Competence or Confidence?

If you could be endowed with an 80/20 split, confidence and competence which would it be?

The more I see, in business, relationships, sports, careers, science, (but maybe not chess) confidence in oneself usually counts for more than competence.

Does brass beat brains?
Does the most competent exec become the CEO, or the one with the unswerving swagger and unquestioning belief one’s own supremacy?

In the Wimbledon finals, does the better backander and server win, or the one who THINKS she’s going to win?

Who goes home with prettier women? The confident guy with a mediocre pick-up line? Or the hesitant schlub with a perfect line?

I know a dazzlingly brilliant programmer who can code rings around almost everyone. He just lost out a huge assignment to a ham-fisted coder who thinks (and says) he can do anything. He usually does, but not because he’s brilliant, but because he entertains no other possibility.

I’m thinking I’d opt for 80% confidence, 20% competence.

Actually, make that. . . “Absolutely, 80% confidence. Heck yes. No question.”

The senior partner at my first firm was confident, but not overly competent.

However, he was the senior partner because the clients were almost all his. He hardly ever really “worked” more than half a day.

One day, in my first year of practice, he said about becoming senior partner, “It’s simple. Go get yourself some clients, then hire someone smarter than you to do the work.”

The old associate at the firm was the smart one who came up with all the right legal analysis, but he couldn’t get clients. He was required to bill his hours and he worked hard.


Confidence = Senior partner = Cash

Competence = Permanent associate = Working hard to enrich somone else


The senior partner would alwys joke about how the top students in law school end up working for all the mediocre students who went out drinking and making contacts instead of studying.

But isn’t this more like being confident *because * you are playing to your competencies? It sounds like the senior partner is very competent–at sales. So he found a position that benefits most from that competency, and so has well earned confidence.

I am very confident as a teacher, because teaching is something I am good at. I would be incompetent in any number of enviroments, and so would also lack confidence.

As far as the two lawyers go, it seems like the higher paying postions are the sales positions. People who are competent in sales end up making more money (which is actually true in all sorts of industries). The senior partner isn’t making more because he is medicore or incompetent–he’s making more because he is competent in a more lucrative skill set.

Confidence easily wins out.

Not one of the three senior partners at our firm knows jack shit about accounts. It’s obvious when the juniors are explaining something to them that they simply nod thier heads out of confusion.
But it’s clear why this is the case anyhow. If you can convince other people you know something it means much more (in success terms) than the lonely genius who sits in the corner and shows no outward signs of brilliance.

And confidence also usually results in two things:

  • Continued persistance even after failures

  • Willingness to try new things and explore
    Which tends to go hand in hand with (real-life) success.

I think the OP was asking if it’s better to be a competent [attorney] or a confident [attorney]. Based upon my experience, as described above, it appears the confident attorney gets the better deal.

Well, the OP doesn’t restrict itself to law, or even work.

And I will still argue that the real difference is between a [competent] attorney and a [competent] salesman. Put it this way: the guy that has no legal skills and no people skills but lots of confidence sends out asshole waves you can detect at 20 yards. Surely you’ve met guys like this? They rarely get past the interview stage, though, because their lack of competence in any area shows through. They’re the slick, smarmy assholes of the world. Confidence is a part of being a competent salesperson, but it isn’t all of it. You can be confident and still turn people off if you don’t know how to avoid coming across as an arrogant prick.

I would guess there are more arrogant pricks running companies [ schools, governments, lacross teams, ad agencies ] than quietly competent folks who have less confidence in themselves.

I think I agree with Bearflag and MadderMitch. Life tends to reward confidence a bit more than competence.

The point was, for an attorney/house painter/gymnast, a higher confidence-to-competence ratio seems to work best.

Who would have a better chance in a job interview? An attorney of average technical competence who exudes confidence? Or an attorney of above-average competence who seems less sure of himself?

Heh, I wish you and I could swap world views. Most of the guys I know who are successful (at least monetarily) display all the above mentioned (negative) traits.

In particular, slick smarmy asshole should be my boss’s middle name(s).

I’d chose to have a higher percentage of confidence than competance, may 60%-40%.

My rationale is that my job doesn’t require that much incredible brain power. Yes, I do have to make decisions and I do need solid analytical skills. However, sometimes it’s better to have the confidence to make a decision and lead a team to implement it than to analyse the situation to death and never get anywhere.

For example, we have two managers in our groups with very different styles. Last year, each of them started up projects to change some of our fulfillment processes. One is extremely confident and just competent enough to make good on her promises. The other is one of the smartest people I know, but never trusts that her decisions won’t come back to bite her in the but. The former manager had his system in place long ago, and we’ve already seen some cost savings. Is it the best process out there? Likely not. But it’s working well. The latter manager has yet to select a vendor and is still going over reams of data, discussing all the various pros and cons of different choices, and all she has to show for her efforts are pages and pages of analysis.

The slick, smarmy assholes I know who are successful know how to turn that off and turn on the charm when they need to–which may not be with their underlings! They know how to make connections, which connetions to make, and how to maintain those connections. They know who not to offend and and how not to offend them. They know how to take credit and how to pass blame. They are competent at this shit, even if it is sometimes heinous.

The guys that are just confident are the ones that are living hand to mouth, having tried and failed every get rich quick scam and bankrupted several small businesses.

Actually MJ brings up a good point. We have to identify which are the aspects of confidence and which of competence.
IMO confidence is the belief in your ability to do something (or perform a task). Competence is your ability to actually do it.

For example, she correctly points out that there are those with good interpersonal skills (such as starting a conversation, establishing rapport, positive body gestures) who will succeed in the corporate world. The bit to take away is that they’re top dogs coz they are competent in a particular skill set that gives them an advantage in communicating with people.

This makes sense.

However, given the nature of the OP I still say confidence wins out.

Clearly some amount of competence is needed. But you’re only looking at one end of the extreme if you point towards “arrogant assholes that know nothing”. You also have to look at the other.

Imagine a guy who’s technically proficient at the job but is so unbelievably nervous that he can’t make it through the door without stumbling over something or is too afraid of speaking to the senior board of officials directly. You’d hardly appoint this guy for the position either.

What the OP infers to (in my interpretation anyhow) is the split.

And I think it favours the confident. In the end, when it comes to the interpersonal skills you mention, you can’t just have the ability or know-how to do it. You have to do it when it matters (i.e. the boardroom, at work, in the presentation). You can know all the tricks and even have practised them consistently enough, but when it comes down to it, they’re are no real “outs” once you actually have to perform it. That takes confidence in your abilities. You have to feel as though you will perform well, without hesitation - like at a job interview, for instance.
I would say it’s much easier to train a confident person to be competent* (at least to a reasonable degree - obviously we all have different natural grooves) than train an unconfident person to be confident.

*These are for the two reasons outlined in my first post.

Without a doubt the two things are interrelated and you need some degree of both to be successful. Furthermore, the one tends to lead to the other: put me in one of those high-end resturants discussed in another IMHO thread, and I am going to lack all confidence because it’s an area I have no competence in: I don’t know much about food, and even less about the norms of high end service. On the other hand, put me alone on a bus with 75 screaming teenagers and I know exactly how to bring the situation under control–my competency leads to a feeling of confidence that makes me more competent.

My only real point here is that it often seems like there is a sort of “sour grapes” attitude towards successful people where they are described as incompetent, just confident. I think that that is a mischarecterization, because everyone I’ve ever known who was successful really was truly good at something, even if it was kissing ass. That’s a skill, not just an aura.

No I don’t think so. Most people I know look up to successful people and try to emulate them. YMMV on that one though.

I think some of the confusion is what type of competency you have (as you have alluded to earlier).

I think most people would imagine a wealthy programmer immediately as one who must excel in his or her technical craft. This may not be the case, they might just have other types of relevant skills that make them rich (e.g. marketability and salesmanship). So this sort of thing confounds people coz they might think, “hey, that guy ain’t a good programmer, why in the heck is he/she so rich? How come I’m still here scrimpin’?” etc.

Like I said in my experience they’re few to the many.

And my boss is still an asshole (yeah yeah I know - he don’t act like a savage in front of the clients, and that’s what counts, right?).

MJ seems to be speaking of confidence born of competence.

“I am good at this, therefore I am confident I can control a bus of screaming middle-schoolers.” I have done this before. I am trained for this. I read the manual. Therefore I will succeed."

That, is most of us, I think. But there are others who automatically, reflexively, and by default, ASSUME and expect that they will succeed at whatever they are about to do. And in my observation, they tend to succeed at a higher rate than those who are less sure. . . who must practice first, or read the book, or need to have done it eleven times before.

I know one guy who fully expects to be brilliant at whatever he tries. He walks into a cocktail party where he knows no one. He EXPECTS, without considering the matter, that everyone he speaks to will like him. He therefore walks into the room bright and cheerful and outgoing. And due to that, everyone DOES like him.

Hand him a bow and arrow and he automatically ASSUMES he will plant one in the bullseye, even if he’s never shot a bow in his life. Does he hit the bullseye? Not the first time. Maybe not the 26th time. But he hits a bullseye WAY sooner than the guy who says “I can’t shoot a bow! I’ve never done it. Let me take lessons first.”

As Madder Mitch aptly pointed out. . . Confident people try more stuff. They don’t fold under pressure. They don’t let naysayers stop them. And it has nothing to do with technical expertise. Pure brass seems to work.

It depends. If you want to get the job done right, I’d go with competence. Everything social? Confidence no doubt - I know this because I hardly have any confidence in social situations, where it it much needed. I don’t think you can have a catch all 80/20 split, because a person can be confident in one thing, and flop with another.

I think MadderMitch said it best, and I’d go one step further. Confidence is a requirement for a lot of positions, particularly in senior management.

A competent manager is going to throw in so many caveats and worst-case scenarios into his analysis that in the end no one will be able to figure out whether he’s for or against it. A confident manager will sum it up in one line – “I’ve analyzed the risks, and we can make this work.”

Look at George Bush (the father). He was competent – in fact he had a great resume to be President. The poor guy was stuck between Ronald Reagen and Bill Clinton – two people who oozed confidence out of every pore. In a 3-way contest, guess who history will put in third place.

As usual, people here just don’t seem to “get it”. Competance and confidence go hand in hand. Bullshit artists who talk a good game but can’t perform don’t last. Competant employees who lack confidence end up being the office workhorse and burn out.

Also, people often mistake which competancies are important:

Your senior partner doesn’t need to be a good litigator any more than my SMD needs to be a good at writing SQL code and creating Excel spreadsheets or an Accenture partner need be good at implementing SAP systems. Their job is to develop new work for the firm so the peons - an army of consultants and/or lawyers working 100 hours a week for high five figures can do all the work.
If you want to be more than one of those bitter guys who always complain about how hard they work (even though they are just d

I’m going to have a deck built. Who should I hire, the competent contractor who has built decks for 20 years, or the guy who is confident that he will be able to figure it out, after all it’s only a deck? I’m going to go with competentcy. Socially/Politically, confidence can get you by or even get you ahead (see Trump, Donald) but in the end the results matter. Corporate culture has a place for both the confident and the competent, but usually the competent are working for the confident. The trick is balance, be confident in your competentcies.

as I was saying…

If you want to be more than one of those bitter guys who always complain about how hard they work while less competant people get ahead, you need to make sure that not only does everyone know how talented you are, you need to make it known that you are talented at doing the job above yours.

Where confidence gives people the advantage is when facing adversity or minor setbacks. Some people hit a snag and they throw their hands up in the air and give up. Others see it as a minor setback and press onward, figuring it is insignificant or they can figure out how to fix it later.

Confidence can also be a detriment too. I work with plenty of guys who are so confident in their “ability” that every task is beneath them. They think that doing a good job for a client (which IMHO is the bare minimum expectation) should put them in line for the next promotion.