The Hidden Social Benefit | Stanford Graduate School of Business
Subconscious beliefs that leaders behave in an assertive and independent manner can compromise the performance of your organization. | Reuters / Patrick T. Fallon
During all those Zoom office calls, has it ever occurred to you that the quietest colleagues might also be the most competent? And yet, the talkative types who dominate the call tend to be seen as the smartest – and usually come from higher up in the social hierarchy.
Margaret Neale, Adams Distinguished Professor of Management, Emerita, at Stanford Graduate School of Business, recently co-authored a study highlighting how overconfident people – believing they are better than others, when evidence suggests otherwise – can be successful even when they lack competence. Also, overconfident types usually come from upper social classes.
“We really need to be more discerning when it comes to trust,” says Pierre Belmi, a former doctoral student at Stanford GSB who co-authored the study with Neale and is now an assistant professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. “Just because someone can speak very confidently, or can speak with a lot of confidence, doesn’t mean that person is smart. “
Because of our tendency to be swayed by displays of overt confidence, we may reinforce an already unfair social hierarchy. When overconfident upper-class people show up to a job interview or fight for a managerial position, they have an immediate advantage, the researchers say. We can’t help but fall in love with their bravado, endowing them with more talent and skill than they actually have.
Neale cites a body of research showing that people with skills and expertise are ironically more timid and uncertain in their specialty, precisely because they know a lot. People who are not experts, however, often exude a lot more confidence in their beliefs than their skills and experience would warrant.
Our country’s fight against COVID-19 has brought these imbalances to the fore.
“More than anything, this pandemic has completely, finally pulled the curtain off the idea that so many officials know what they’re doing,” former President Barack Obama said this month in his virtual opening address to the graduates of history. black colleges and universities. “A lot of them don’t even claim to be in charge.”
Decouple trust from competence
In their study, Neale and Belmi set out to capture people’s opinions about themselves, their mastery of a particular subject, and their social class.
In the first of four experiments, researchers conducted a field study of 150,000 small business owners in Mexico seeking loans ranging from $ 400 to $ 100,000. During visits to each business, loan officers asked potential borrowers to play a game of flashcards to test their memory and executive function. “These were people who were doing things where they tried their best to do their best,” says Neale. In the game, participants saw a picture, and after pressing a key, a second picture was shown to them. Participants were then asked if the second image matched the first. People with more education and higher income tended to act with more confidence and believe that they performed better on the test than their lower status counterparts. When asked to predict their performance, participants with relatively high social class made predictions about their performance that often exceeded their actual performance.
Just because someone can speak very assertively, or can speak in a very confident manner, doesn’t mean that person is intelligent.
Their second study, consisting of 500 survey respondents, found that people with higher household incomes, more education, and more educated parents were more likely to overestimate their performance on a general intelligence test by compared to others. Compared to lower class participants, this group also placed more importance on their social standing when answering questions such as “How much do you desire to have higher social status than others?” And statements such as “In an organizational setting, I want to be in a position with the most power. “
In a third experiment, the researchers interviewed 1,000 people and gave them a general quiz, including questions such as “Ascorbic acid is better known as (a) vitamin C or (b) ethanol” or ” Which martial arts term means’ soft way ‘,’ tai chi or judo? Belmi says he tested each question beforehand “to make sure everyone sucks at this game.” At the end of their interviews, the candidates were asked to judge their performance.
Participants with a relatively high social class were very confident that they did well on the trivia test. But when the researchers calculated the test scores, they found that participants with relatively high social class were just as bad at the quiz as their lower class counterparts.
In their latest experiment, the researchers asked undergraduates at the University of Virginia to take the same trivia test as their previous experiment. Students from families earning over $ 150,000 rated their scores in the 60th percentile when in fact they did well (48th percentile) and their scores were lower than participants from lower-class families.
Then the researchers took it a step further: they conducted mock job interviews with AVU undergraduates and invited independent observers to assess the students. When asked to rank those interviewed, independent observers concluded that overconfident upper-class students were smarter and more apt to be hired, despite any objective evidence that they were more capable.
“It’s a really interesting and powerful demonstration of the benefits to the individual, and potentially the downsides to society,” Neale said. “An inclusive environment is beneficial for organizations because you have access to more human resources, human capital. “
A message to leaders
Even though people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds tend to act more collaboratively and less independently, they still have important contributions to make at work, explains Neale. “It just means they make them in a different way.” But our deep belief that leaders behave in an assertive and independent manner compromises organizational performance and society as a whole, she says.
Belmi agrees, adding that real-world interviewers should be more perceptive and skeptical when meeting job applicants. “We have to be very careful about trust,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily always represent competence.” He recommends giving recruits work samples to better assess their skills. To find the best accountant, he says, don’t ask candidates, “When was the last time you shone as an accountant? Instead, give applicants the same accounting problem to solve – to put applicants from different backgrounds on a more level proving ground.
“We show that we probably have to think about these day-to-day mechanisms that from the outside seem benign, but in reality they could have deeper implications for the reproduction of social hierarchies,” says Belmi.
Anyone in positions of power, Belmi says, can teach underrepresented people to express themselves more. “But,” he stresses, “as leaders we can also be quieter and learn to listen.