Why Confidence Often Trumps Competence at Work

What is the secret sauce - unrelated to actual competence - that you need to possess in order to improve your status at work?

The people at the top of organizations do not always represent the best and the brightest. So how do they get there? Or, to put it another way, how can you get to the top? What is the secret sauce - unrelated to actual competence - that you need to possess in order to improve your status at work?


According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people who appear to be natural leaders tend to rise to the top. Professor Gavin Kilduff of New York University and Adam Galinsky, a psychologist and professor at Columbia Business School, proposed that people who feel energetic and confident will appear more competent and consequently obtain higher status. In a series of tests with students, Kilduff and Galinsky's thesis was confirmed. Subjects who participated in a "promotion-focused" activity and a writing exercise designed to increase their confidence ended up achieving higher group status. 

This effect proved to be long-lasting. Why? The Association for Psychological Science summarizes here:

The person entering into the group, having just been primed with power, acted more assertively in the first few minutes, according to video tape coding. This set up patterns of communication that persist in the future. That early assertiveness becomes self-reinforcing within the group. Think about happiness, ideals, or power when you enter into a new group, and you will still have status days later due to the precedent setting assertiveness.

So how can this be applied? For one thing, dress to impress. In a previous post David McRaney looked at the concept of "enclothed cognition." That means that the way you dress can affect not only the people around you who observe you, but also yourself. Whether it's a lab coat or a pair of glasses, when you feel more confident, your behavior improves.

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