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May 23, 2019

Why Incompetent Leaders Get Ahead: Our Expert Interview With Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic

Rachel Salaman

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In his provocatively titled new book, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?", Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic boldly presents the case for a causal link between gender and competence. Fortunately, he also tells us what to do about it.

This debate centers on the relationship between competence and confidence. Visible self-confidence is more common in men than women, Chamarro-Premuzic says, and it can easily be mistaken for competence.

That’s why so many incompetent men become leaders.

In this audio clip from our Expert Interview podcast, Chamarro-Premuzic warns that confidence without competence can cause serious harm.

The Problem With "Leaning In"

The book grew out of a 2013 article he wrote for Harvard Business Review in response to a spate of literature suggesting that women need “masculine” traits in order to get ahead. To Chamarro-Premuzic, a professor at University College London and Columbia University, that felt wrong.

“If our choices of leaders are purely based on people’s ability to blow their own trumpet, self-promote, put themselves forwards (or 'lean in'), even when they don’t have the talents to back it up, we’re not going to improve the quality of our leaders,” he told me in our Expert Interview podcast.

“Wouldn’t it be better if we lived in a world where people who are focused on delivering results, doing their work (instead of self-promoting), and who let their achievements speak for themselves, were considered for leadership roles, instead of promoting this more narcissistic mindset: ‘Oh, you have to step up and tell us that you’re great’?”

Confidence Vs. Competence

Yes, it would. But it’s not an easy shift to make.

Confident people make us feel safe, and this influences our decision making in all spheres of life, including recruitment. Our head might say of one candidate, “She has a solid track record of successful team management,” while our heart says of another, “He seems super-effective, fearless and charismatic.”

Chamarro-Premuzic believes we must recognize and resist these impulses because they can land us in trouble. As well as masking incompetence, overconfidence can blind leaders to their own shortcomings and the results can be catastrophic.

"When they lack one [competence] the other [confidence] is detrimental, not positive," says Chamarro-Premuzic. "If you have a leader who lacks competence or integrity, then the fact that they have confidence or charisma is going to make them more dangerous, more lethal."

What Does the Data Say?

An expert in people analytics, Chamarro-Premuzic says focusing on data can help us choose better leaders. But you need to collect enough of the right kind of data for this to be effective. If you’re using psychometric tests during recruitment, for example, don’t just do them once.

“The analogy that I think is very helpful here is the difference between weather and climate,” Chamarro-Premuzic says. “The weather in London today might be representative of what the weather in London should be at this time of the year, i.e. 12 degrees, raining and grey. It’s possible that the weather tomorrow in London will be incredibly unrepresentative of what the weather should be, i.e. it could be 22 degrees and sunny.”

We all have our own climate, which is our typical outlook and behavior, and our own weather, which changes day to day. Chamarro-Premuzic recommends, “When we’re selecting people for future jobs, what matters most is what they are typically likely to do, not what they do in unusual days or moments” – such as job interviews. So test your candidates, then test them again.

The "Managing Up" Trap

Another tip for better selection is to ask the right people for references.

“I think things like evaluations by [a candidate’s] direct reports or 360-degree feedbacks are extremely underutilized,” Chamarro-Premuzic says.

“If you have managed a team correctly and your team rates you positively and says that you are fair, that you help them perform better, that will probably replicate. Whereas, if we only look at how leaders are rated or evaluated by their bosses, we’re going to praise people who are good at managing up, rather than down,  and leadership is a resource for the team.”

By applying these small changes, we may be able to shift away from age-old preferences forged in a different era. It's time to start selecting more competent leaders.

Listen to the full 30-minute interview with Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic in the Mind Tools Club.

What are your tips for hiring for competence, rather than confidence? Join the discussion below!

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