Confidence and Competence

Confidence and Competence
By Collin Ries (he/him)
Program & Marketing Manager, Leadership Columbus

When I was working with her, my mentor Dani often used to tell me, “you can be charming for fifteen minutes and after that, you better know something.” She first saw this quote over twenty years ago in a list of “40 things a woman should learn before they’re 40” and I find it more and more relevant as I progress in my career. There have been times where I’ve walked into a room or listened to a speaker and realized after a while that what they’re saying doesn’t really have much substance; it’s their charm that makes you think they know more than they do.

This quote Dani shared has stayed with me and makes me think about the connections between competence and confidence. Every time I walk into a meeting with people I don’t know, I find myself going back to the quote as a litmus test to determine who in the room knows something, and who is just charming. The quote is snappy, but it’s also full of wisdom. I’ve pulled three key lessons from it. They are: 1) Confidence and competence are not the same thing. 2) Confidence and competence can be used to accomplish different things. 3) I can learn to demonstrate both.

Confidence and Competence Are Not the Same Thing
Confidence is often mistaken for competence. When someone exudes lots of confidence, many people automatically assume that they are also competent on the topic they are confident about. But that isn’t necessarily the case. When I think of confidence, that’s the charm. It’s the way you show up, the way you present yourself, your words, and ideas. Do you have that natural knack of making small talk, of making people hear you, of dressing up your ideas in language? This isn’t a bad thing. It looks really nice and helps get the job done, but if it’s all you have, it will only take you so far and will only work for you for so long. You need competence, the “knowing something.” The ability to back up your charm and your words, with knowledge and action. 

Confidence and Competence Can Be Used to Accomplish Different Things
We’ve all been in meetings with people that demonstrate confidence without competence. They’re the ones that always have something to say that can dominate the conversation. At the same time, they don’t really offer up any concrete ideas or have the ability to back up what they’re saying. They come across as if they’re talking just to hear the sound of their own voice, and fail to listen to others. They’re not effective team contributors or communicators, and I always told myself that I never wanted to be a person that was all confidence and no competence.

However, that doesn’t mean you don’t need the confidence piece. Confidence and competence actually are a fantastic combination. Demonstrating competence without confidence can also lead to ineffective contributions. Recently, I was facilitating my first workshop. It was on a subject that I know a lot about and have formal education in. I, the facilitator, also happened to be the youngest person in the room, speaking to people who had more experience than I did. I felt a little insecure about this lack of experience and was hesitant to take hard stances, push back in discussion, or share my own opinions and beliefs based on the knowledge that I had. And it showed. I wasn’t able to connect as well with my audience and effectively communicate my ideas, quite simply because I didn’t have the confidence to be secure in what I was talking about.


I Can Learn to Demonstrate Both
So how can we get to a place where we can demonstrate both confidence and competence?

  • Own what you know

This requires some introspection and self awareness. Ask yourself: where do I shine? What are the areas that I have the most competency, that I know the most about? By getting clear on WHAT your strengths are, it’s much easier to be more confident in the knowledge that you have.

  • Know how you best convey information.

Another key to displaying confidence is the presentation. How can I most effectively convey what I know to other people? I used to get really nervous when I got up to speak in front of crowds or give a presentation. After a while, I realized why: I was trying to emulate the presentation style of some of my mentors, and that just wasn’t what came naturally to me. I like to be more conversational, connect with my audience (as appropriate). It’s what allows my personality to shine, for me to establish authenticity in my speech that lends credence to the words I’m saying. Get familiar with your own presentation style. Figure out what’s natural for you, what works, and what doesn’t. Take some time to practice with someone else. Not only will it help you determine what works best for you; the more times you practice, the more comfortable you’ll be once you have to do it for real.

  • Own what you don’t know.

What areas do I have some knowledge on, but I could learn more? Where am I out of my element and need help? I’m not saying this is easy. It’s hard to admit that you don’t know something, especially when you feel like you should. This is your ego talking, telling you that you need to know everything in order to feel superior/valued/worthy (insert whatever emotion applies to you). There have been times where I felt like I should know more about a subject than I actually did, and I wanted to feel secure by projecting confidence and charm.  In reality, this doesn’t accomplish anything, because again, you can only be charming for fifteen minutes. Eventually that charm will go away and you’ll be worse off than if you had just admitted that you didn’t know something and owned that. In those moments, I have to put my ego down, take my feelings out of the equation, and realize what would create the best outcome.

Which brings me to my final point:

  • Be willing to learn and listen to other perspectives.

We are never done learning and growing. Even if you have a competency in an area, there is always more for you to learn. We keep learning by looking out for teachable moments and having a curiosity and willingness to learn. By being willing to learn, you position yourself to not only learn and grow, but to also demonstrate to other people that you have the confidence to acknowledge that you have more to learn.

Competence and confidence go hand in hand, and my hope is that after reading this, you think further about how together, they can support you in your professional track. That way, you are able to walk into your next meeting and be comfortable in the knowledge that you can “be charming for that fifteen minutes” and “know something.”