27 September 2023

Competence over confidence: A case for more women leaders

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The Glassdoor Team* discusses how to get more women into leadership positions with Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

Organisational psychologist Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s point is clear: there are too many unqualified men in leadership roles.

He drives the point home in his 2019 book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It).

Data shows that women outperform men across areas like self-awareness, humility, emotional intelligence, agreeableness, coachability, connecting with others, mentoring, managing, and revenue, Chamorro-Premuzic explains.

But men rise to leadership positions because of overconfidence in their abilities, and executives hire based on confidence, not competence.

It’s a costly mistake.

Incompetent leaders are bad for morale and bad for the bottom line.

In his book, Chamorro-Premuzic says bad leadership is the number one reason employees leave jobs worldwide, and 65 per cent of Americans would rather change their boss than get a raise.

When you consider Gallup research that the cost of replacing an individual employee can range from 1.5-2x the employee’s annual salary, and average the American turnover rate is about 20 per cent, it becomes clear that bad leadership is causing companies to lose money.

Since the book’s initial release, much has changed.

In a Q & A, Chamorro-Premuzic shares how to hold companies accountable, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, how to spot toxic leadership traits even while working remotely, and steps to advocate for yourself in the workplace.

(Responses have been edited for length.)

Glassdoor: How can workers tell if their company is serious about gender parity?

Chamorro-Premuzic: Large employers tend to report statistics, such as the percentage of women in the firm, percentage of managers, percentage of leaders, etc., so there is no need to look at the “diverse” pictures organisations post on their websites.

Sites like Glassdoor also help, because you can read what people say about company culture and whether or not an organisation truly values diversity and inclusion.

Paying attention to the goals organisations have, (reaching X per cent of female managers or leaders in X-timeframe), is also important.

Transparency makes it a lot easier for job seekers to do their research and find out what may be going on.

And, when you attend a job interview, you should also ask about these things and get a sense of how committed organisations are.

Glassdoor: One of the side effects of the pandemic is many women left their jobs to take care of homebound kids.

Two years in, how is the Great Resignation impacting the move toward gender parity in the workplace?

Chamorro-Premuzic: The data on this is clear and grim: The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, widening rather than reducing the gender gap in career opportunities and work-related privileges.

In the early stages of the pandemic, I was optimistic because when everyone is forced to work from home, you do equalize things significantly.

Also, the opportunities for politicking, managing impressions, and faking competence through confidence, (all of which are more common in men than women), are removed.

However, we quickly saw that women took on the additional unpaid workload at home, and as soon as offices reopened, men were more likely to return than women.

Now we are in a new phase of inequality: While many employers are truly interested in making “hybrid” work by offering more freedom and flexibility to workers, they will still likely implicitly reward those who come in more often and punish those who don’t.

This will benefit men and disadvantage women.

The reason is simple: Most managers have not gone through the meticulous and deliberate process of putting in place proper performance management systems to evaluate output (what people contribute) rather than input (where they are or how busy they seem).

Glassdoor: There’s been a dramatic shift to remote work over the past couple of years, and many workers are solely communicating online with co-workers — without the help of tone, nuance, and body language.

How can people spot narcissism and other toxic traits in a remote work environment?

Chamorro-Premuzic: We can always interpret non-verbal communication online, even through email.

This is easier with voice and easiest with video calls.

Of course, it is harder to show empathy over Zoom than in person.

The clunky and rudimentary environment of virtual meetings steals a lot of precious time from our interactions with others, and the potential for misunderstanding is higher.

With that said, you can absolutely spot a narcissist or toxic individual online: They will talk more, (especially about themselves), they will listen less, and they will react aggressively and defensively to negative feedback.

Glassdoor: For generations, leadership skills and styles were defined by men.

How can women advocate for themselves in the workplace to communicate that they have the skills and qualifications to climb the leadership ladder?

Chamorro-Premuzic: In recent and modern times this is true, but it has not always been the case.

What has happened in the last 200 years is that leadership talent became much more complex, shifting from physical to intellectual skills — and now a range of emotional and soft skills — therefore, it is much harder for people to assess correctly.

Humans tend to deal with complexity by oversimplifying things and economizing by taking shortcuts.

So, when leadership talent is too hard to judge, we cling to what we see and focus on charisma, confidence, attractiveness, and even narcissism.

Our focus on style over substance is the most debilitating feature of modern society: We don’t just prefer confident leaders to competent ones, we even prefer incompetent leaders to competent ones.

Incidentally, only 25 of the 195 heads of state in the world are female.

Glassdoor: How can women insert themselves into more leadership roles? Are there ways to showcase competence over confidence?

Chamorro-Premuzic: They should not insert themselves, they should be chosen.

Not because they are women, but because they have talent.

The selection of incompetent men over competent women is the number one problem we need to fix.

But instead, all the advice points the finger at women, blaming them for not leaning in, for not speaking when they have nothing to say, for not seeming more confident, more kind and caring, more ambitious, for not overcoming imposter syndrome, or not being more authentic.

We keep trying to fix women when what we need to fix is the system: a pathological system that rewards style over substance, and selects overconfident imposters over truly talented leaders.

In short, what we need is a meritocracy so talented women can become leaders, and so we improve not just gender parity, but the quality of our leaders.

Glassdoor: Data shows that women are still paid less than men in many jobs, and the pay gap is even greater for women of color.

Historically, companies have frowned upon employees sharing salary information, which—in turn—has permitted the pay gap to persist.

What steps can women take to demand transparency and close the wage gap?

Chamorro-Premuzic: We need transparency, full stop.

This doesn’t always mean revealing every person’s salary, but rather reporting existing gender differences, and other group differences as well.

If you’re running a team or a company, Chamorro-Premuzic’s findings beg you to take a hard look at your internal practices to see where you might be overemphasizing confidence over competence.

Figuring out the difference can be as simple as gathering intel through polls or internal surveys, or following employee conversations using external tools like Glassdoor and community platforms like Fishbowl.

*Glassdoor is one of the world’s largest job and recruiting websites.

This article first appeared at glassdooor.com.

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