You Think You Know How to Spot a Truly ‘Confident’ Candidate?

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 “How confident?”—If you think that, when asked about a job candidate, this is only a question about degree of confidence, you really do need to read the rest of this.


It’s so much easier to sell “confidence” than to acquire it, because the real deal doesn’t come easily; yet, once possessed as true confidence, it is in great demand as an individual employee or team-member trait.

But let both buyer and seller beware!—as the expressions “confidence game” and “conman” suggest.

In particular, recruiters need to be very aware of, if not beware, the many faces of confidence—especially the false ones.

They also need to realize that it is a mistake to assume that the most important thing to determine is a candidate’s or employee’s degree of confidence. No. That’s false.

What matters as much, and often even more, is, as will be explained below, the type or form of confidence.

The Five False Faces of Confidence

“False faces” of confidence: in what sense? Actually, in five senses:

1. The job candidate knows [s]he isn’t “really” confident in the ways [s]he would like you to believe [s]he is or in the ways [s]he thinks you are looking for. It’s an act—fakery used to get a job.

This is the second layer of confidence of the job con-artist, the first being genuine confidence in his or her ability to con you about his or her bogus self-confidence or confidence the hook appears to deserve.

2. The recruiter has, in professional practice, misreadsomething e.g., arrogance, as confidence, or modesty as a lack of confidence.

Although the recruiter knows the differences among these, [s]he fails to see it in some particular instance.

3. The recruiter and/or the candidate has over- or underestimated the match between the subjective feeling of confidence and the objective grounds for it. Feeling confident does not prove that feeling is well-deserved.

4. The confidence identified or displayed is only partial, i.e., of one specific form, not “comprehensive” confidence, thereby eclipsing or obscuring the other forms and degrees of them that may or should exist.

For example, confidence about one’s professional presentability is only one dimension of professional confidence, competence being a critical additional one.

5. The recruiter has, at a conceptual level, confused or conflatedone kind of confidence or lack of confidence with another kind—possibly without realizing that in some instances being confident in one sense correlates with lacking confidence in another sense.

Confidence Confusions and Inversions

Consider that fifth case. How is it possible to [seem to] be confident in one way, but at the expense of seeming confident in another? Such scenarios are very easily imagined.

For example, despite the fact that, like confidence, the traits of modesty and self-effacement come in two forms—call them “alpha” and “omega” [on analogy with “alpha male” and “omega male”], the recruiter may mistakenly reduce all modesty to the omega form.

The alpha-confident candidate is so self-assured that a kind of noblesse oblige modesty about personal talents, accomplishments, etc., seems not only obligatory in terms of being in good taste, but also safe with respect to being assessed—given just how evident that personal excellence is.

Such an alpha candidate will be utterly unconcerned about or disbelieve that any possible self-inflicted damage may be caused by a muted, seemingly self-deprecating self-presentation.

Moreover, the astute alpha-confident candidate will be one who distinguishes “descriptive immodesty” from “normative modesty”—which means that while matter-of-factly and accurately describing himself as the top performer by someone’s independent objective measure, e.g., tennis wins or annual sales revenue generated, nonetheless remains modest in insisting it’s “not that big a deal” in subjective, value, existential or “cosmic” terms and in the “big picture”.

However, an HR manager interviewing such an alpha candidate may be inclined to [mis]interpret [normative] modesty as weak-kneed omega-rank diffidence—a lack of self-confidence, characteristic of a low-ranking pack member, when in this instance it is anything but that.

In this manager’s conceptual, psychological calculus, self-assurance and modesty are expected to vary inversely—more of one, less of the other, which, indeed, is the case with some candidates, whose modesty is of the “do unto yourself before others do you in”, smack-myself-before-you-do sort. However, in fact, it is just as common for them to vary directly—more self-assuredness, more modesty.

This unconfident omega candidate stance deploys modesty as a shield against anticipated, diminishment or “attack” by others, to forestall or deflect such an attack, much as confession is used to mitigate, if not circumvent punishment. In this instance, modesty is indeed a marker for diffidence.

Still, this kind of manager is running a confused and ineffective interview because of confused and ineffective concepts [s]he has brought to the table. Hence, interview-concept garbage in, hiring-decision garbage out.

Both fine distinctions and finely tuned perceptions are required to prevent mishaps such as reducing two forms of modesty to a single marker for a lack of confidence.

As a minimum, clear and defensible concepts of “confidence” are required to avoid such mistakes.

Notice, I just said “concepts” of confidence—suggesting, that in addition to the aforementioned “false faces” of confidence, there are multiple valid understandings of confidence and correspondingly multiple valid and dynamically interacting forms.

1. Moral confidence: the candidate has unshakable faith in the correctness of his or her ethics. Although this is one of the most self-comforting forms of confidence, it doesn’t always translate into other forms, or vice versa, such as in connection with the next one: social confidence.

2. Social confidence: It is imaginable that the ideal candidate for a given job may be socially extremely confident, yet morally unsure [or vice versa]. Why?—Because the employer may want to hire a great schmoozer with manipulable or trainable ethics, e.g., to hire a broker for a predatory Wolf Street brokerage.

Accordingly, an HR manager’s report citing the “confidence” of the candidate may be very misleading, if not catastrophic, for the brokerage, if the bosses think they will be getting everything they want from that new hire.

In fact, if the HR manager fixated on the candidate’s socialconfidence, without consideration of his or her unshakable moralconfidence, the shady brokerage may end up hiring a potential whistle blower, whose pangs of impregnable conscience are manifested as moral conscientiousness and a phone call to the IRS.

3. Skills and talent confidence: Unlike moral and social confidence, skills and talent self-confidence [including intellectual, creative and technical forms] is an unreliable predictor of performance.

Whereas moral and social self-confidence—as a possessed or as a projected trait—assure strong predictability of moral and social behavior in conformity with those morals, skills and talent confidence does not.

That’s because skills and talent self-overrating is much likelier to cause trouble in a way in which moral and social over-confidence are less so, or at least is far less likely to succeed as a “self-fulfilling self-diagnosis”.

By this I mean that moral and social confidence readily elicit positive responses that reinforce and strengthen these forms of confidence or negative responses that, in virtue of the pre-existing high levels of confidence, don’t make a dent.

When you are morally or socially confident, you behave in complete conformity to that trait, which, in general, catalyzes and elicits validating and reinforcing responses or, when negative, moral or social responses that are merely shrugged off.

But when you are skill and talent-confident, you may be unaware of how badly you are doing, objectively speaking, until it is too late, or worse, you may remain in denial, and, in either case, botch an investment project or arterial repair.

To put this key difference between skills/talent self-confidence and moral/social self-confidence in simplest terms, self-delusion can be far more costly and risky with skills/talent-confident candidates than with morally/socially self-confident candidates.

That is likely to be the case, if only because of the commonly observed “contagion effect” of moral certitude and social aplomb on others [with the exception of antagonistic, equally morally confident ethical absolutists].

People who are socially confident are more likely to succeed in the social domain, just because they are confident, than those who are skill/talent-confident are likely to succeed in the performance arena just because they have a high opinion of their own skills.

4. Strategic and tactical confidence: This means being confident confidence that you will wisely choose your battles and waters, rather than feeling ready for anything and everything, like some kind of Superman.

Being unflappably confident does not mean believing that no challenge is too great; instead, it means having confidence in one’s ability to choose the right-sized battle, at the right time, with the right resources and to distinguish these from those that it would be foolish or dangerous to start or join.

5. Boundless confidence:  This is Superman confidence—the belief that one need not limit oneself to being a big fish in a small, carefully selected pond or a sea just big enough to swim in without sinking or getting eaten alive.

Such boundless confidence is evidenced in the credo the bigger the sea, the bigger the me”—as one rises and grows to meet any and every challenge, no matter how daunting.

If you believe you have this kind of confidence or are interviewing someone with it, questions about life back on Krypton will be in order.

6. Full-faculty confidence: On this interpretation, complete confidence involves confidence in one’s capabilities in all dimensions of the human mind, not just some. These comprise the cognitive [including beliefs and judgments], emotional, volitional [including goals and decisions], perceptual, valuational [including ethics, aesthetics and “tastes”] and situational faculties and their corresponding forms of confidence.

7. Superstition or dogma-based confidence: Superstition, faith or dogma-based confidence can be quite perilous for an organization if misunderstood. For example, an employee’s confident reassurances that everything will turn out fine and proffered self-certification that [s]he is unquestionably up to the challenge may be as delusional as believing that Zulu-warrior battle amulets should have stopped British bullets.

Absolute confidence that one’s job performance and outcomes are “bullet-proof”, may reflect nothing more than the influence of superstition or of New Age “feel good” philosophies about the protective and benevolent magic of the likes of “The Secret ”.

The Secret? At its core, it is the  “natural” “Law of Attraction” that assures us that wishing for anything positive will make it happen, because after all, and in defiance of the well-confirmed natural laws of  gravity and of oppositely-charged magnetic poles, positives attract only positives.

Just ask your colleagues; don’t be surprised if among them there is at least one who believes that “the secret” of stopping asteroids is to have positive thoughts about them and “manifesting” that they harmlessly veer away from the Earth.

The source of that seeming self-confidence is not so different from that of the Zulu warrior whose amulet and the superstitions attached to it make him feel invincible and invulnerable to bullets…

…except that the Zulu’s confidence is based on a “law of repulsion”.

By Michael Moffa