What's happening at the
Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 13:14 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 13:14 | SYDNEY

Women, leadership and overconfidence



16 December 2011 09:11

I found the above TED talk by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg via the always excellent Browser, and I recommend it highly. Sandberg says the percentage of women at the top of the corporate and political worlds has plateaued, and she has three pieces of advice for women on how this can change.

As I said, I really liked this talk, but I had one major problem with Sandberg's advice. The relevant section of the speech starts at 4.43, where she recounts an anecdote revealing the different ways men and women judge their own abilities. 'Men attribute their success to themselves', she says, 'and women attribute it to other external factors':

If you ask men why they did a good job, they'll say 'I'm awesome'...if you ask women why they did a good job they'll say someone helped them, they got lucky, they worked really hard. Why does this matter? Boy, it matters a lot. Because no-one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side and not at the table, and no-one gets the promotion if they don't think they deserve their success.

If Sandberg's description of the different ways men and women attribute their own success is accurate, then the women are almost certainly right, and the men almost always wrong.

True, there will be people who succeed solely because they're awesome. But most of us aren't awesome, we're merely competent, and to the extent we succeed, it is because of a vast support network involving families, schools, businesses, government, the health care industry, law enforcement etc, etc. And yes, luck also plays a huge part.

So women are right to attribute their success to others and not solely to their own innate awesomeness. Yet Sandberg seems to be saying that, for women to succeed, they need to be unreasonably self-confident in the same way men are.

On one level, this makes sense. If self-confidence is rewarded, then being more self-confident should lead to advancement. But should self-confidence be rewarded? The 'overconfidence effect' is a widely recognised cognitive bias that reduces the effectiveness of decision-making. It's been argued that overconfidence is a major factor in the decisions governments make to start disastrous wars, and overconfidence has also been been blamed for helping to bring about the financial crisis.

So I think Sandberg is coming at this from the wrong direction. Rather than reinforcing a system that rewards people who are over-confident, those responsible for selecting our leaders (voters, shareholders, corporate recruiters) might instead want to think about correcting the bias that favours confidence over circumspection. 

You may also be interested in...