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Is Low Self-Confidence a Key to Success?

Vivia Chen

July 10, 2012

© Benoit BeauregardAre those clever folks at the Harvard Business Review just plain bored these days? Is that why they're dispensing career advice that seem to defy common sense? 

Recently, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a business psychology professor at University College London and an expert in personality profiling and psychometric testing, sought to debunk the popular belief that high self-confidence is critical to career success. He writes in the Harvard Business Review blog that self-confidence is actually detrimental to success.

He gives three reasons why low self-confidence is good for you:

1. It makes you more attentive to criticism and self-critical. "Most people get trapped in their optimistic biases, so they tend to listen to positive feedback and ignore negative feedback." To excel, writes Chamorro-Premuzic, "you will need to be your harshest critic, and that is almost impossible when your starting point is high self-confidence."

2. It will motivate you to work harder and prepare more. "If you are serious about your goals, you will have more incentive to work hard when you lack confidence in your abilities. In fact, low confidence is only demotivating when you are not serious about your goals."

3. It will make you look less arrogant and keep you grounded. "People with low self-confidence are more likely to admit their mistakes—instead of blaming others—and rarely take credit for others' accomplishments." And the result, writes Chamorro-Premuzic, is that everyone—the individual, the organization, and society—will benefit when humility is restored.

My gosh, what kind of Pollyanna babble is this? Has the good professor ever worked in the real world, where people (actually, let's make that "men") with swagger almost always get the best assignments, better titles, fatter paychecks, and more glory? Hasn't the secret long been out that being the hardest worker-bee is not the way to play the game?

I mean, haven't women been following Chamorro-Premuzic's script in the workplace—having low self-confidence, being self-critical, and putting in a ton of sweat equity—forever? And look where that's gotten us—a wage gap and a dearth of women in the top echelons!

I can only assume that Chamorro-Premuzic is offering his nuggets of wisdom to those with an overload of testosterone. Because it seems to have no relevance to at least half the population.

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Vivia, I think you're missing another point to the professor's argument: you can have lower self-esteem, but still be outgoing, hard-working and willing to speak up and put yourself out there. You can push yourself to do all those things without being cocky or overconfident or full of a "swagger". I think this fact is a secret to the success of many hard-working people, in business, law or life generally.

Low self-confidence provides the drive to always need to prove one's self (perhaps I could use an occasional boost to my self esteem as I just took a few minutes to look up on dictionary.com the correct way to express one's self--those with really high self esteem probably wouldn't care if they got it wrong!).

Low self-confidence is an internal motivator to always out work the "competition." I think the study nails one sub-text of financial or career success--it's just not the whole picture because generally high self-esteem also has many quite valued benefits.

As a legal search consultant who sees candidates every day with a wide range of self-esteem, those with the high can border on arrogant which doesn't land you that job. And those with lower self esteem can come off as wanting to do everything possible to keep the clients happy. Which person is your legal employer going to want to hire? Corporations especially are focused on who will fit in with the business team and my bet is that lower (on a relative scale) self esteem lawyers may be perceived in an afternoon of interviews as more of the team player needed.

And further, in my view, this is not very correlated with male vs female.

Haven't you all known the workaholic who was making up for a terrible childhood? Who was so afraid of close connections he or she would never make any with his / her own family, so he she stayed at work all the time? Besides, who really knows what is behind the facade most of the time. I agree with the authors -- insecurity breeds genius.

Sharon, Vivia was not disrespecting men but speaking about the general differences in approach towards their careers that men have traditionally had versus women.

Also, your comment chastising Vivia about men having "human rights" was downright silly. In what way was Vivia attacking men's "human rights"? When Hillary Clinton spoke about "women's right are human rights," she was discussing issues like women having the right to vote, not being subjected to sexual violence, and being given the same legal rights as men. She wasn't discussing how a blogger shouldn't give her opinion on how men and women may act differently in the workplace.

Most 360 surveys of leaders show that women's skills are higher rated than their male counterparts'. We're just lower paid. That's not because of something women are doing wrong, that's because of sexism -- that institutionalized preference for everything with a penis.

I would suggest that the professor is confusing self-confidence w/ self-esteem. High self-esteem does not seem to match high achievements but can lead to not examining one's own work carefully enough and prevent one from accepting criticism that is needed. High self confidence on the other hand is needed to take on hard tasks and to not be afraid to fall down a few times, which is essential to success. Just shooting from the hip thoughts.

I agree wholeheartedly with Chamorro-Premuzic, but Chen's added comments are simplistic and wrong. The principle clearly applies to women as well as to men. It is downright sexist, not to mention contrary to fact, to think that all men are alike or that all women are alike. Hillary Clinton is correct when she says "women's rights are human rights," but remember that men's rights are human rights as well. Let's stop the disrespect once and for all.

Sharon Stoliaroff, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

My Big Law/Medium Law partner friends are all male, over-confident, successful and think they're a lot more attractive to women than they really are. So, no, I don't think lowering your self esteem is good for a law career.

Low self-esteem does work better for men. Women often implode while men hunt. I remember speaking with a litigator who regularly collects between $10 – 15 million a year in fees. He is anxious and does not know where his next piece of work is. However “off” that anxiety is, he knows and I know that is why his big firm loves him. His absolute constancy in rainmaking is fueled by non-stultifying anxiety. It may not make him happy, but it does make rain.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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