With years of professional experience, it is normal for people to become quite comfortable with their ability to do their job, and quite confident in their own competencies. Starting in a profession is always initially daunting indeed, due to this overwhelming feeling that there is so much that we do not know, and that there is so much that we need to learn.
Achieving a certain level of confidence
Depending on each person’s experience and depending on their exposure, a certain level of confidence can be achieved within anything ranging from a couple of years to a decade.
Exposure is an important factor and it can take various forms:
- Exposure to different ways of doing things – achieved from moving from one organisation to another
- Exposure to different types of problems and different ways to solve them
- Exposure to issues and activities outside of our own job – which would otherwise be the responsibility of other interfacing job functions
- Exposure to management issues, activities, forums and considerations
- Exposure to a wide spectrum of professional activities requiring creativity, reflection and strategy.
Another important factor in developing professional confidence is curiosity.
Curiosity can be defined, in a way, as never being satisfied with what we already know and always trying to learn more. It can also be defined as constantly asking oneself questions beyond one’s own scope, beyond one’s own reality or beyond one’s own comfort zone.
Whether it is after 1 year or after 10 years of experience on the job, a certain proportion of people start believing that they know ‘everything’, which becomes their primary source of confidence.
Does confidence mean competence?
But is it because a person is confident that this person is competent? Is it because a person thinks that he/she knows everything that he/she really knows everything indeed?
Let’s consider two different individuals, whom we shall call Person A and Person B, who started their career on the same day and in the same organisation, and who now have 10 years of experience:
- Person A has learnt to perform many activities in his/her own job. He/she has stayed in the same organisation for 10 years.
- Person A, however, has not been exposed to anything outside of his/her own role and Person A does not like to venture outside of his/her comfort zone. Person A never volunteers for activities over and above his/her normal responsibilities.
- Person A is not curious at all and does not ask himself/herself any question beyond his/her day-to-day reality. Person A never does more than what he/she is asked to do. Person A is extremely confident in his/her abilities and his/her competencies, because he/she thinks he/she knows everything.
- Person A never has any doubts about himself/herself.
- Person B has learnt to perform an extensive type of activities in his/her own job. Not being satisfied with what he/she knows, he/she has also been curious about other activities around him/her, has read a lot and has expanded his/her knowledge.
- In 10 years, Person B has worked in 3 different organisations and has been exposed to various ways of doing things and various challenges. Person A frequently volunteers for activities that are not part of his/her job description, to learn more and to get more exposure.
- Person B asks himself/herself many questions that fall beyond his/her day-to-day reality. Person B also asks many questions to other people.
- Person B participates in various multi-discipline meetings and occasionally supports management with some of their tasks.
- Person B is moderately confident in his/her abilities and his/her competencies. Person B knows that he/she still has a lot to learn and he/she often has doubts about himself/herself.
Knowing what one does not know
We know who is more confident between Person A and Person B. However who is more competent between Person A and Person B?
Let’s consider an illustrated representation about the relative situations of Person A and Person B.
- On the left-hand side of the above figure, representing Person A’s perspective, we can see that the larger orange square represents what Person A thinks is the entire set of things to know about his/her job. Within this perceived size of knowledge set, we can see that the hashed area represents what Person A knows. Therefore, given this perspective, Person A thinks that he/she knows almost everything there is to know.
- On the right-hand side of the above figure, representing Person B’s perspective, we can see that the larger orange square represents the real set of things to know in Person B’s job. Within this actual size of knowledge set, we can see that the hashed area represents what Person B knows. Therefore, in this more realistic perspective, Person B thinks that he/she still has a lot to learn.
But here is the interested fact: Person A does not know what he/she does not know.
In other words, Person A has an incorrect perception of the size of the entire knowledge set and mistakenly underestimates it by about 75%.
And although Person A thinks he/she knows almost everything there is to know in his/her own perspective, we can see that in reality the size of what Person A thinks is the entire set of things to know is even smaller than the size of the actual knowledge of Person B, which is not even 50% of everything there really is to know.
Yet, Person A is very confident in his/her ability to perform his/her job and in his/her competencies, whereas Person B is only moderately confident – although Person B knows a lot more than Person A.
The “arrogance of experience”
In his leadership self-help book “Avoiding or Overcoming Organisational Inertia”, Luis Heng covers this phenomenon to a certain extent in the section entitled “The arrogance of experience”.
In the field of psychology, this scientifically demonstrated phenomenon wherein people who know the least tend to think that they know the most is called the ‘Dunning-Kruger’ effect.
Each of us must ask ourselves the following questions:
- Am I like person A or like Person B?
- And if I am like Person A, what do I intend to do about it?
At the end of the day, it is for each of us to decide what kind of professional we wish to be and how much respect and credibility we wish to receive from colleagues, peers and interfaces.
Other blog articles that might interest you:
Lifelong learning: A method to improve opportunities
Document Controller: A career roadmap
How to produce a career development plan