It’s not your actual competence that counts. It’s how people perceive your competence that makes the difference. In this reading recommendation, mentalist and business professor Jack Nasher offers tips to help you appear more competent, attractive, intelligent, and important.
Mentalist Jack Nasher offers tips for judging other people’s competence and for helping other people judge yours.
Self-Help, Relationships, Communication Skills, Interpersonal Relations, Leadership and Motivation
Mentalist Jack Nasher offers tips to help you appear more competent, attractive, intelligent and important. He argues that your actual competence matters little compared with your perceived competence. He revels in people’s judgmental reflexes. Gaming them is the point of his book. But without judgment, how do you know whom to trust with personal and professional assignments? He accepts that accurately judging someone else’s competence can be extremely difficult. To overcome the challenge, Nasher presents his “eight pillars of competence” – proven techniques, tools and tactics derived from decades of psychological research.
- To convince people of your competence, use the “impression management” tools of the “eight pillars of competence.”
- Competence and brilliance aren’t necessarily self-evident; you must showcase your qualities.
- Manage people’s anticipation, so they will expect you to be competent.
- Associate yourself with good news.
- Showcase specific elements of the “competence formula”: performance, ability, motivation, dealing with difficulty and luck.
- Master verbal and nonverbal communication.
- The greater your attraction and popularity, the greater will be your perceived competence. Project tact, authenticity and self-confidence.
- Use the “power of symbols” to build the most reliable measure of your competence: your habitus – the way you look and act.
- Judging other people’s competence is hard; recognizing their incompetence is easier.
To convince people of your competence, use the “impression management” tools of the “eight pillars of competence.”
It’s not your actual competence that counts. It’s how people perceive your competence that makes the difference. You can apply impression management techniques, tools and tactics to convince others of your competence. Persuading others gives you a tremendous advantage over people who are equally competent but can’t differentiate themselves. Specific tools, techniques and tactics make up the eight pillars of competence.
First, competence and brilliance aren’t necessarily self-evident; you must showcase your qualities.
Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten convinced world-class violinist Joshua Bell to perform as a street musician during rush hour at the busy L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington, DC. Bell’s violin of choice was a 1713 Stradivarius, valued at around $4 million. He played the epitome of violin pieces, “Chaconne” from Partita No. II by Johann Sebastian Bach.
“Brilliance does not speak for itself. You can, in fact, be the best in the world and no one will notice.”
Bell’s performance barely caused a stir. People mostly ignored him. His total donated earnings for the day was $32.17. Three days earlier, Bell had played to a full house at Boston Symphony Hall.
Competence, even brilliance, isn’t self-evident. You must showcase your skills, expertise and competence, so they resonate most strongly with those whom you want to impress.
Second, manage people’s anticipation, so they will expect you to be competent.
To demonstrate your competence, use “expectation management” to direct other people’s anticipation and shape positive perceptions of your competence. When you help people reduce or eliminate anxiety about dealing with a stranger – in this case, you – you benefit. Demonstrate confidence in yourself. Subtly refer to your past successes in areas that matter to those whose support you require.
Use the technique of priming your audience by projecting competence from within. For example, suppose your boss asks you to stand in front of your colleagues and answer several questions. “What are you…good at?” “What was your greatest professional success?” “Why should you, of all people, take on the responsibility for an upcoming project?” “Why should anyone be led by you?” Prime yourself by developing answers in advance to these and other likely questions.
In 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy campaigned for the US presidency. During a high-profile TV interview, newsman Roger Mudd asked Kennedy, “Why are you running for president?” Ten incredibly long seconds passed – an eternity of dead air – before Kennedy came up with an answer. This was the precise moment when Kennedy’s presidential campaign inexorably started downhill. Prime yourself to answer probable questions from bosses, clients and job interviewers. Have clear answers ready.
Third, associate yourself with good news.
At the annual Detroit Motor Show, automobile manufacturers hire beautiful hostesses to stand next to cars. The hostesses demonstrate the power of association, also known as the “halo effect.” Use this tactic to improve how people perceive your competence.
“Positive news radiates positively over every other aspect of a person or event, and bad news does so negatively.”
Always deliver good news face-to-face, not by phone or email. If you make a presentation sharing good news, stretch it out as long as possible. After your presentation, don’t immediately retreat from the podium. Every second you stand there will solidify your association with that good news.
Fourth, showcase specific elements of the “competence formula”: performance, ability, motivation, dealing with difficulty and luck.
You can’t directly assess the factor by which competence contributes to successful performance and/or achievement. Many aspects play a part in any successful outcome. Elements of the competence formula include performance, ability, motivation, dealing with difficulty and luck.
Politicians, celebrities, and other prominent people influence people’s opinions. For example, during his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, Apple CEO Steve Jobs told the graduating students about the severe hardships he faced before he became a business legend. “I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned Coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple.”
Former US president Bill Clinton often told audiences about his painful life as a child. His father died before Clinton was born, and he and his family suffered regular abuse from his alcoholic stepfather.
Despite their difficulties early in life, Clinton and Jobs overcame their individual challenges to rise to the top of their professions. Their sad stories are meant to demonstrate their competence to others. Use this persuasion principle to illustrate that you have been able to triumph over adversity because of your character.
Fifth and sixth, master verbal and nonverbal communication.
More than any other technique, “power talking” will enable you to maximize how others perceive your competence. Linguist Robin Lakoff believes that women routinely fall into “powerless speech patterns,” including showing hesitation, trivializing phrases such as “you know” or “pretty good,” and excessive politeness, for example, “Won’t you please close the door?”
“Success or failure has surprisingly little influence on the perception of competence. One can appear to be competent despite vast failure and seem incompetent in the midst of immense success.”
Powerless speech indicates a lack of status. On the other hand, power talking suggests elevated social status. To speak powerfully, avoid the “uhs.” Don’t repeat yourself. Make your speech – and speech patterns – crystal clear and direct.
An audience of psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers once sat through a high-profile lecture entitled “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” The presenter introduced himself as Dr. Myron L. Fox, and the learned audience loved his speech. What his audience didn’t know was that his information was utter nonsense.
“The powerless speaker does not expect to be taken seriously and will therefore not be taken seriously.”
Dr. Fox was an actor paid to deliver a presentation of gibberish and double-talk – but to do so with great enthusiasm and the most positive, engaging body language possible. The actor, who possessed no specialized game-theory knowledge, sold his audience on his expertise and professional competence by using a confident manner, direct eye contact, enthusiastic delivery and live-wire body language.
In another experiment, the same faux Dr. Fox delivered the same, idiotic presentation to another group of similar professionals – but this time, without displaying any confidence or engaging body language. As expected, his second presentation of gobbledygook totally bombed.
What made the difference the second time was Dr. Fox’s lack of enthusiasm and positivity. When you speak, be consistently upbeat and enthusiastic and establish strong eye contact – which will positively influence people’s perception of you as a person and therefore of your competence.
Seventh, the greater your attraction and popularity, the greater will be your perceived competence. Project tact, authenticity and self-confidence.
The more popular you are, the greater will be your perceived competence. The same is true about being more attractive. Popularity and attractiveness are positive indicators. Thanks to the halo effect, these factors enhance all other personal attributes, including perceived competence. The better you can increase your popularity and attractiveness, the more competent you will seem. You can increase your popularity three ways:
- Ingratiation – People like you more the more you compliment them. This is true even of obvious flattery. Starting your compliments with the right introductory phrasing makes them seem more credible – for example, “You might not want to hear this, but…”
- “Opinion conformity” – People like people who agree with their opinions. But if you go overboard, you’ll come across as a toady.
- Self-presentation – Most people intuitively know how to win the favor of others. Being kind and courteous is a great place to start. Underline the similarities you share with others.
Personal attractiveness has been a compelling factor for humankind since the Stone Age. In the earliest times, humans used charcoal and lead sulfide to create black eye shadow to enhance their beauty. People have been trying to look good ever since. Keep in mind how people perceive beauty. Remember four factors when it comes to physical attractiveness:
- For women, what counts most is physique – your weight vis-à-vis your proportions.
- For men, what counts most is facial attractiveness.
- When it comes to women’s faces, most people prefer features like full lips, big eyes and a small nose. Other attractive features – all of which women can control – are darker, thinner eyebrows; thicker, longer, darker eyelashes; no dark circles under the eyes; and tanned skin. Good use of make-up – another control factor – increases women’s attractiveness.
- In general, people consider blonde women more attractive than brunettes. Most people think women with brown hair are more intelligent, a factor that weighs more heavily in perceived competence than attractiveness.
Eighth, use the “power of symbols” to build the most reliable measure of your competence: your habitus – the way you look and act.
Many perceptions rely on symbols. Status symbols such as a company car, a title on a business card, a frequent flyer card and a corporate credit card will shape what people think about you and how they act toward you. You can control some of the powerful symbols that help define you to the world.
Consider the concept of habitus, which French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes as a “person’s behavior and appearance, including his or her clothing, language and apparent lifestyle.”
People use habitus to determine someone’s status, and it’s the most reliable measure of a person’s competence. The habitus elements you choose will define you to the world. Your clothing, your lifestyle choices, and so on will affect how others perceive you and your competence.
“People appear competent when dressed formally and likable when dressed casually.”
In addition to habitus, try utilizing the concept of BIRGing, which means “Basking in Reflected Glory” – a technique that enables you to impress others with minimal effort, though it has nothing to do with competence, perceived or otherwise. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini first identified BIRGing as a strategy. BIRGing means that your status automatically goes up if you can demonstrate a connection – however slight – with someone of greater status. For BIRGing not to backfire and make you appear to be namedropping, offer your connection with tact and subtlety.
For instance, German psychologist Hans-Dieter Mummendey delivered a lecture at a New York psychology symposium. Afterward, the fact that he told his audience that he had run into comedian Woody Allen on his way to the symposium meant more to Mummendey’s colleagues than the remarks Mummendey made from the podium.
According to Mummendey, the ties that bind a lower-status person to a higher-status person might be “common origin, common place of residence or work, common political or religious beliefs, [enjoying the] same sport or other leisure activities,” and “sameness or similarities in any appearance in relation to clothing or similar things.”
Judging other people’s competence is hard; recognizing their incompetence is easier.
Reliably determining competence in others is a valuable skill. This takes on crucial significance when it comes, for example, to selecting a lawyer, a surgeon or a financial professional.
“It is…much more difficult to recognize true competence than to expose mere incompetence.”
Because accurately determining someone’s competence is so difficult, try to judge his or her intelligence instead. Intelligence directly relates to and points to competence. You can evaluate intelligence with relative accuracy through simple observation. Highly intelligent people generally:
- Speak clearly and cogently without any hesitation.
- Establish strong eye contact during conversation with people.
- Possess ample self-confidence.
- Stay alert and react quickly.
Use several assessments to determine another person’s intelligence:
- Does the person ask intelligent questions?
- Can the person separate important from unimportant factors?
- When you present a particular issue that needs resolution, does he or she respond with the most logical, appropriate answers?
- Is the person able to consider all the possible options for resolving the issue?
- Can he or she properly weigh the pros and cons for each option?
About the author
NASHER Negotiation Institute founder Jack Nasher is an internationally best-selling author, an authority on reading and influencing people, and a visiting professor at Stanford University. As a mentalist, he demonstrates mind mysteries at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California.
Jack Nasher is the founder of the NASHER Negotiation Institute and advises corporations on crucial negotiations. He is on the faculty of Stanford University, studied and taught at Oxford University, and became the youngest full-professor appointee in the history of Munich Business School. He also performs as a mentalist at the world-renown Magic Castle in Hollywood. He is an award-winning researcher, a full member of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, and a principle practitioner with the Association of Business Psychologists.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 The Perception of Brilliance: Actual versus Perceived Competence
The Assessment Problem
Just World Principle
A Question of Technique
CHAPTER 2 The Anticipation Effect: Managing Expectations to Show Your Expertise
The Richest Man in the World
From Modesty to Boasting
Modesty Is . . . ?
CHAPTER 3 Good News, Bad News: Using the Power of Association
The Power of Association
Delivering Good News
Bearing Bad News
The Primacy Effect
CHAPTER 4 The Competence Formula: Framing Your Competence
The Amazing Fitzjames
Tough and Unlucky
CHAPTER 5 Verbal Communication: How to Speak like an Expert
As Seen on TV
Unnecessary Complications (Skip This Section!)
CHAPTER 6 Nonverbal Communication: How to Move like an Expert
The Effects of Nonverbal Communication
Near and Far
Stand Properly, Sit Properly
CHAPTER 7 Beautiful and Popular: How to Increase Your Popularity and Attractiveness
The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings
CHAPTER 8 Status: The Power of Symbols
Image Consultancy for Consultants
Status and Competence
BIRGing: Using Indirect Status
Conclusion: What Now?
Epilogue: Science and the World
About the Author
Competence does not speak for itself! You can’t simply display it; you have to draw people’s attention to it. World-renowned negotiation and deception detection expert, business professor, and mentalist Jack Nasher offers effective, proven techniques to convince others that we are talented, trustworthy, and yes, even brilliant.
Nasher offers the example of Joshua Bell, possibly the world’s most famous violinist. In January 2007, at rush hour, he stepped into a Washington, DC, subway station, dressed like any street busker, and began to play a $4,000,000 Stradivarius. It was part of an experiment staged by a journalist of the Washington Post, who expected Bell’s skill alone to attract an immense, awed crowd. But Bell was generally ignored, and when he stopped, nobody applauded. He made $34.17.
The good news is that you don’t have to accept obscurity: you can positively affect others’ perception of your talent. Whether you’re looking for work, giving an important presentation, seeking clients or customers for your business, or vying for a promotion, Nasher explains how to use techniques such as expectation management, verbal and nonverbal communication, the Halo Effect, competence framing, and the power of nonconformity to gain control of how others perceive you.
Competence is the most highly valued professional trait. But it’s not enough to be competent, you have to convey your competence. With Nasher’s help you can showcase your expertise, receive the recognition you deserve, and achieve lasting success.
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“To gain assent from others, it’s not enough to possess competence on the topic at hand. It’s also necessary to project that competence successfully. With Convinced!, at last there’s a book that shows us how. We needed this book.” – Robert Cialdini, author of Influence and Pre-Suasion
“In an age of information overload and default to algorithms, the ability to assess and convey true expertise is a critical managerial competency. Convinced! will help show you the way.” – Dominic Barton, Global Managing Partner, McKinsey & Company
“To land a job, enlist investors, close a deal, or lead an initiative, being the best person to play that role isn’t enough. What matters most is persuading other people that you’re the one they can count on to deliver what they need. Jack Nasher’s compelling new book lays out eight practical principles for positively shaping how others judge your competence. I’m convinced of the power of his advice. And you’ll be convinced, as well.” – Michael Wheeler, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Art of Negotiation
“Every second of every day, judgement and assessments of competence are being made. Whatever your role or expertise, “Convinced” provides fascinating and practical insights into steps anyone can take to engender and promote that all important sense of confidence and trust. Compelling, highly entertaining and thoroughly convincing!” – Matthew Layton, Global Managing Partner, Clifford Chance LLP
“You may have your foundation degree and experience. You may even have your MBA. But now you need to go to finishing school and read Convinced! An excellent insight into the importance of not just being competent but being perceived to be competent. A compelling read.” – Andy Palmer, President and CEO, Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd.
“Perceptions matter. Convinced! identifies the behaviors, networks, and narrative strategies that you can use to shape perceptions and create a competitive edge.” – Rupert Younger, Director, Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation
“We live and work in a world that often works to very fine margins. This book helps understand how others judge our competence, to help influence and improve that perception while remaining true and authentic to who we are. It offers the opportunity to gain a marginal, but perhaps critical, advantage.” – Bill Thomas, Global Chairman, KPMG International
“As a river runs to the sea, power flows to those who can persuade. Jack Nasher gives you the tools you need to win others over and keep them moving in the right direction.” – G. Richard Shell, Wharton professor and coauthor of The Art of Woo
“Be it in business or diplomacy, convincing people of one’s expertise is key to successful negotiations. Radiating that competence also helps leaders gain the legitimacy to lead. Dr. Nasher’s book offers scientifically grounded, real-life techniques that should be required reading for public and private sector managers alike.” – Alexander Vinnikov, Head of the NATO Representation to Ukraine
“At the heart of Professor Nasher’s book is a key central thesis: it is no longer enough to be extraordinarily competent. These days, it is necessary for all top managers—and anyone who aspires to be one—to embrace the responsibility for their own personal PR. The author introduces techniques that allow readers to display their expertise in ways that will earn them the recognition they deserve. Convinced! is educational (but never pedantic), engaging, and entertaining. Highly recommended!” – Georges Kern, CEO, Breitling SA
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Every day your clients, superiors, and colleagues must decide to whom they will entrust certain tasks. We constantly and mutually judge others’ respective capabilities, although we usually have no idea on what to base those judgments. Despite all this, “competence” continues to be regarded as the decisive factor for evaluating performance and making decisions regarding hiring, promotions, the entrusting of tasks, and, of course, compensation.
The good news is that even when the services and products your competitors and you are offering resemble one another, it is still possible to differentiate yourself and convince others of your abilities. That is what this book is all about: explaining how to achieve an inexplicable advantage over others who can deliver a similar quality.
You can control a large part of what others think about you, an opportunity you should seize. The idea is to become your own PR agent, showing your skills by utilizing effective impression management tools. Not only when giving a talk, writing your resume, or interviewing for a job—always! As groups are typically persuaded by the person who appears to be most competent, it is this perceived competence that gives you the power to convince, influence, and lead others.
With the advice in this book you will be able to exhibit your abilities in front of customers, colleagues, and superiors. Whether in meetings, presentations, or crucial conversations, you will be able to convince others of your expertise and be appreciated and respected like never before. At the same time, your perception will be trained to accurately assess the competence of others.
When you understand and implement these techniques and tools, your company will profit just as much, whether you are an executive or a sales representative, because customers prefer to buy from people they consider to be competent. And, as real change only comes from within, your attitude will change accordingly and with it your actual ability.
By learning how to use the eight pillars of competence—the perception of brilliance, the anticipation effect, the power of association, the power of framing, verbal communication, nonverbal communication, the power of attractiveness and popularity, and the power of symbols—to your advantage, you will be poised to prove your competence and stand out in any crowd. Throughout the chapters of this book, decades of research on psychological phenomena pertaining to these aspects of communication are explored and exploited to help you showcase your expertise.
Chapter 1 begins with the fundamental observation that brilliance does not speak for itself: you can, in fact, be the best in the world and no one will notice. Some may even think you are a failure. You need to show your skills. But how can you do this? Since the world around you is unable to evaluate your abilities accurately, what counts, above all, is its assessment of your competence—the perceived level of competence. It is this that determines your success—and serves as the subject of this book. In chapter 1, I show you why competence is the most important single factor for your professional success. And as others are unable to evaluate your abilities accurately, what counts, above all, is its assessment of your competence—your perceived competence. Even success and failure have terrifyingly little influence on this perception of competence. Displaying your competence in such a way that the audience will perceive you as highly competent will also increase your actual competence—through a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In order to display your expertise, your demonstrated level of expectation regarding your performance plays a key role. But what kind of outcome should you predict in order to be perceived as competent? This is the question addressed in chapter 2. Should you dampen the level of expectation from the start and show some sort of noble restraint? Modesty certainly is an honorable trait. And isn’t it a nice surprise if people end up performing better than expected, along the lines of underpromise and overdeliver? Or should you demonstrate extraordinary self-confidence and predict outstanding results? With this strategy, of course, you run the risk of appearing boastful. So how can we achieve effective “expectation management” in terms of competence? Chapter 2 illustrates how you should shape peoples’ expectations of your skills: how to demonstrate optimism when faced with new tasks and how to eliminate anything that could potentially bear negative witness against you. As it is you who must, first and foremost, be convinced of your abilities, a technique called priming will be explored to show you how to radiate competence from inside.
Chapter 3 shows you how to present good and bad news in the way that is most beneficial to you. It asks the question, How can you use your success to the utmost advantage in regard to perceived competence while suffering the least damage to your reputation from your failures? With good news, you should maximize your presence and involvement; with bad news, you should stay in the background and communicate neutrally or, if you are a male and of high status, you can show anger. You should describe public mistakes clearly and concisely, and then move on to optimism as quickly as possible. Start with the positive aspect of an event, then mention the negative (primacy effect); the second-strongest positive aspect, however, should be presented at the end (recency effect). By using certain techniques for delivering good and bad news, you will be able to spin even gigantic mistakes so that they have little or no negative effect on your perceived competence.
In chapter 4, I provide techniques for framing your competence by insulating your competence from the confusion of different influences surrounding it. To do that, you must emphasize, as much as possible, the challenges of the job at hand and point out any unfavourable circumstances that will make the job more difficult. You should not, however, awaken the impression that it was necessary for you to work very hard for your earlier successes. They were, of course, easy for you. Since you are a natural talent, you were born for your special field, and your path was, in a way, predestined. That is why you should also resemble, to some extent at least, the stereotype of your profession, and let people know that you live your profession with body and soul. In this chapter, I condense the research on the effects of a phenomenon called the fundamental attribution error—the fact that individuals will be held personally responsible for the results they produce—and identify methods that allow you to use this phenomenon to your advantage.
Chapter 5 synthesizes research on the role of speech in projecting an image of expertise and provides tips for speaking like an expert. There is possibly no other technique that will allow you to effectively raise your perceived level of competence and be more convincing than employing power talking. This chapter lists several hands-on tips for using this strong, self-confident language that you can easily employ in your daily interactions. I explain whether and how you should utilize your vocal range, repetitions, and interruptions. You will also learn a technique that I wish would not exist and that has to do with unnecessary complications in your expressions.
In chapter 6, I examine several studies on the importance of body language in attempts to be convincing. We often underestimate the role of nonverbal communication in terms of our own external impact and, as a rule, focus more on our words. However, if we deliberately use our nonverbal communication skills, we can strongly influence the specific impressions we make on people and present ourselves in a certain light. This chapter provides a guide for doing so, focusing on how to convey competence by fine-tuning your proximity to others, your location while standing, and your posture while sitting, as well as on how to use eye contact, smiling, gestures, and physical contact to increase your perceived competence and win over your audience. And you will learn about a certain Dr. Fox. . . .
Chapter 7 discusses the research regarding the impact of the halo effect, from which the great importance of a positive overall impression derives. Your popularity and attractiveness are crucial for the overall impression you make on others. Some people appear likable—others do not. Some are considered attractive, while others aren’t. The main factors that lead to a particular judgment on your likability and attractiveness are not as obvious as they may first seem. However, you should not waste time making changes to your appearance or behavior that have little effect or attempting to fix things about them that cannot be changed; instead, this chapter presents findings—hardly known outside academia—that will help you zero in on what is truly important. By learning how to use these techniques, and by gaining a better understanding of what really matters to others, you can immediately increase your likeability and attractiveness and boost your perceived competence in the process.
In chapter 8, I examine the extraordinary impact that status has in our lives. The key to perceived status is habitus, described by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu as a person’s behavior and appearance, including his or her clothing, language, and apparent lifestyle. Whether fair or not, by observing a person’s habitus, we can assess his or her status within moments. However, your status is also related to the way you interact with the people around you and, as a “peace maker” for instance, and will directly affect your perceived competence. Thus, in this chapter, I show how certain little-known tactics, such as praise, nonconformity, and a technique that social psychologist Robert Cialdini refers to as “BIRGing,” profoundly impact your perceived status. Combining all these factors directly leads to a higher perceived status and, thus, a higher perceived level of competence.
In the conclusion and epilogue, I show how the eight pillars of confidence work together to direct almost everyone’s attention specifically to your competence, and I provide tips for detecting competence, and especially intelligence—which is closely related to competence—in others.
Most of the methods I describe in this book can be applied immediately, others need some practice, but none of them call for you to change your personality: authenticity is key in order to appear as a luminary. In order to be sustainable, change must come from within. By using the techniques I present, you will be able to display your expertise so that you receive the recognition you deserve.
THE PERCEPTION OF BRILLIANCE
ACTUAL VERSUS PERCEIVED COMPETENCE
If a man today were to take one day away from his current engagement and spend that one day learning the professional approach he would be doing himself and the firm a much greater service than he would be to produce seventy-five, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty dollars a day of income for McKinsey & Company.
—MARVIN BOWER (1965)
What do you think would happen if one of the world’s great violin virtuosos performed for over 1,000 people in a metro station, incognito, during rush hour?
This is the exact question Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten posed to Leonard Slatkin, director of the National Symphony Orchestra, in an interview in 2007.1
Slatkin replied, “Let’s assume that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician. . . . Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”
“So, a crowd would gather?” Weingarten asked.
“And how much will he make?”
“Thanks, Maestro. As it happens,” continued Weingarten, “this is not hypothetical. It really happened.”
“How’d I do?” Slatkin asked curiously.
“We’ll tell you in a minute,” said the journalist.
“Well, who was the musician?”
Yes, the experiment was conducted with none other than American violinist Joshua Bell, who in the course of his fabulous career has been referred to as a “boy wonder,” “genius,” and even “God”—all by the time he was only in his late 30s. At the age of 4, Bell stretched rubber bands across a drawer to pluck out tunes. At 17, he performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall and went on to play with the most prestigious orchestras in the world. He has received countless prizes, such as the Mercury, the Gramophone and Echo Klassik, a Grammy, and an Oscar—well, almost: Bell performed the solo part on the soundtrack to the film The Red Violin, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Up until that day in January 2007, though, Joshua Bell had never been a busker.
So, early that cold morning, one of the most celebrated violinists of his generation walks down the steps of L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington, DC. He puts down the violin case and takes out his fiddle, a Stradivarius, to be exact, made by the legendary violin maker in 1713—his “golden era”—and worth about $4 million. Bell lifts the bow, not just any bow, of course, but one from the workshop of bow master François Tourte from the late 18th century. There he stands, this lanky, boyish man, disguised in a baseball cap. Only three days earlier he had filled the Boston Symphony Hall to the last seat with ticket prices starting at $100.
He commences with “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. II, the epitome of violin pieces, about which the composer Johannes Brahms wrote, “If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”2
So, a world-renowned violinist is now on his Stradivarius playing an epochal piece of music. What happens next?
Ah, one more thing: The publishers of the Washington Post—who were staging the event—were very worried about security issues. They feared a tumultuous crowd’s reaction and even considered alerting the National Guard so they would be ready to get the situation under control if necessary. They pictured the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and so on, and yet, the decision was made to go through with this risky experiment.
So Bell begins to play . . . It takes three minutes and 63 passersby before a middle-aged man slows down his walk and seems to notice that someone is making music—but he keeps on walking. Then a woman throws a dollar into the violin case and dashes on. Over the next 43 minutes, 7 people will stand there for a few moments, while 27 others will throw money into the trunk without pausing. No one will applaud.
There is a constant line of people just a few yards away at a lottery stand, but no one even turns in the direction of the music. The lady at the shoe polish stand, an animated Brazilian woman who is also only a few feet away, curses at the noise, but she doesn’t call the cops as she usually does on other street performers. Bell finishes playing, packs up, and leaves the station with hardly anyone noticing.
How much did he make? In total, 32 dollars and 17 cents. Not bad for a street musician. However, 20 of those dollars came from the most generous listener: Stacy Furukawa, who recognized Bell and threw the bill in with an utterly perplexed expression.
Bell enjoyed the experience, but there was one moment when he felt particularly embarrassed: the seconds immediately after the conclusion of a set—no applause, nothing. Bell just stood there sheepishly for a while and eventually continued.
“It was a strange feeling,” he later recalled, “that people were actually, ah . . . ignoring me. At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off.”
So one of the best violinists in the world plays one of the greatest masterpieces of all time on a Stradivarius and almost nothing happens. The organizers had been confident that people would stop and recognize his true greatness because genius speaks for itself.
They were wrong.
Brilliance does not speak for itself: you can, in fact, be the best in the world and no one will notice. Some may even think you are a failure. You need to show your skills.
That’s what this book is about.
Research has shown again and again how difficult it is for us to accurately assess others’ competence and intelligence in general.3 Meanwhile, it seems almost impossible to objectively judge, and properly assess, the competence of one’s performance, whether a piece of music or a daily task at work.4
But don’t results speak for themselves? For example, lawyers can win or lose a case. Even in defeat, though, they may still be considered competent at their jobs. The expertise of a lawyer is not really measured by the percentage of cases she’s won, just like the competence of a doctor is not measured by the degree of health of his patients. If an ill patient visits a doctor and subsequently gets better, the doctor may have cured her or it may have just been the result of the natural course of the disease. If the doctor’s treatment failed, however, it may be that a cure was utterly impossible anyhow. Hence, the doctor could appear incompetent despite her success and competent even though she failed.
The same situation is true with a sales representative: sales may rise, but they could have risen without his effort due to the superior quality of the product or marketing efforts that finally bore fruit. If sales go down, it could have been the result of increasing competition. Just like in politics, where a leader can be perceived as incompetent, despite a strong economy and low unemployment figures, or as competent, even if the economy is on a downswing and unemployment is increasing.
Let me illustrate this phenomenon with an astounding example from the corporate context: In 1983, the then leading communications firm AT&T hired the management consultancy McKinsey & Company to assess the future of the cellular telephone market. As Thomas Sugrue, head of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, remembers, “McKinsey & Co. confidently told AT&T that by the year 2000, no more than 1 million Americans would subscribe to cellular services—max.”5 This prediction was not—to put it mildly—accurate.
By the year 2000, over 80 million Americans were using wireless phones, making the prediction off by more than 8,000 percent. This colossal underestimation of the cellular phone market led to a series of ill-advised decisions that cost AT&T billions of dollars, contributing to the former giant’s demise.6 So bad was the company’s service that I have heard MCs in Hollywood’s Magic Castle nightclub tell their audiences before my show to switch off their cell phones, unless they use AT&T, in which case they need not worry about it since they won’t have reception anyway—followed by agreeing chuckles. In 2005, the venerable American Telephone & Telegraph Company, once one of the most admired companies in the world, was acquired by Southwestern Bell—one of its spin-offs.
How did McKinsey & Co. do in the year 2000, when this multi-billion-dollar mistake became obvious? Did they lose most of their clients? Was the company on the verge of bankruptcy, or did they at least take a shameful vow of silence? Not quite. It was a terrific year for the firm, and its reputation did not suffer a bit.
As illustrated, success or failure has surprisingly little influence on the perception of competence. One can appear to be competent despite vast failure and seem incompetent in the midst of immense success.
“Isn’t that a little exaggerated?” you may ask. Not at all—it’s an understatement! Even in the absence of any actual competence, an impression of competence can remain intact. Until the 20th century, for example, it was usually healthier to not go to the doctor at all, as the universal treatment, bloodletting, wasn’t only useless but even resulted in infections quite frequently. Yet, at that time, and even in the earliest societies, which had virtually no medical know-how whatsoever, doctors and medicine men were highly respected.
The impression of competence can even last when we should really know better. In 2005, the US psychologist Philip Tetlock asked hundreds of experts from the fields of business, politics, and the military to predict the events of the next five years in their respective disciplines.7 The disillusioning result: Expertise did not help at all in making valid assumptions. On the contrary, an especially good reputation even had a negative impact on the prediction.
In the midst of the financial crisis, in 2009, just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I was living in Manhattan.* Whenever you turned on the TV, there was some expert explaining why the crisis was unavoidable: you would see a stern face and hear a precise explanation of why this or that had to happen—alas, only after it happened. A year before, those same experts didn’t say a word about these inevitable occurrences.
So common sense is not working here. Poor work does not necessarily lead to a corresponding negative perception. Unfortunately, this idea also applies to good work—it doesn’t necessarily lead to a positive perception.
After Joshua Bell’s concert in the metro station, some passersby were interviewed. “Yes, I saw the violinist,” said a lawyer on her way to work. And her sobering conclusion: “But nothing about him struck me as much of anything.”
The Assessment Problem
Is the lawyer who saw Bell playing that morning just ignorant, blind to obvious skill? How about you? Is your assessment of someone’s talents or abilities accurate? For example, you may think you have a competent dentist, perhaps one you have even recommended to your friends. But how can you make a judgment if you know nothing about dentistry? Chances are you don’t have a clue. Instead, you rely on criteria such as the clinic’s cleanliness or the dentist’s friendliness, which, as you must admit, have little to do with actual expertise.8 Even one-on-one conversations do not help us to properly assess others’ abilities.9
After receiving my law degree, I worked as a legal trainee at the US law firm Skadden. “The Firm,” as it is reverently called, specializes in mergers and acquisitions and, according to Forbes magazine, is the “most powerful firm on Wall Street.” Not feeling much of the firm’s might, there I sat 12 hours a day in front of my computer, neatly dressed in a suit and tie—though a tracksuit would have been more adequate, as I never met with clients; I wrote Share-Purchase Agreements (SPAs), sale contracts for corporate investments. My colleagues in the neighboring offices to my left and right did the same. We all had the same training and similar grades and in fact looked almost identical. Yet it would have typically taken me 7 to 10 years to be made a partner, the highest accolade (and most lucrative*) in the firm.10 That’s how long the ladies and gentlemen in the partner offices would have needed to ponder whether I would be worthy to be considered an equal.
These colleagues—experts in their field—needed almost a decade to assess their peers’ competence. If it takes the best people at a top firm such an amount of time, then how can a layman accurately judge the competence of an expert lawyer quickly and appropriately? And yet, clients set up so-called beauty contests to assess their prospective legal counsel’s expertise after a few meetings—a naive undertaking, but what choice do they have?
Every day we must decide to whom we will entrust certain tasks, from our hairdressers to our accountants. We constantly and mutually judge others’ respective capabilities, although we usually have no idea on what to base those judgments. Despite all this, “competence” continues to be regarded as the decisive factor.
In the context of this book, “competence” or “expertise,” which I use interchangeably, more or less means a combination of knowledge and skills that are needed for the tasks one faces.11 A strict demarcation is not very effective because concepts such as “intelligence” and “competence” are so closely correlated with each other that research habitually combines them into one single factor.12 Therefore, a rough idea is sufficient and gives us time to answer the really important question: Which factors matter in judging others’ expertise and which don’t?
“Competence” is indeed the most important trait in the professional context, on par with “credibility” and before “likability.”13 Research and common sense agree: competence is the basis for evaluating performance and making decisions regarding hiring, promotions, the entrusting of tasks, and, of course, compensation.14
The dilemma: while people regard expertise as the most important quality in any profession, great difficulty lies in properly assessing it. This difficulty is amplified by the exponential growth of knowledge. And as the world’s complexity increases, an ever-greater need arises to rely on people who seem to know what they’re doing.
What gives us a sense of security in this complex world, however, is not actual competence, because it is virtually impossible to rate, but perceived competence. If we distinguish between perceived and actual competence, it becomes clear why there are incompetent people who are highly regarded, while some highly competent people are regularly underrated or assumed to be incompetent. Which leads to the key point: it is not so much the actual but the perceived competence that determines an individual’s success.
Just World Principle
How do you feel about this idea, that perceived competence is essentially rewarded over actual competence? Chances are, it makes you feel uncomfortable. Deeply rooted in all of us is a faith that has accompanied us since our childhood, a result of the ancient German fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm, Disney movies, and bedtime stories: Everyone gets what they deserve. The villain gets punished (in German fairy tales, habitually tortured to death) and the heroes get married (to a child, at least, this qualifies as a happy ending).
On that January morning in DC, the one woman who recognized Joshua Bell in the metro station, Stacy Furukawa, just happened to pass by. She stopped in front of Bell and could not believe that she was surrounded by such ignorance: “It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington. Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! . . . I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”
No wonder Furukawa could identify the virtuoso: She had attended one of his concerts just a few weeks earlier. Yet she clung to the belief that she would have recognized Bell without this favorable circumstance because, she was sure, true greatness speaks for itself—even if only to her out of the over 1,000 people who passed Bell by that day.
Social psychologist Alan Lerner coined this somewhat naive worldview the “Just World Principle.”15 While growing up, it helps us to internalize ethical values, but over time we gradually realize that this charming faith has little to do with reality. Often it is the villain who gets the princess and the good guy who is left empty-handed.
We observe how real life works again and again but still can hardly shake off this childhood ideal. Though this belief was valuable for growing up, it is a hindrance for our later advancement. The just world principle is no more than a delusion that helps us to endure the world’s injustice. Some of us who are spiritual or religious may shift our trust to a judgment day, hoping everyone will get what they deserve when the time comes. The rest of us accept the circumstances and make the best of here and now.
Negotiation expert Chester Karass coined a phrase with which I begin my negotiation seminars: “You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.” This statement could also apply to the display of competence—you don’t get what you deserve based on your actual competence, but on how you display your competence. Many expect that our bosses or managers at work, who only see us every now and then, instinctively sense how capable we are without us needing to demonstrate our abilities. Nonsense.
Is there something inside you that still rebels against accepting this sheer injustice? Well, you could emblazon slogans on a piece of cardboard and start a demonstration on Main Street, or you could write a postcard to Santa Claus if you are old fashioned—but you won’t change the facts. It’s better to be prudent and accept the circumstances at hand and even use them to your advantage. As John F. Kennedy supposedly once said, “The world is not fair, but not necessarily to your disadvantage.”
This book is not meant to be a manual, as I do not intend to tell you what to do. As is the case with all my books and training courses, it is not my goal to make you do anything. Instead, I want to educate you—it is your choice how you’d like to use this knowledge. In this book, I will show you the most effective techniques to convince others of your worth by demonstrating competence, but it is up to you to decide if and how.
However, I am passionate about you, the individual. I feel sorry for modern men and women living in our corporate world. After having spent half your life trying to acquire the formal qualifications to succeed—high school, college, executive trainings—you should have the necessary skills. But despite these years of hard work, you may have come to realize that, contrary to what was promised, your tediously gained abilities are no guarantee of professional success—hard work just isn’t enough. In fact, some twerp outpaces you again and again. No one prepared you to sell your skills!
If you are an executive, you may face a dilemma known as the “Peter Principle.” Named after American educator Laurence J. Peter, this principle describes the tendency for people to rise up the career ladder until reaching a position of incompetence—and that’s where they stay.16 Many executives are in a management position not because they are excellent managers but because they were good in their previous jobs as salespeople, engineers, or HR reps. Now, however, these managers are not doing that well, which is why they don’t get promoted. So executives tend to spend the most time on the job they are least qualified for. The implications of this system error for the actual leadership abilities of many executives can only be imagined.
Furthermore, you might think that you don’t deserve any appreciation anyway. Deep inside, you probably feel that you know nothing, that you really are incompetent. If this is the case, you are in good company: successful people often feel that their success was only achieved illegitimately, that it was only due to a string of fortunate circumstances. This is known as the “Impostor Phenomenon.”17 Nearly 70 percent of successful people describe themselves as con artists. Even the great physicist Albert Einstein considered himself to be an “involuntary swindler” shortly before his death.18
This phenomenon increases as we now compare ourselves not only with those around us but with the entire world. As the US researchers Randolph M. Nesse and George C. Williams put it, “In the ancestral environment you would have had a good chance at being the best at something. Even if you were not the best, your group would likely value your skills. Now we all compete with those who are the best in the world. Watching these successful people on television arouses envy. Envy probably was useful to motivate our ancestors to strive for what others could obtain. Now few of us can achieve the goals envy sets for us, and none of us can attain the fantasy lives we see on television.”19 Our feelings of incompetence increases with modern tools of communications, such as social media, and can even lead to clinical depression.
And indeed, only a fool thinks he knows it all. The feeling of inadequacy is in fact a sign of prudence, along the lines of Socrates, who knew that he knew nothing. Indeed, the speed at which knowledge multiplies increases exponentially. The German Max Planck Institute has determined that in 1650 fewer than 1 million people were considered “educated.” In 1950 there were 10 million “educated people,” meaning humankind needed 300 years to multiply the number of educated people by 10. However, this number increased tenfold in just another 50 years—by the year 2000 there were already 100 million “educated people.” All these people think, talk, and write, so the body of knowledge multiplies faster and faster. In fact, there is more technology in a modern smartphone than in a complete 1968 space shuttle.
It is therefore not surprising that never before have breakthrough innovations, or “disruptive changes,” a term coined by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen, followed each other in such a rapid succession. Entire industries are replaced overnight and new industries are established, making old ones superfluous. Institutions such as the former photography giant Kodak, the once highly profitable Lehman Brothers investment bank, and the mobile phone manufacturer Nokia—once the shining star of the industry—disappeared from the scene. Correspondingly, especially highly qualified individuals, such as bankers, lawyers, and executives, need to be enormously flexible and prepared to change positions, or even industries, faster than ever.
How, then, in light of all this, is it possible to have even the slightest confidence in your own competence? This question had been on my mind since the early 2000s, when I completed my master’s thesis on perceived competence at Oxford. Years later, on an evening in New York in 2009, it finally became clear to me.
At that time, as I have already mentioned, I was living in Manhattan and working as a diplomat at the United Nations as part of my legal training. As the world was in the midst of the effects of the financial crisis, and we were right in its epicenter in Manhattan, my boss asked me to write a report on how international institutions could prevent such crises in the future. “Sure,” I said keenly, and walked straight into my office to Google, “How to prevent a financial crisis”—one has to start somewhere. One source led to another, and I worked on the topic for about a week and presented it to my boss.
“Abbreviate it,” he told me over and over again. And so I learned an important lesson that I preach to all my students: a good paper is not one in which nothing can be added but one in which nothing can be left out. Five pages shrank to a single one—big shots have little time—and my report was accepted at last.
The following day I watched a press conference on TV and saw a very senior member of the German government plead for strengthening the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to avoid another financial crisis of the same kind in the future. The plan corresponded almost word for word to my short report—with no mention of the author . . .
A week later, on that night in 2009, I was sitting in the Delegates’ Lounge at a weekly get-together of UN diplomats with a splendid view of the East River. Next to me sat a senior politician who was there representing his country’s stance in some plenary sessions. On day one he talked about the infrastructure of an African nation, on day two about the security situation in the Middle East. But of course he owed his knowledge to a poor fellow just like me who had worked on the topic for days behind closed doors (again, wearing a suit and tie). After two, three, or four drinks I asked, “You didn’t know any details on the topics before you came, did you?”
“Nope,” he said, smiled, and took another sip.
I couldn’t help but blurt out a question that had been on my mind for some time: “Don’t you feel like a charlatan?”
He gave me an answer that I recall almost verbatim: “Not at all. Of course I don’t know any details. How should I?” His face turned serious. “My job as a leader is to show certainty in an ocean of uncertainty.” He then added, “An expert is someone who knows a lot about very little. A leader is someone who knows very little about a lot.”
I had an epiphany that evening that has since been illustrated to me again and again, especially when dealing with people at the highest executive levels: successful leaders do not quarrel with their ignorance, they are fully aware of it and accept it.
German sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s “System Theory” reinforces this approach, stating that each and every system is isolated from the environment and each system has its own structure.20 The factory worker acts within his own system, and so does the CEO. Consultants also act within a system and should not feel they have the bird’s-eye view simply because there is no all-encompassing knowledge.21 The world, with its people and organizations, is too complex for anyone to maintain an overview of everything. We can all only act within our own little system.
I am convinced that the awareness that you can only be competent within your own system is one of the keys to long-term success—and to mental health.
A Question of Technique
If you try to display your competence in the midst of all of these adverse circumstances and dilemmas, you will most likely fail. Common sense may help us ingratiate ourselves to others, but it hardly helps in coming up with effective techniques to increase our perceived competence. Though we seem to know how to be friendly or congenial, time and again we exhibit an inability to showcase our expertise in a positive, productive, and effective way.
In an experiment, subjects were told to make their conversation partner like them.22 Lo and behold, most were successful. Their techniques? They were kind and polite and they smiled a lot. Easy.
Then they were asked to make a competent impression. Now they failed miserably. Their “techniques”? Their body language became stiff and stilted, and they spoke in a pompous manner and tended to disagree more with their conversation partner. Accordingly, they were rated not only as less competent but also as unlikable and cold.
We instinctively know what makes us pleasant, but we have no idea how to show our competence.23 That’s what this book is about: the most effective ways known to radiate competence. These are techniques of impression management, the conscious influence of our impression.24 And there’s more good news: these techniques aren’t just beneficial for you, the individual, but for everyone you interact with, thanks to a phenomenon known as the “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Suppose a fortuneteller predicts that you will gain 20 pounds in the next few months and you believe him. You would then probably give up your current diet because you would consider it pointless anyway. By quitting, you’ll end up gaining weight, causing the fortuneteller’s prediction to come true. Studies have also shown a similar process at work in the relationship between astrology and personality: people who are aware of the alleged personality characteristics of their zodiac sign actually behave accordingly.25 So your horoscope becomes reality, but only if you know about it.
When it comes to competence, self-fulfilling prophecies work like a charm. Patients recover better if they consider their doctor to be competent—with the similar treatment.26 In fact, in some cases patients can fully recover if they only believe in a treatment, despite its ineffectiveness. Who hasn’t heard of the placebo effect? A patient is given a pill without any actual medicinal substance whatsoever, and yet it works because the patient believes in it, the pill’s effectiveness being influenced by absurd factors such as size, color, price, and shape.27
Another example of the phenomenon at work: Students learn more from teachers whom they consider competent and as a result perform better themselves. In contrast, the performance of students who consider their teachers to be incompetent significantly decreases.28
When it comes to showing competence, this self-fulfilling prophecy works in both directions, as an increase in perceived competence also increases actual competence. If you are perceived as competent, you will be treated accordingly, which in turn affects others’ behavior positively.
We have all experienced situations where we have been labeled by others, whether positive or negative. If you’re known as a prankster, every comment you make is interpreted as a joke, causing others to laugh about every little thing you say. In turn, you start to believe in your own sense of humor and give it more credence. If you are considered a “weirdo,” on the other hand, chances are that sooner or later, after your neutral behavior is misinterpreted again and again, you eventually start acting “weird.”
The same idea applies to competence: When regarded as competent, others will grant you more opportunities to display your abilities. The label and actual competence then merge. The same can happen the other way: if you are considered incompetent, you will face a hostile environment where your skills just cannot bloom—and your performance will become worse and worse.
Interestingly, those who use effective techniques to increase their perceived competence are more accurately assessed than those who do not use such techniques. In other words, the correct techniques help you to show your true self.29
Do you remember the last time you had to give an important presentation? You most likely did more than just put a lot of thought into what you had to say. You probably also considered how to say it, what to wear, and how to interact with the audience. Such care should be taken with every type of communication we are involved in, because every interaction is a presentation that works for or against you. And make no mistake: just doing a good job isn’t enough. If you bury yourself in work, you will only be noticed when something goes wrong.
The good news is that you can control a large part of what others think about you, an opportunity you should seize. The idea is to become your own PR agent, showing your skills by utilizing effective impression management tools; not only when giving a talk, writing your resume, or interviewing for a job—always!30 Perceived competence gives you the power to convince, influence, and lead others, as groups are persuaded by the person who appears to be most competent. When you are perceived to be incompetent, on the other hand, it will be almost impossible to win people over.31
By using the techniques described in this book, you will be able to display your expertise so that you receive the recognition you deserve. Throughout the chapters, psychological phenomena from decades of research are explored and exploited to help you showcase your expertise. Actions like controlling expectations, properly delivering good or bad news, using verbal and nonverbal techniques—most of these methods can be applied immediately, others need some practice, but none of them call for you to change your personality: authenticity is key in order to appear as a luminary.
With the advice in this book you will be able to exhibit your abilities in front of customers, colleagues, and superiors. Whether in meetings, presentations, or crucial conversations, you will be able to convince others of your expertise and be appreciated and respected like never before. At the same time, your perception will be trained to accurately assess the competence of others.
When you understand and implement these techniques and tools, your company will profit just as much, whether you are an executive or a sales representative, because customers prefer to buy from people they consider to be competent. The growing field of “corporate reputation” gives a great role to the employee’s perceived competence. Oxford researchers David Waller and Rupert Younger found one of the pillars of corporate reputation to be the employee’s perceived character (“character reputation”), along with his or her perceived competence (“capability reputation”).32 In fact, a CEO’s perceived competence has a direct influence not only on the company’s reputation but also on its actual performance.33 It is therefore prudent for companies to focus on their employees’ perceived competence.
Before moving on to the next chapter, let’s return to the amazing story of Joshua Bell and the article about his experience that won journalist Gene Weingarten the Pulitzer Prize. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet about this experiment at L’Enfant Plaza Station: a single passerby recognized Bell’s virtuosity without actually recognizing the performer. John Picarello, who in his teenage years wanted to become a violinist himself, said, “This was a superb violinist. I’ve never heard anyone of that caliber. . . . It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.” Picarello stands in front of Bell and keeps looking around in despair, as no one else seems to understand what’s going on.
Now imagine that not only one man is left standing, but that 1,097 passersby have stopped as well and they are all watching you because they know that they are witnessing something amazing, something brilliant in your performance. And you don’t even have to be Joshua Bell.
The Perception of Brilliance
The three principles:
- We cannot accurately assess others’ expertise.
- We consider expertise to be the most important trait in the professional context.
- It is not actual competence but perceived competence that determines the impression you give.
Success or failure has little effect on the perception of competence.
Be aware of the illusion of the “just world.”
Embrace your incompetence.
* I have to admit, it was a great time for a legal trainee. I could afford to live in a doorman building on Park Avenue, and could get a table at every restaurant in town, with heavy discounts: Restaurant Week was extended to last a whole month.
* An annual compensation of $5 million for an equity partner is not unusual, and this was about nine years ago, which is why I truly hope this book will sell well. Please recommend it to your friends and do not lend it to them.
THE ANTICIPATION EFFECT
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS TO SHOW YOUR EXPERTISE
Humans will believe anything you say provided you do not exhibit the smallest shadow of diffidence; like animals, they can detect the smallest crack in your confidence before you express it. . . . If you act like a loser they will treat you as a loser—you set the yardstick yourself. There is no absolute measure of good or bad.
—NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB
The Richest Man in the World
Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1977. It was Miriam Lubow’s first day at her new job as an administrative assistant. The young, unconventional company had made a rather chaotic impression on her, and Miriam had not yet met her boss, who was surely away on a business trip. As she sat at her desk, a young guy with disheveled hair, wearing jeans and sneakers, burst in, walked into the boss’s office without saying a word to Miriam, and even proceeded into the inner sanctum—the computer room. Anxiously, Miriam ran to another department: What should she do about this guy who was acting like he owned the place? “Well, you know what,” a colleague replied, “he does. He’s your boss. He is the president.”1
The name of this young chap? Bill Gates. He ran the company, which at that time was spelled “Micro-Soft,” and he did so pretty successfully. After a few years, Microsoft moved to Seattle, where it grew considerably and would soon receive a group of visitors who would change everything.
According to Microsoft manager Steve Ballmer, this group was a most distinguished one, and their visit was “like having the Queen drop by for tea, . . . like having the Pope come by looking for advice, . . . like a visit from God himself.”2
It was a team of managers from International Business Machines (IBM), the undisputed giant of the computer industry at that time. But the team wasn’t made up of elder statesmen; it was a young, ambitious group on a secret mission that would result in a revolution: a computer for individuals: the Personal Computer. “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home,” computer pioneer Ken Olson had said a few years earlier, capturing the prevailing opinion of the time. But the wind had changed, and IBM wanted to be at the forefront of this revolution.
IBM needed an operating system that mainstream consumers could use.3 The market leader was Gary Kildall with his CP/M operating system, having sold almost 600,000 licenses—at the time a staggering amount. Kildall ranked among the most promising pioneers in the industry, despite being a poor and rather nerdy communicator. He had called his company Intergalactic Digital Research and had only dropped the word “Intergalactic” after much pleading from his wife.
Not very impressed with Kildall, the IBM executives approached Bill Gates. But he, too, wasn’t much of an inspiration at first: “We got there at roughly two o’clock and we were waiting in the front,” IBM manager Jack Sams recalls, “and this young fella came out to take us back to Mr. Gates’ office. I thought he was the office boy, and of course it was Bill.”
In order not to appear too uptight at the next meeting, the IBM executives dressed down in jeans and T-shirts, but now Bill Gates greeted them in a three-piece suit and tie—he was evidently making a real effort. Not in vain: he sealed the deal and laid the foundations for the world’s largest fortune.
Gates, a 24-year-old college dropout with a tiny company, had defeated Dr. Gary Kildall, an MIT graduate, the market leader, and the shining star of the industry. How could this be? Gates convinced Jack Sams and the IBM executives of his competence. He had dressed smartly at their second meeting, but the decisive factor was something else: he had assured IBM above all of his self-confidence to deliver a first-rate operating system.4
There was, however, one tiny problem: Gates had no operating system up his sleeve, and he wasn’t even in the process of developing one. He worried little about this, though, until the IBM team had left. He then quickly found himself a programmer to put together such a system in only a few weeks, and for a handful of dollars, based on Kildall’s work—a pirated copy under modern-day laws. And, what’s more, a lousy one. The programmer was clearly aware of the system’s shortcomings; otherwise he wouldn’t have called it Quick and Dirty Operating System (QDOS). Gates apparently liked the name but decided to remove the Q: DOS was born, or, more precisely, MS-DOS (Micro-Soft-DOS).
This anecdote illustrates that you don’t need grand offices, a pompous appearance, or a thunderous reputation in order to convince decision makers of your competence. Bill Gates did not even have an outstanding product in the bag—he had absolutely nothing, but he promised extraordinary results and then did what anybody else could have done: he found someone else who completed 100 percent of the work. But the decisive factor was that he knew how to arouse the right level of expectations from IBM—great expectations.
From Modesty to Boasting
You are entrusted with tasks every day: as a sales executive, you must ensure dynamic sales; as an attorney, you need to draw up contracts; as a consultant, you are required to develop intelligent strategies. By now, it should be clear that the mere quality of your work is not the only factor in its evaluation. In fact, your demonstrated level of expectation regarding your performance plays a key role. But what kind of outcome should you predict in order to be perceived as competent?
Should you dampen the level of expectation from the start and show some sort of noble restraint? Modesty certainly is an honorable trait.5 And isn’t it a nice surprise if people end up performing better than expected, along the lines of underpromise and overdeliver? According to the Gaussian probability distribution, however, average predictions exhibit the highest probability of occurrence, and accuracy is valued greatly in our society.6 Or should you demonstrate extraordinary self-confidence and predict outstanding results? With this strategy, of course, you run the risk of appearing boastful.
US psychologists Barry Schlenker and Mark Leary scrutinized this issue in a remarkable, yet virtually unknown, study in which they specifically examined the effect of personal forecasts on perceived competence.7 Subjects were given a randomly allocated task, but before they attempted it, they had to predict their expected level of performance, ranging from “very good” to “very poor.” Outside observers noted these predictions. The participants then had to complete their task. Once the results of how well or poorly they performed had been revealed, the observers assessed the subjects’ competence. One might think that they would be rated purely depending on their level of success: if they had performed well, they would be seen as having acted competently; if not, then they would be considered to have acted less competently, or even incompetently. But a different picture emerged: the evaluation of competence was based not only on the results of the tasks but also very strongly on the basis of the participants’ initial prediction.
Perceived competence of the subjects from their statement, performance, and timing (Schlenker & Leary)
Note: Competence evaluated on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being “most competent” and 1 being “least competent.”
The crystal-clear trend with minor deviations is that the subjects’ competence was evaluated higher if they had previously raised great expectations (see top row). Whoever made optimistic predictions about their performance was distinctly evaluated as being more competent compared to their modest contemporaries—no matter the outcome. This aspect is illustrated most interestingly in the right-hand “Very Poor” column. Here, the performance was always equally dreadful, yet the competence assessed varies—ranging from 2.7 to 4.5—based merely on the participants’ predictions. Therefore, with an optimistic forecast and a horrible performance, the subjects are still rated as almost twice as competent as those who accurately forecasted their poor results. In short, the more optimistic the prediction, the higher the perceived competence.
Considering this finding, when confronted with a task, it makes sense to give a positive prognosis of the expected outcome of your performance. If the actual result you deliver matches your prediction, then you are perceived as being competent anyway. But even with an average or even a catastrophic outcome, by showing confidence, you give a considerably more competent impression than in the case of an accurate prediction of a very poor result. Therefore, if someone asks you how you expect to perform, give a positive, confident response (up to a certain extent, as discussed later in the book).
You must not predict a negative result, for no matter how well the task is ultimately performed—whether in a first-class manner or in a lousy one—you will be perceived as distinctly less competent than if you had provided a positive forecast.
Why is this the case? Unfortunately, causal interdependencies are invisible, but a certain combination of phenomena provides a plausible explanation.
Just Don’t Worry!
One of these phenomena is all too human: fear. As a fundamental human mechanism, we do not look for what we like best but for what we fear the least. We have a veritable “loss aversion,” which is why we have a greater motivation for avoiding pain than for increasing joy.8 As a consequence, reducing uncertainty becomes a fundamental driving force of human behavior: when making a decision, we are—above all—trying to avoid making a mistake. And not without reason.
For our ancestors, almost every misfortune was a potential direct path to the afterlife. A simple cold and fever could mean death was imminent. They had to be on guard at all times simply to avoid making a life-threatening mistake. The cowards, our forefathers, survived. This legacy is revealed to us every day in the most trivial situations.
Some years ago, I went to Brussels to visit Sasha, my friend from Oxford, who had just started working for NATO. Sasha was delayed by about an hour—presumably the Third World War had to be avoided (a five-star excuse Sasha would regularly use)—so I decided to find a café and do some reading. Nearby I had the choice between a small Italian café and, right next door, a Starbucks, which I am not a big fan of. So I asked myself, “Where should I go?”
Unconsciously, my legs led me straight into the Starbucks. When Sasha showed up, he was amazed that instead of choosing Luigi’s—which apparently served the best espresso outside Italy—I was sitting in this place that was a spitting image of the Starbucks I could have found back home, right outside my front door. He was right, of course. But it was that fear, passed down by my forefathers, that had driven me toward the Starbucks. Here I at least knew what to expect: a decent cup of coffee. And so I had chosen not what I would have probably liked more but that which I had feared least.
“I’m lovin’ it!” Really? Is there any person who truly loves the food at McDonald’s? OK, there may be some, but they are few and far between. So how does McDonald’s keep serving billions? Above everything else, customers want to avoid making a bad choice. And they know exactly what a McDonald’s burger tastes like. It is this necessity of minimizing the risk for customers that Ray Kroc, the founding father of McDonald’s, recognized early on as the key to success. His aim was to offer the “same” burger from Atlantic City to Zaragoza. As he put it, “There is a science to manufacturing and serving hamburgers.”9 This idea—simple but accommodating to our deepest fears—catapulted McDonald’s, and the entire franchising industry, into new stratospheres.
The same fundamental principle applies for selling more-complex products. “Nobody gets fired for buying IBM” was a familiar dictum as early as the 1970s. IBM used the fear of uncertainty as the main argument against their small, emerging competitors. This notorious sales tactic, called “Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt”10 (FUD), was later adopted by none other than Microsoft and taken to a whole new level: the company deliberately built nonsensical error messages into its operating system that only popped up when using third-party, non-Microsoft software. The company preyed on the fears of its customers to steer them away from competitors’ products.
Though it may be possible to offer almost the same burger, cappuccino, or computer anywhere in the world, it becomes so much more complex with services. How can you trust an attorney you have never met before? This is precisely why reducing the level of client or customer anxiety in service-sector industries plays such a significant role. It’s no wonder that the worlds of attorneys, auditors, accountants, and consultants are dominated by a handful of big players that consumers trust.
And yet, an attorney from the Clifford Chance law firm in London is unlikely to draft a sales and purchase agreement that conforms 100 percent with the work of his colleague in Shanghai, nor even with the work of his peer next door, because there is no completely standardized procedure for such complex services.11 The role of individual team members is hence still fundamental. The “rainmakers” and stars at those firms are those who manage to eliminate their clients’ anxieties during personal interactions.
The most influential “service providers” are arguably politicians, and reducing anxiety levels is one of their central driving goals. With voters, many times we see a willingness to stick with politicians they know, as compared to electing ones they are unfamiliar with. Current officeholders frequently win in subsequent elections for precisely this reason, known as an incumbency advantage.12 In the US House of Representatives, for instance, between 1964 and 2014, the reelection rate ranged between 85 percent and 98 percent.13 Every officeholder who put himself or herself up for reelection in these 50 years could be almost virtually certain of victory—it is hard to imagine that the voters dearly loved them, but it is likely that they feared the unknown.
This fear of imminent deterioration plays a decisive factor when any kind of role must be assigned within an organization. Who are the least competent people who work at your company? It may be hard to imagine, but there must have been a moment when the decision makers—possibly even after lengthy consultation—told them, “Yes, you are the right one for the job!” But why? Perhaps their main driver was a desire to avoid an even bigger disaster. It isn’t unusual that interns who never stood out positively, but also never left a negative impression, are hired by the company they interned for—at least they didn’t burn down the building.
It is important to recognize that, time and again, fear is the key factor in decision making, no matter if we are choosing a hamburger, electing a head of state, or deciding between job candidates.14 If you want to convince people of your value, you should follow the words of the US marketing strategist Harry Beckwith: “Do not try to be a good choice. Eliminate everything that could make you a bad choice.” This statement may sound banal, but it represents a true paradigm shift: no matter whom you want to convince, and no matter of what, if your primary concern is helping them overcome their fear, then you automatically become a more effective salesperson of your own competence. This is especially true if a client or consumer must make a difficult decision in a complicated context, as is the case when a layperson puts his fate in the hands of an expert, such as a family hiring an architect to plan their dream house or a young start-up entrepreneur engaging a tax adviser.15 So always ask yourself what your clients’, your colleagues’, or your supervisors’ specific anxieties look like and focus your persuasion strategy on eliminating these fears.
In considering this approach, I am reminded of the time I interviewed for grad school at the then newly founded Said Business School at Oxford University. Before the interview I pondered what I was up against: I had studied at Oxford, but in the Philosophy Department, before which I had studied law and psychology. Consequently, there was nothing on my resume that indicated I had ever dealt with business. I assumed that the greatest fear I could arouse in my interviewer was that of accepting a philosopher not concerned with the worldly matters of a business school.
I decided to at least dress “businesslike,” so I bought myself a blue shirt and pinstripe pants (I didn’t have enough money for the jacket). I will never forget how my future professor greeted me: “Oh, I expected a philosopher. But I see you would fit right in.” It worked—even with an Oxford professor.
Transferring this concept to an everyday situation, imagine you are out of town and you need a haircut. You find yourself standing in front of a hairdresser, uncertain whether you should enter, worrying that you could ruin your appearance for weeks to come. As I frequently travel for my advisory work, I end up in this situation all the time. I remember one particular incident: I was in New York City for a few weeks and found a small barbershop that seemed fine, but standing there, pondering, I was still undecided. The barber approached me and told me that I would be in the best of hands. Then, I spotted a few certificates and trophies inside—I was very pleased with this evidence of competence and my fears subsided. As I sat in the barber’s chair and he finished washing my hair, he proudly told me about his last soccer tournament and showed me the trophy he had won. Only then did I notice—a soccer ball was displayed on all the awards. It was too late (but turned out ok)!
The first step in displaying your competence is therefore to consider what could potentially speak or work against you, and then to address this fear; reducing uncertainty plays a key role when you are trying to display competence and convince other people of just about anything.16
If you are invited for a job interview or you are meeting with a prospective client, then it is obvious your formal qualifications certainly fulfill all the necessary requirements for the position or the work. For them, it’s now just a matter of ensuring that they’re not making a mistake by choosing you. Such mistakes are costly; it is much more cost effective for a company to overlook an able candidate or service provider from time to time than to pick an incompetent one. US authorities regularly fall back on lie-detector tests when interviewing for government positions, even though they only attribute an accuracy of 80 percent to these tests. The reasoning is that it makes more sense to not recruit a number of highly qualified candidates than to recruit just a few who could pose a potential risk to national security.17 Accordingly, applications and interviews are, first and foremost, searches for negative information.18
“It’s good that you are here. I can imagine you must be a bit nervous. But don’t worry. I’m very good at what I do.” We do not interpret words like these from those whose help we seek as arrogance in critical decisive moments. Rather, they are music to our ears when we are full of anxiety about making a major mistake: choosing the wrong hairdresser, the wrong tax consultant, the wrong construction company, the wrong employee. In those vulnerable moments, there is hardly anything better than hearing someone say, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” Projecting this type of confidence instills trust and places you at a distinct advantage. Maintaining that confidence is the next crucial step in signaling your competence.
Always Remain Confident
In a fascinating experiment, subjects were given a glass of wine and told that it cost either $10 or $90 a bottle.19 The ones who were told that they were drinking the expensive wine rated it as significantly higher. The scientists were not satisfied by solely taking the subjects’ word and wondered if they really perceived the wine differently. So, when drinking the wine, they measured the subjects’ brain function with an fMRI scanner. Lo and behold, their oxygen and blood flow differed even though it was the exact same wine. Thus not only did they say it tasted different but it actually did—solely based on their expectation. The different reactions originated from what is called confirmation bias: individuals select information that fits their hypothesis and confirms what they believed from the very beginning.20 And people usually believe what they are told.21
The confirmation bias phenomenon is reflected in our assessment of other people. In one experiment, test subjects were presented with the biographical data of a nonexistent “Jane.”22 One group of subjects was told ahead of time that Jane was shy and introverted, while a second group was informed that she was loud and extroverted. Both groups were then presented with further, identical information about Jane’s life and were asked if it matched what they had previously thought about Jane. And indeed, both groups confirmed their diametrically opposed hypotheses: Jane’s introverted nature was confirmed by group one, and her extroverted nature was confirmed by group two.
Some time ago, I strolled through picturesque Turl Street in Oxford and discovered a wonderful pair of shoes in the window of a traditional store, made by hand. I went inside and asked the shoemaker just why I should buy this very expensive footwear. Granted, a foolish question, but don’t customers constantly ask questions they could answer themselves by reading the company’s website or sales brochure? We have an unconscious need to have someone take away our fear. Good salespeople are aware of this fact—and the shoemaker was certainly one of them. He looked me directly in the eye and replied with a straight face, “Because they are the best shoes in the world.” Funny, I thought. But naturally, I had to buy them.
Three months later, I was back in the store for the third time: the heel had fallen off one of them . . . again. I wasn’t angry but instead felt bad for ruining such a masterpiece.
Had I discovered a twisted seam while examining these “best shoes in the world,” I wouldn’t have regarded it as evidence of sloppiness but as that of traditional craftsmanship. Had I been told that this was a cheap pair of shoes from some factory, I would have considered the same seam a sign of inferior quality. Again, we subconsciously try to confirm our expectations and interpret ambiguous information to be in line with our assumptions. And even though I began gradually to have doubts, to this day I cannot find it in my heart to throw this pair of shoes away. I somehow still believe that they are the work of a truly masterful craftsman—even though I (should) know better.
As in Schlenker and Leary’s study, even the one predicting a “very good” result who then fails is still judged as more competent than a person accurately predicting his own failure. In this way, confidence is more important than success. We forgive optimists for their failures and we continue to regard them as part of the solution, rather than as a part of the problem.
In other words, people believe what they are told and are willing to overlook quite a lot to the contrary in an effort to maintain their beliefs. Therefore, signaling your capabilities is actually rather simple: communicate in very clear words that you have outstanding skills in your field and show confidence regarding the task entrusted to you. “Praise yourself daringly,” the philosopher Francis Bacon once said, because, as he continued “something always sticks.”
If you communicate your expertise and display confidence, others will believe you and will tend to confirm this impression. That being said, note that there are certain cultural differences for which this approach may need to be somewhat tailored. In China, for example, forcefully praising oneself is not recommended, while in Japan, such behavior is even more reserved.23 This does not mean that these techniques could not be applied in these countries, but only that they must be adapted to the environment in their nature and intensity.
Demonstrable confidence in one’s own ability can go quite far. In one experiment, groups of four had to discuss a strategy for how to perform a certain task. The researchers sneaked an actor into the discussion group and told him to be impolite and somewhat bossy.24 At the end of the debate, when discussing how to divide the joint gains, he boldly claimed the largest share, as he considered his contributions to be the best and the most important. Contrary to researchers’ expectations, his competence was rated higher despite, or actually because of, this boldness. In fact, the sooner he started behaving arrogantly, the higher his competence was rated, even when he was obviously wrong.
This experiment showed that people are convinced not by who has the best arguments but rather by whoever shows the greatest confidence.25 Think of it this way: If two of your friends are discussing who won the yo-yo world championship in 1955, and one of them suddenly pulls out a $100 bill and bets on her candidate, who are you more likely to believe? Exactly.
You can also refer to your past successes to substantiate your competence and ensure confidence in your performance. A Forbes study of the top 100 high-tech companies unsurprisingly found that earlier successes by individuals are a very significant part of giving the impression of competence later on.26 We expect people to deal with future tasks the same way they dealt with ones in the past. Some extremely successful managers even send out a slideshow every year, showing their greatest accomplishments and reminding superiors and clients of their capabilities. You do not need to go this far, but it doesn’t hurt to inform your boss or manager whenever you have exceeded expectations in terms of speed or quality or if you just received a thank-you email from a client. By doing so, you manifest the impression of high performance, even if they don’t recall the particulars. If you think that you should focus on delivering good work instead of selling your work, think again. You will then only hear from your boss or your client if something went wrong.
People are not hired or promoted because of their actual outstanding performance but because of their presumed potential. Others will quickly forget specifically what you have said or done, but they will never forget how you made them feel.27 A key objective of executive leadership is therefore absorbing the uncertainty and insecurity of the people around you.28
Another argument speaks in favor of displaying confidence. Two Canadian psychologists, Donald Dutton and Art Aron, carried out a fascinating study in the 1970s that is now known as the “bridge experiment.”29 Male test subjects were asked to walk across a bridge to the other side, where an attractive female researcher was awaiting them. For one set of subjects, the bridge was a sturdy bridge of average height and width, whereas the other group had to cross a narrow, swaying suspension bridge nearly 300 feet above a terrifying ravine. The female researcher then asked the men to take a test and gave them her phone number in case they had questions. Unknown to the subjects, the main point of the experiment was about the phone number: The men who were thrown about on the swaying bridge tended to call significantly more often than those who weren’t. They did not ask her any particular questions but appeared to have developed a crush on her.
The experiment illustrated how context influences our feelings considerably. If we fall in love, for example, a series of physical symptoms takes place: our hearts beat faster and our hands become moist and sweaty. But this idea also works in reverse: if our heart beats faster for other reasons, say, out of fear, then our feelings of love may also increase. You should hence avoid peaceful walks on a date with your prospective sweetheart and should rather pursue activities that result in the symptoms of falling in love—skydiving, bungee jumping, or watching horror movies.
Applying this experiment to demonstrating competence, you should attempt to put the person you’re trying to influence at ease. Think about what symptoms people display when they find themselves in the hands of an expert in whose skills they wholeheartedly trust. They should feel relaxed, calm, and confident in the expert’s capabilities. You should therefore put your customers, colleagues, or superiors into exactly this state as best you can, both mentally and physically. Create a calm environment with comfortable chairs and without interruptions; above all, radiate confidence. In this way, others will believe in your competence and trust your expertise. The more people are convinced by your confident approach and your ability to dispel their fears, the more your confidence and true competence will grow from within. To get to that point, however, you need to remember that the first person you need to convince of your competence is you—if you don’t believe in it, no one else will.
Confidence Comes from Within
The bridge experiment showed how context influences our feelings. You can use this phenomenon directly on yourself. Our bodily communication can directly influence our state of mind. We need to obtain information about our emotions through certain clues—and when we smile, for example, we assume that we are in good spirits. This idea was illustrated by the German psychologist Fritz Strack, who conducted an experiment in which he showed test subjects a cartoon film.30 There were two test groups: the members of one were supposed to put a pen in their mouths like a straw, under the pretext of investigating “psychomotor coordination.” The other group was supposed to fix the pen across their mouths with their teeth—like a dog biting a bone. Afterward, everyone assessed how funny they thought the film was. Behold, those who held the pen in their mouths lengthwise—and thus were forced to “smile”—thought the film was funnier.
Strack showed that people can change their moods from the outside to the inside, not just vice versa. Similar to the bridge experiment, in which the symptoms of being in love led to actual infatuation, we don’t only have to be in a good mood to conjure up a smile—smiling gets us in a good mood.31 We can use this insight to convince ourselves of your confidence. A much discussed study on the effect of the “superhero stance” found that a self-confident body stance has a tremendous effect on your actual feeling of confidence.32 The researchers tested the saliva of subjects who were holding their body in a “high-power” position briefly and found that it led to lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and higher levels of testosterone (the hormone leading to dominance). High-power poses were either sitting or standing. The sitting position was feet on the desk and hands behind head, with the elbows out. The standing pose had the subjects standing with their legs about a foot apart, and the hands leaning over a table. Both positions took up a lot of room. The low-power poses, on the other hand, took up much less space: Now they were sitting straight up, legs at a 90 degree angle, feet on the floor, hands on the lap, with the arms tucked in. Low power standing subjects had their legs crossed tightly, and the arms hugging themselves. So, standing or sitting in a high-power pose, will help you project the necessary confidence. Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson regards the right stance as the first out of 12 rules for life.33 He writes: “Maybe you are a loser. And maybe you’re not—but if you are, you don’t have to continue in that mode.” Right and wrong posture have consequences, and you can create a ‘positive feedback loop’: “If your posture is poor, for example—if you slump, shoulders forward and rounded, chest tucked in, head down, looking small, defeated and ineffectual (protected, in theory, against attack from behind)—then you will feel small, defeated and ineffectual. The reactions of others will amplify that.” If you stand up straight with your shoulders back, on the other hand, you will not only be treated differently, but you will feel differently: “You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy,” writes Peterson, “and occupy your territory, manifesting your willingness to defend, expand and transform it.”
And there is an even more subtle way to alter your own behavior: priming. Imagine you are taking part in one of my seminars and are asked to come up to the front of the room and pull a piece of paper out of a box. On the paper is one of the following questions, which you must answer immediately:
- What are you actually good at?
- Why are you suitable for your job?
- What was your greatest professional success?
- What have you ever achieved for your company?
- Why should you, of all people, take on the responsibility for an upcoming project?
- Why should anyone be led by you?
Not easy to answer, are they? But they should be! And yet, you have probably never thought about these questions, even though you won’t get a second chance to reply. If you cannot immediately give a good answer to such questions, then it is highly unlikely that you’ll be seen as confident—and eventually be competent. If all eyes are on you, you cannot afford to stutter and stammer. No one will blame you if you don’t know every detail, but you must know the obvious! Such are the moments that can make or break your career.
When Ted Kennedy ran for president in 1980, the TV journalist Roger Mudd asked him a seemingly innocuous question: “Why are you running for president?”34 Almost 10 agonizing seconds passed before Kennedy replied, seconds that seemed like an eternity and were considered the beginning of the end of his campaign.
Similarly, when I was conducting interviews of bachelor candidates at Oxford University, I asked each one why he or she should be considered to study economics and management at the school. It was strange how few were able to answer this simple question and how this failure fundamentally shattered the impression they were trying to make.
Even if you rarely encounter such blunt questions, the mere awareness of the answers, the mental preparation technique known as priming, has an effect on your subconscious:35 the exposure to one stimulus can influence the response to another stimulus. To be more specific, a very brief occupation with an abstract idea can lead to differences in levels of performance. Let me illustrate it with a perplexing study: Test subjects were asked to answer 42 relatively difficult Trivial Pursuit questions. One group had been asked beforehand to briefly consider what it means to be a professor, while the other group concentrated their thoughts on football hooligans. The “professor group” correctly answered significantly more questions (55.6 percent) than the “hooligan group” (42.6 percent).
In another experiment, test subjects were asked to complete a scrambled-sentence task as part of a “language proficiency experiment.”36 The test contained either neutral words or those related to “old age,” such as wise, wrinkle, bingo, and Florida. Unknown to the subjects, their answers to the questions were irrelevant. Once they left the room, another experimenter secretly recorded the time they took to walk down the corridor. And, in fact, the time varied considerably. The subconscious occupation with the idea of age led to an almost 20 percent slower pace. Our thoughts—conscious or not—influence our behavior.
You can use priming to your advantage. Superstar athletes use it regularly to boost their performance. David Platt, the former captain of the England national soccer team, routinely watched video recordings of his greatest goals to prime himself for the upcoming match. Competitive athletes must regularly overcome enormous pressure while being observed by millions—for example, as Serena Williams must do when setting up for a decisive serve at Wimbledon. They learn to deliberately suppress doubts in order to achieve peak performance even in high-pressure situations and instead focus on their strengths and previous accomplishments.
This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your weaknesses or stop self-reflection. But this targeted suppression of negativity should be used before key moments, such as a penalty shootout or, when transferred to the corporate context, just before the final presentation in a sales meeting or an interview for your dream job. Before beginning the important high-stress task, and after having thought about how to eliminate any arguments that speak against you, you should visualize your achievements and abilities, suppressing any doubts about your competence whatsoever. Will this priming technique immediately turn you into an Olympic champion? Not likely, but as the British athlete Sally Gunnell, world champion and Olympic gold medalist in women’s hurdles, aptly says, “It’s the difference between gold and silver.”37
Inner confidence is more than mere luxury, especially in the workplace. Those who lack confidence develop feelings of inferiority that typically lead to aggression.38 Managers, for example, become hostile as soon as they doubt their own competence, causing them to speak in an agitated tone and intentionally hurt their subordinates.39 Priming therefore helps not just the managers to mentally prepare themselves—resulting in increased confidence—but also all other parties involved.
Once you have consciously made yourself aware of your abilities and noted down your answers to the foregoing questions—on your phone or on a piece of paper you keep in your wallet—try giving them a quick look before any crucial meetings. By internalizing your responses, your behavior will change, you will exude more confidence, and, on top of that, your actual performance will improve. And if you are ever asked these questions, you will be prepared to reply immediately with confidence, once again signaling your competence.
Modesty Is . . . ?
As I have expounded on the importance of displaying confidence throughout this chapter, you may have at one time or another wondered to yourself whether overconfidence isn’t too much of a good thing. You may be concerned that you’ll be viewed as a showoff without any critical self-awareness whatsoever. Maybe you’ve asked, “What about the virtue of modesty? Is this no longer an honorable and commendable characteristic? Is it not humble people who, after all, enjoy the greatest respect?” These are all good questions, to which I’d like to respond by presenting the following scenario.
Imagine that, following a skiing accident, you are lying with a broken leg in a small-town hospital. The surgeon on duty, a nice guy, tells you that you have had two lots of bad luck: not only is your leg broken but you also ended up with him as your doctor. He then lets you know that he isn’t “the greatest physician in the world,” had enjoyed student life rather too much to give enough attention to his studies, and “actually always wanted to be a musician: jazz!” But he will do his honest best. Would you be pleased with so much modesty? Unlikely. Instead, you would probably try to grab the closest wheelchair and make a quick getaway.
It is very possible that the man is an excellent surgeon and is merely being modest, living according to the maxim “underpromise and overdeliver,” discussed earlier. But would you consider him competent? And would you personally like him more for being so modest? Even if the surgery turns out successful, wouldn’t you still think it could have been even more successful with a different physician? When you are lying in a hospital, weak and in the hands of fate, the last thing you want to hear from your potential savior is self-doubt. Instead, you would like to meet a confident professional who assures you that you are in the best of hands and will receive the greatest treatment the world has to offer.
Your clients, colleagues, and superiors want to hear the same thing from you as soon as they entrust you with a task. They want to work with someone who is confident enough to face any challenge, not someone who breeds fear and worry with false, or sincere, modesty.
As mentioned earlier in the chapter, people believe what they are told and tend to unconsciously confirm those expectations—positively and negatively. If you behave modestly, people will take your self-doubt at face value and will hardly be stirred from their initial expectation, no matter your performance. You will be perceived as incompetent from the start, and whatever you do will be seen as proof of your inability.
In fact, modesty may be the most commonly observed form of self-destruction in offices and boardrooms. When highly paid managers or experts joke about their supposed incompetence, they immediately ruin their appearance and degrade their skills. Most of us have experienced someone making a self-deprecating comment in jest, such as an accountant saying he never was all that great with numbers. We laugh along with them, but at the same time we likely make a note to never work with this person when something really important is at stake—the joker has irreparably damaged his or her perceived competence. To laxly paraphrase the British thinker Thomas Fuller, “Better to lose a jest than a customer.”
Incidentally, modesty is by no means as popular everywhere as it is in Western societies, where it is welcome at least in private settings. For example, in India, it is much more common to praise oneself.40 The universal fact, no matter the country or culture, is that modesty must be avoided as far as possible in a professional context.41 In my seminars, I have observed that North Americans and Asians follow this advice more readily; Europeans, however, especially British and German managers, only reluctantly accept that modesty has no place in a professional setting. Many assume that demonstrating too much confidence could have adverse effects on their likability and would therefore somehow reduce their perceived competence. This assumption is flat-out wrong: modesty is associated with uncertainty and cowardice and is seen as being a shield against possible failure.42
Indeed, humility often originates from the calculation that in the event of failure, it takes the wind out of any critics’ sails—a motivation that is not respectable whatsoever. Why accept the task at all if you believe you cannot perform it? I often hear speakers starting their presentations with some excuse about what’s to come: that they are not well prepared or that they did not sleep well. Does the audience immediately like these people? Not at all. Instead, we wonder why they did not prepare better or get more sleep—it’s not as if they just found out yesterday that they would have to appear here today. It is hence not surprising that modesty can actually lead to aversion.43
Do we have to denounce modesty in all cases as a downright reprehensible characteristic? As always, there is an exception to the rule. If you know ahead of time that you cannot perform an action or task to the required degree, then by all means, be modest. Besides ethical considerations, your credibility will be shattered after a series of failures. However, this should be the only exception. Otherwise, if you feel that you cannot perform successfully on a consistent basis, you may want to reconsider your choice of career.
If you refuse to let go of modesty, even when you know you are up for the task, there is one way to use it to your advantage. The marketing strategist Harry Beckwith describes an experiment in which two similar applications for the same position were sent to different companies.44
The virtual applicants were called Dave and John. Their applications only differed by one sentence in the letters of recommendation they had to include: “Sometimes, John can be difficult to get along with.” This sentence was not written anywhere in Dave’s documents. In the end, John was invited to more interviews than Dave. The tiny negative remark made the whole application appear more credible and John more competent.
A single, slightly negative, or—when describing yourself—modest, statement can therefore be perceived as believable, and in this way, it can increase a person’s perceived competence. However, the greatest caution is advised here: humble statements must appear insignificant compared to your strengths and must not interfere with your core competencies. Good examples of modest statements that might work include those that are somewhat superfluous, such as “I am horrible at ping-pong”—unless of course you’re trying out for a national table tennis team—or those that take a negative and make it a positive, like “I’m a lousy liar,” which also contributes to perceived credibility. A sentence like “I was always bad at math,” however, can already be harmful, irrespective of the field or activity, since math is regularly associated with intelligence and in turn serves as an indication of competence. The Princeton psychologist Edward E. Jones gets to the point, saying, “Whenever modesty is used, it must reflect the self-assured acceptance of some weaknesses that are obviously trivial in the context of the strengths.”45
To summarize, modest predictions of your performance and good-hearted self-deprecating anecdotes that cast doubt on your skills do not help portray competence. Not only will you appear less competent, but you could also make yourself unpopular at the office. People do not appreciate modesty in the professional context, but they are grateful for every sign of confidence. If you feel that you absolutely must inject a little humility into your personality, correspondence, or tasks, then make sure you do so without jeopardizing your core competencies. Remember, some may consider modesty a virtue, but you will get further without it, which leads to the question of whether modesty is a virtue at all.
There is a phrase by management thinker Jim Collins: “Quiet, hard-working, stoic leaders are responsible for really big changes.”46 It is a rather symptomatic view I often encounter—and one that is, of course, opposed to everything you have just read. So who is right? Well, business guru Tom Peters countered Collins’s statement with a list of protagonists from world history, such as Pablo Picasso, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and more.
Could we draw up an equally impressive list of modest, stoic people? I tried, but I did not succeed, especially when I considered that the people named by Peters are the icons, the top names in their fields. I couldn’t get any further than Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa—and there are anecdotes from their closest confrères that indicate they weren’t so stoic after all. Furthermore, Peters’s list can grow and grow without end, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Ludwig van Beethoven to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who used the following chapter titles in his last work, Ecce Homo: “Why I Am So Smart” and “Why I Write Such Good Books.” In extreme cases, these people have an almost narcissistic personality disorder, convinced of their own grandeur—and they are extremely successful.47 A modern example is Donald Trump, who won the US presidential election without any political track record but by displaying an exuberant confidence in his skills.
Political affiliations or industries make no difference: Hollywood actor George Clooney is certain that it was his demonstrated confidence that led to his success:48 “The best actor never gets the job when they audition. Never.” Why? Because of their lack of confidence: “Actors go into auditions thinking, Oh God, they’re going to hate me, they’re going to hate me.”