader? If you are asking this question, you are probably not incompetent. Confident people have high self-esteem which would prevent them from reading this article (in case they find something that makes them feel uncomfortable).
If you are a micromanager, if you always know best, and take every small decision in your organization, you probably do not know how little you know or understand your organization.
How do you avoid promoting incompetent people?
Do not let yourself be fooled by people who display high levels of confidence, or by people who claim to have the only good idea. Competent people are easily identifiable by their ability to properly acknowledge what they know and what they do not know.
A job interview only helps you confirm your own biases. First impressions are very important, and people can be dazzled by someone’s ability to "perform" in a job interview. Interviews provide those with self-confidence an opportunity to shine, but this does not correspond with the ability to do a good job.
Scientific research has demonstrated that job interviews are quite useless when not adequately structured. Try to ask all candidates the same questions and in the same order. Then only consider what was said in response to these questions. This should help to reduce our ability to be distracted by confident people who may end up being incompetent managers.
Dr. Alejandro Martin Sposato is the Senior Lecturer in Human Resources Management at the Middlesex University Dubai campus