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Confidence is generally seen as a prerequisite characteristic of effective leaders, but one SIOP member’s recent research shows how “overconfidence” can be both helpful and detrimental.
SIOP Student Affiliate Amanda Shipman said that while confidence in leaders has been primarily considered something positive and beneficial, she wanted to research the darker side of the trait.
“Occasionally you will see leadership scholars mention that too much confidence may be bad, but it hasn’t been researched,” Shipman said. “I wanted to study what overconfidence entailed and how it influenced the leader’s performance.”
Shipman’s research results identified two elements of overconfidence – not seeing deficiencies and expectations of positive outcomes – and their effects on leaders’ performance.
“Failure to see deficiencies and expectations of positive outcomes are indicators of overconfidence that can be seen within the leader’s work,” Shipman explained. “Overconfident leaders expect a great deal of positive outcomes and don’t see any deficiencies.”
Failure to see deficiencies, Shipman said, can be detrimental to leaders’ visions and plans. Generally speaking, she explained, self-confidence involves belief in one’s capability to be successful and self-perceptions of competence in knowledge, skills, and abilities. Typically leadership studies of confidence explore differences between high and low confidence, concluding that high confidence is better than low confidence for performance. The purpose of Shipman’s study was to determine what influence too much confidence, or overconfidence, may have on leader performance.
Shipman collected data for the study September 2008 to February 2009 under her advisor SIOP Fellow Michael Mumford, who also helped oversee and implement the project.
Participants in this study included 159 undergraduate students (71 males, 88 females) with an average age of 18.7 years. Participants completed an in-basket task based on a developed leadership scenario. The scenario asks participants to assume the role of principal for an experimental high school with the objective of improving standardized tests scores.
“The in-basket is a low-fidelity simulation, in this instance simulating the leadership role of a high school principal,” Shipman explained. “The participant feels as if they are performing the work of that leader. Essentially participants work through a packet of materials under the assumption that they are this leader, where directions and activities are framed as if they are the principal.”
Instructions informed participants they would be working with an external consulting company that would help them develop their ideas for the school. First, the consulting company provided participants with one page to generate ideas. Next, participants revised their ideas using three prompter questions, one page given to each question. These open-ended questions served as the basis for assessing overconfidence. After revising their ideas, participants generated a one- to two-page final plan and lastly a one- to two-page vision for the school. The vision was operationalized as a speech to be given to parents, faculty, and students, which has been shown appropriate and effective in other leadership studies. During the second half of the study, participants completed a packet of covariate measures relevant to confidence and leader cognitive problem-solving including intelligence, personality, narcissism, and self-esteem.
The study found that plans and visions are hurt by overconfidence in terms of failing to see deficiencies during idea development.
“Failure to see deficiencies is not helpful to performance,” Shipman explained. “In fact, across the board, those who failed to see deficiencies – those who were overconfident – generated the worst plans and visions. The best plans and visions were generated by those who saw a great deal of deficiencies.”
However, the other indicator of overconfidence, expectation of positive outcomes, was found to be beneficial to visions in terms of inspirational appeal. Thus, excessive optimism may help a leader develop a vision that is appealing and motivating to followers. It is likely that a leader has to believe their ideas are ultimately going to be effective and result in many positive outcomes in order to sell a vision that inspires, motivates, and generates confidence in followers.
“I wouldn’t say ‘expectations of positive outcomes’ is globally helpful,” Shipman added. “For planning performance, the best plans were generated by those who had low expectations of positive outcomes and expected a great deal of deficiencies. There wasn’t a main effect for expecting positive outcomes’ influence on plans. Thus, expectations of positive outcomes alone does not help nor hurt planning performance. However, participants did generate vision statements that were more inspirational when they expected a great deal of positive outcomes.”
Shipman said her research findings have several implications for organizations:
First, she said, leadership training and development programs in organizations should encourage leaders to think about potential problems/errors/obstacles when they are developing solutions to problems and developing vision statements. Second, organizations have to be careful in leadership selection to not focus too heavily on confidence.
“Confidence and self-assurance may be helpful interpersonally for a leader, but leaders must really have a critical and evaluative focus on themselves and their work in order to have effective performance,” she explained.
Organizations also have to be careful because people that are confident are drawn to leadership positions, she added.
“But we don’t want to get people who are blinded by their confidence,” she said, “so much so that they don’t see any errors or problems with their work and are overly optimistic in terms of what can be done.”