The Problem of Confidence in Hiring

I’ve gotten to sit on a handful of hiring committees in the past few years. I’ve noticed I tend to pay attention to candidates’ confidence. Confidence matters to me.

But I’ve also realized confidence is a problematic metric when it comes to evaluating potential hires.

I believe confidence is important. Especially for library staff who work with patrons—for anyone who works in a customer service position: you need to be confident in your ability to handle whatever comes up. You need to have the confidence to remain calm and effective in high stress environments. An air of confidence creates a good atmosphere for our patrons. So I look for confidence in interviews. I’m struck when candidates display confidence and poise and I note when they seem nervous or hesitant.

But there all kinds of ways confidence is a poor metric.

Confidence is contextual

Everyone has some situations in which they feel confident and other situations in which they don’t. Just because someone lacks confidence in an interview doesn’t mean they might not have confidence in their job. Good training, orientation, and team building can all boost the confidence of new hires and these are all things organizations should be doing.

An ability to display confidence in a high pressure situation is one of the skills we want in our staff and an interview is a high pressure situation. But it’s not an accurate proxy for our regular work environment: it’s a completely different kind of pressure with different stakes.

Also, the skills you need to do well in an interview are different than the skills you need to do well in your job. If a candidate lacks confidence in the interview, it doesn’t automatically mean they’ll lack confidence in their work.

You don’t always know where someone’s confidence comes from

I once interviewed a candidate who was supremely self-confident and self-possessed. But it was clear to all of us on the interview panel that he was also incompetent and unqualified for the position. It’s possible his confidence was a front, a compensation mechanism, but I’m convinced he really did think he was the best candidate for the job. He had confidence because he lacked critical self-awareness.

Confidence isn’t always an accurate indication of skill, ability, or worthiness.

Prioritizing confidence may prioritize other qualities you really shouldn’t

I once worked with a guy who had a reputation for always hiring pretty young women. He insisted he hired the candidates who displayed the most self-confidence.

We live in a world that validates conventionally attractive people and does its best to destroy the self-confidence of people who aren’t conventionally attractive. The same is true for able-bodied and disabled people. It never occurred to my coworker to consider that maybe pretty people tend to be confident in large part because they’re pretty and not necessarily because of successful work experience, talent, or qualifications.

If I rank the candidates I’ve interviewed over the years from most confident to least confident, it strongly parallels if I were to rank them from most conventionally attractive to least conventionally attractive. This it true regardless of the type of position being filled. It’s not a 100% match—there are plenty of people who are confident because they’ve earned it through experience regardless of physical appearance, and plenty of conventionally attractive people who have a great deal of experience—but there’s a lot of overlap between self-confidence and conventional attractiveness.

Sometimes pretty people are confident simply because they’re pretty.

If you prioritize confidence in your hiring practices, you might be prioritizing physical characteristics you really shouldn’t, even if you don’t intend to, even if you don’t realize you’re doing it.

Conclusion

Confidence matters and we all want to hire confident people. But confidence is one of the more problematic metrics to focus on in an interview. It’s important to be aware when confidence is something you’re noting and to be cautious about it.

Confidence can be built up over time and with experience. It’s better for organizations to approach confidence as a matter of staff development, on-the-job training, and ongoing support. It’s maybe not something we should hire for.

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