After a very interesting conversation with a colleague yesterday, I started thinking about the balance between professional competence and professional confidence. There is a sliding scale and a series of tradeoffs that are often made between these two, but they are not mutually exclusive.
What do I mean?
Competence: basically, how intelligent are you and do you have the skills to perform the task at hand? There are a variety of gradations on this one, and for junior professionals getting a footing on their roles, competence will depend on the task at hand. For example, if you work in business development and you are asked to manage a partner’s expectations regarding pricing, your competence will (hopefully) be fairly high. On the other hand if you’re in the same role and asked to conduct an acquisition analysis, your competence might be lower.
Confidence: the ability to project or exude positivity and/or certainty. This one is pretty self-explanatory. For example, if your manager asks you for an opinion on a subject about which you are an expert, you’ll be pretty confident in your response. If anyone asks me about, say, Twitter Ads, I will (hopefully) deliver my answer with confidence.
In the early years of a career, there is often a divergence or gap between confidence and competence. Depending on the industry you choose to enter, you might begin obtaining skills in one area but not the other. In my experience, when I graduated from college I felt both competent and confident. Boy was I wrong! Investment banking takes the following approach: undermine the confidence; destroy the competence. Then, build back the competence from the ground up, which may or may not restore the confidence.
Why does this gap exist?
It exists primarily for the purpose of professional training, but also to mark and delineate points of inflection in a career. By “breaking” both pieces of the puzzle, it represents something to work toward on each end of the spectrum. Once you have mastered both for a certain area, domain expertise, task, etc, then it’s time to move on to the next level. For most people, that’s a promotion or a new role. But with that new role comes a new set of challenges for which an individual must work to become both competent and confident.
Know Your Audience
There are some instances in which it’s better to lead with confidence than competence. I find that when I am presenting or working on something that I’m passionate about, my confidence trumps my competence. Should I work to close the gap? Yes. But the audience or recipients will benefit in some capacity by the enthusiasm or confidence I try to project.
On the other hand, competence can go a long way in trying to prove a point or in many analytical settings. “Show me, don’t tell me” can often lead to a competence trumping confidence attitude.
Why does it matter?
In thinking about my own career, it’s been helpful to catalogue the growth trajectories of both confidence and competence, not letting one preclude the other for too long, and understanding when it’s time to take on the next challenge. I recognize what broke my professional confidence initially and what it takes to build both confidence (having an opinion helps with this one) and competence (learning something broadly and deeply simultaneously helps with that.)
How do you think of this dichotomy?
h/t to @klineshoes for the thought exercise.