The Problem of Confidence

By Richard Erdmann & Christine Drew

So many things about decision making seem paradoxical. A person is promoted to a leadership position because of what they know, how they have performed, and their potential for leadership. Yet, the research on bias suggests that they should view their own knowledge as inadequate. They received a promotion based on their past performance but they should not project that performance forward as though it will solve future problems. They have leadership potential because they cause people to believe and follow them. They communicate confidence, which means that with confidence everyone might march down the wrong path. 

Confidence is a desirable characteristic of leaders. Leaders are chosen because they have the knowledge, skills, habits, and confidence to lead their respective organizations. But, when a leader relies primarily on personal past experiences, projects them forward into unknown waters, and creates a yes or no decision, there is a perfect storm.

In 1983, William Smithburg, the CEO of Quaker, acquired Gatorade for $220M. The acquisition was reputed to be made on Smithburg’s instincts for the right deal. The value of Gatorade grew to about $3B under Quaker. Then Smithburg was faced with another opportunity – buying Snapple. He weighed his options. He was good at acquisitions. Snapple looked a lot like Gatorade – a niche brand with potential for a mass market. Quaker was looking like a good acquisition target itself and it would have to go into debt to make the Snapple purchase, making Quaker less desirable. In no time Snapple was purchased for $1.8B. Three years later Quaker sold it for $300M. In looking back at the acquisition, it looked like Quaker was not even making a yes or no decision. It was making a yes decision.

A few years before writing this we were watching some legislative hearings and a superintendent, for whom we have a great deal of respect, told a story of too much testing in the classroom. We tell a story in the Learning to Learn book in our MEGAThinking series about a small group of superintendents and consultants storming out of a presentation criticizing the speaker for discussing testing in the classroom. There is a strong movement in many states to reduce testing in the classroom and the leaders of the movement are absolutely confident that they are correct. They have been exceptional superintendents and like Mr. Smithburg, were incredibly successful at managing. But, is their focus misplaced? Like Mr. Smithburg, they have passed the either-or debate and entered into a yes and yes conversation. Yes, testing is a bad practice. Their conversations reinforce each other and the speakers they invite to their conferences are now preaching to the choir rather than challenging thought. They are confident that they are correct.

There are a multitude of reasons to reconsider the decision or at least to cast doubt on their position but we will suggest just one – frequent feedback. Feedback requires measurement and has at least two very positive effects on learning. It allows for course correction when answers are wrong and it reinforces a sense of progress when answers are right. To work correctly, both of these require frequency. 

As we have been writing these blogs, we have heard several podcasts comment on confidence in one way or another. The gist is that the enemy of creativity, innovation, or faith (the three words we heard) is not doubt but certainty. In fact, all three recommended doubt or humility – the two words we heard most often.  Though confidence is inspiring, sincere humility wins the day if it tempers the reliance on the past as perfect for the future.

The advantage of two alternatives is that they can often be combined for a solution superior to either alternative. As we begin the deliberation or the combination, there is still a risk that the process becomes an ‘either-or’ process and combining is either not considered or viewed as a compromise and the argument goes underground for a while. We have a classic example – the reading wars.