Confidence vs. competence

Feb 19, 2023


We need to examine the connection between confidence, competence, and our sense of self in the corporate world.

"I want to be more confident in meetings so I sound like I know what I’m talking about.” When my mentee said this to me, it started a Rube Goldberg series of thoughts. What does it mean to “be confident” and how does it help someone “sound as if they know things?” My thoughts began to swim – what is the connection between confidence and competence?

My mentee and I decided we needed to explore the connection between confidence, competence, and our sense of self in the corporate work world.

I love asking my children for their input too, because a middle-schooler will always shoot you straight. My son matter-of-factly defined both competence and confidence. In his words, competence is having the knowledge of something at a specific level. Confidence is the feeling that you are OK just as you are. Simple, but let’s unpack this.

Turns out competence is not exactly a binary function – either you know something or you don’t. My close friend Elaine Dolecek, a principal at EEA Engineers, introduced me to the Hierarchy of Competency Pyramid. Noel Burch of Gordon Training International coined this four-leveled pyramid of competence that accurately captures the progression from novice to expert through the lens of competence and consciousness.

Let’s use my own journey of studying Japanese as an example. You start at an unconscious incompetence – the ultimate beginner stage. I was just learning the alphabet, sentence structure, and making so many unconscious mistakes. You may stay in this stage for a while depending on how hard you work. I didn’t know how bad I was until I started my study abroad in Japan; that’s when I moved into the conscious incompetence stage. This is that stage where you become very aware of your mistakes. At times, it felt like I was deteriorating! This is an extremely tough stage because learning from those mistakes fuels improvement but bruises the ego. Having humility to fail and learn is key to growth. If you are too afraid of “looking stupid” you can get permanently stuck!

Next is the conscious competence phase. My brain was hurting from constantly thinking about my words. I was creating mnemonic devices to remember characters or speaking slower but more accurately. I was still very aware of what I was doing, but I was making improvements and learning.

Finally, the top of the pyramid is unconscious competence; this is what one calls fluency. It seems effortless and breezy. For me, this happened when, after a long phone call with a stranger, they asked me what part of Japan I was from, assuming I was a native speaker (still a lifetime highlight).

The competency pyramid reflects the growth mindset work of Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University and author of Mindset. Her research points to two diametrically opposed thoughts regarding talent and intelligence. One camp, the fixed mindset, tends to think that talent/intelligence are set quantities for an individual, like a serving that you were given upon birth. Mistakes are the sign that the person has reached their limit of abilities. Fixed mindset people are very fearful of making mistakes and see their abilities as in competition with others. The other camp, the growth mindset, acknowledges talent but believes that mastery comes from incremental growth. The growth mindset believes in embracing challenges and sees others’ success as inspiration not competition. Luckily, anyone can learn a growth mindset.

If you are in the conscious incompetence or conscious competence phase, you may compare yourself unfavorably to the unconsciously competent person. Unchecked, this comparison can cause one of two reactions. You may withdraw. This may show up as “under-confidence” – speaking less, apologizing, and taking up less physical space because you are hyper aware of how you compare to the expert. Or, you may mask your feelings of inadequacy with overconfidence – talking over people, belittling errors made by others, and being argumentative. Dweck noted that overconfidence, especially the overestimation of one’s skills, is more prevalent in people with a fixed mindset. Those who value improvement, learning, and development tend to be more open to admitting what they don’t know!

What would happen if you adopted the growth mindset? How would your behavior change? We cannot pretend that the work world is as simple as my preteen son would suggest. Not everyone embraces the concept of a growth mindset. Confirmation bias and discrimination often negatively impact your interactions.

As my mentee and I spoke, we realized that people demonstrate external confidence with cues such as voice volume, tone, and physical space. When someone says, “You need more confidence in meetings,” odds are they are referring to the above ideas. These elements are what we see in most self-help books.

Delving into the internal confidence is harder. When you are in the conscious stages of the competence pyramid, you are painfully aware of what you know and don’t know. Understanding your place on the pyramid is vital. Remember that active growth feels uncomfortable. Your internal confidence needs to rest in the belief that you are supposed to be at this stratum of the pyramid. Mistakes are just road markers of the growth, not signs that you don’t belong.

Learning about the pyramid and combining it with Dweck’s reach on the growth mindset has been a game changer for both of us. Our confidence is growing strong – not from how we compare to others, but knowing how much we are learning and improving. Confidence and competence are not a fixed destination but more of a highway. You increase both when you embrace the idea that learning, making mistakes, and being aware of your abilities are all part of becoming better. Keep the external confidence cues while remembering that you really are right where you belong. 

Janki DePalma, LEED AP, CPSM, is a senior associate and director of business development at Kirksey Architecture. Contact her at

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