The Problem With "Leaning In" No One Talks About

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Confident, mediocre men are in every office and every industry. They’re not the most competent group of employees, yet somehow they keep rising up the ranks and getting raises and promotions, even though they’re not that good at their jobs. It's the guy who leaves mid-day for his daily workout while you're worried about leaving for an annual physical. It's the guy who gets promoted to manager even though you do most of the work. It's this guy who's willing to admit he's a confident, mediocre white guy.

If overconfident, underprepared men are being promoted into leadership roles, what does that mean for the more qualified women doing the actual work? Does confidence trump competence? And if so, does that mean that all of our bosses, elected officials, and leaders aren’t actually the best ones for the job, they just think they are? Yes.

In 2011, a group of researchers at the The Institute for the Study of Labor conducted an experiment on male leadership in competitive environments. The study found that men have a tendency to overrate their accomplishments on things like math tasks by 30%. It’s called honest overconfidence because men honestly believe their performance is better than it really is.

The study also found that women were chosen less often to be leaders despite their performance. The reason women weren’t chosen as leaders? They weren’t willing to exaggerate their performance like men were.

A 2016 study had similar results: Researchers found that male undergraduate biology students not only overestimated their own performance, but they also overestimated the performance of their male peers. Not surprisingly, the male students underestimated the academic performance of their female peers as well.

Both studies illustrate that confidence plays a huge role in how we identify leaders. It’s one of the reasons why there are so many men in leadership positions. And it’s a major reason why qualified women aren’t promoted to positions of power as often as they should be: We’re not over-confident, and we don’t overestimate our performance. Which is a good thing if you want to be great at your job, but a terrible thing if you want to be promoted or compensated for it.

So does this mean we’re surrounded by mediocre male managers who just think they’re good at their job but really they’re just over-confident? Yes.

Studies show we choose leaders based on qualities that make them incompetent. And we’re all suffering as a result. Instead of promoting people with effective leadership skills like good communication, empathy, ethics, and effective problem-solving — which studies suggest women tend to exhibit — we’re promoting people who just think they’re really awesome and great at their job. It’s confidence over competence. And it explains why good leadership is the exception not the norm.

So why are we so focused on getting women to adopt male “leadership” behavior like over-confidence, leaning in, and power posing? Sure men do these things, but it actually makes them worse leaders. Women are GOOD. We’re great at our jobs, and we already have the leadership skills that actually make us good leaders.

Focusing on the obstacles that hold competent women back rewards men for being mediocre at their jobs and punishes women for excelling at their jobs. If anyone should have a glass ceiling it’s under-qualified and underprepared men. Let’s make it harder for them to succeed. Not us.

Elisa Kreisinger is the host of the podcast Strong Opinions Loosely Held. All opinions here are her own.