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Overconfidence can put a career over the top

Research suggests executives should discount what male candidates say, put a premium on what females boast about

By Todd Humber

I’m really good at my job. I rarely make mistakes, I’m quick on my feet and can come up with the perfect solution to any crisis in a heartbeat.

Sound arrogant?

It most certainly is.

But research published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organization, titled “The emergence of male leadership in competitive environments,” shows it’s also a good way to climb the corporate ladder.

And men are better at playing the over-confidence game, which may be part of the reason more men than women wind up in top management positions.

Paola Sapienza, a professor of finance at the Kellogg School of Management at Chicago’s Northwestern University and one of the study’s authors, told the Toronto Star “it actually pays off to over-represent your abilities.”

And she’s right — there’s really not much downside for a candidate to overplay his hand in an interview. Confidence is a desired, sought-after trait for senior leaders. Fake it well enough, and over-exaggerate accomplishments, and you just might land that coveted corner office. (Not to confuse swagger with outright lies, though — faking credentials or lying on a resumé can land candidates in hot water.)

But the research — involving 134 MBA students — showed overplaying your hand, and stretching the truth about accomplishments, can be a golden ticket to the C-suite. And there really aren’t many ramifications for puffing out your chest.

“It’s not penalized most of the time in real life,” said Sapienza. “When presented with two candidates, eventually one will be hired and the other will be discarded, so there will not be a lot of data to re-evaluate whether the decision was the right one.”

Everybody exaggerates a little

For the research, the 134 students were asked to complete a set of math problems. The men and the women scored about equally.

A year later, they were called back in and asked how they did on the test. Men rated their performance about 30 per cent higher than reality. Women also stretched the truth, but to a lesser extent — about 15 per cent higher.

Then the students were asked to solve a math problem. When there was no cash incentive involved, they ended up picking the most capable person to lead.

But when money appeared on the table, the game changed quickly. And the higher the incentive, the greater the likelihood people competing to lead would lie in order to be chosen. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what that would translate to in the real world when six- and seven-figure C-suite positions are on the line.

Discount for male arrogance, premium for female swagger

One of the more interesting — and perhaps most controversial — interpretations from the study is that whoever is doing the hiring should discount what men say they can accomplish and upgrade what women say they can do.

Maybe. But that’s a generalization — perhaps some would call it a stereotype — and we all know the infallibilities of those.

But clearly there’s something wrong with the current process. We’ve seen the numbers in countless studies, from organizations like Catalyst, that women are not rising to the top in proportionate numbers despite clear evidence having more females in power is good for the bottom line.

Perhaps the best lesson from this research is not to automatically discount what men say during the interview, but maybe to subject it to a bit more scrutiny while, at the same time, digging deeper to pull out stories of success from women.

But, to be absolutely clear, I’m not nearly as arrogant as the first paragraph of this blog suggests — unless, of course, the hiring executive for the senior management team is reading this. In that case, every word is true.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resources management. He can be reached at

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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