Competence and confidence

I've been reading Henry Mintzberg this week on Managers, not MBAs. In it, he talks about MBA programs as instilling confidence rather than competence. Mintzberg believes this is not only wrong: it's dangerous. He says there are four kinds of people: sad people who are neither confident nor competent: people who are competent but not confidence (paying attention to them can have enormous impact): people who are both confident and competent (they have the world by the tail) and the people Mintzberg says are typically the products of MBA programs - those who have confidence without competence.

As a professional who offers training to business people (including managers), I know how easy it is to create programs that build confidence at the expense of (or without regard to) competence. People will pay for confidence in the same way they will pay for heated seats in their luxury cars or days at the spa. They know their money is well spent when they feel great. Confidence feels great and it is relatively easy to instill.

Think of your average teen camp, whether it's band camp or bible camp or business camp (yes, there's such a thing as business camp). They're marvellous for building confidence. They keep the kids busy enough to induce confusion and make them suggestible, and then they tell them, over and over again, that they are terrific. The kids start to feel good, and because they are in a group, they connect with the good feelings of everyone around them. That feels even better. The rapport gets deeper and suddenly everything starts working better. The projects get done, the jokes are funny, and everyone is in the mood for cooperation. And over and over, the kids get the message "you guys are terrific."

Sign me up now! I'd buy that feeling. And typically, as long as the strategy stays in youth camps, there is no downside. No one expects business competence from kids after a few weeks of training. So no one is hurt when the kids have confidence without competence.

As Mintzberg argues, there is a downside when adults believe in themselves without having the competence to support that belief: a downside for them and a downside for everyone who is influenced by their decisions. The question remains: is there a downside for schools or training companies that produce confidence without competence?

The next time you are choosing a training program, ask yourself: is it enough to feel great or do I want to build real skills, too? It's harder to find programs that build real competence, and they often require more of you than the programs that merely make you feel good about yourself. You cannot judge on the basis of the regular questionnaires - they're not designed to distinguish between confidence and competence.

You do know the difference. You can find programs that build confidence by building competence. It's worth the effort. For you, and for the people who will be affected by your levels of both confidence and competence.


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