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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Terranova

Overconfidence: The Hidden Cost of Experience

overconfident leader in a chair

Humor me if you’ve encountered this riddle before - a bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much is the ball?

If you said $.10, congratulations! You’re in good company as more than 50% of tested students at Harvard, MIT and Princeton responded in the same way. Unfortunately, the whole lot of you are wrong. I was too the first time I read it. Only those who took a moment to check before settling on a final answer realized that the correct price of the ball is $.05.

So what’s going on here? Why do intelligent people like us fall victim to cognitive distortions that hinder our ability to find a simple solution to a straightforward problem? In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he uses this test to illustrate how experience causes humans to become “overconfident and place too much faith in their intuitions.”

The simplicity of the question, or so it seems, leads us to easily dismiss the extra seconds of work required to validate our intuitive response. Consequently, we end up making a mistake that immediately derails any chance of joining MENSA.

This mental puzzle, designed to highlight the risk of cognitive distortions on our decision-making processes, confirms a recurring pattern I’ve observed in my coaching practice. When clients begin a coaching program, we ask them to complete a series of leadership assessments. One of these assessments breaks down critical thinking into three key tasks: (1) researching and exploring issues from multiple perspectives, (2) evaluating information objectively, free from bias, and based on the strength of evidence, and (3) assimilating information gathered into sound conclusions.

Interestingly, experienced professionals tend to score above average in exploring issues from multiple perspectives and drawing conclusions (steps 1 and 3), but below average when it comes to evaluating information without personal bias. Let's dive a little deeper into why that is.

Professional Overconfidence

If you’ve been around the professional block a time or two, attended the circus and seen the show, chances are you’ve accumulated enough experience to tackle most challenges in your professional life. With experience comes confidence that we’ve been-there-done-that, so we become more willing to use intuition and quick judgements to make decisions over the course of our careers.

Combine professional confidence with a little stress and pressure to succeed, and we often find ourselves in situations where we dismiss the need to objectively validate our assumptions, and grant ourselves permission to skip the second element of effective critical thinking. Talented professionals will unintentionally expose themselves to mistakes and missed opportunities because they become overly confident in solutions that seem to come easily.

Key Strategies to Avoid Professional Overconfidence

Be Mindful

High pressure situations increase the risk of tunnel vision and the odds that key decisions are based on too many errant assumptions. Overworked people tend to focus on problems and solutions, overlooking nuanced details on the periphery of the issue that can lead to better decisions. To minimize the chances of succumbing to tunnel vision and making decisions without considering all of the options, do yourself a favor and establish a mindfulness practice. Consistent mindfulness practices develop resilience to high-stress situations, decrease the pitfalls of tunnel vision, and help you to avoid overconfidence biases. Remind yourself that we live in a professional world that forces us to consider all problems NOW problems, and most of the time the urgency is unsubstantiated. When you feel pressure to make quick decisions, take a breath to avoid making decisions under duress. Allow at least 20 mindful minutes between your initial response and a final decision, and create space for more critical evaluations to emerge.

Think Out Loud

Successful but stressed-out leaders tend to process thoughts rapidly, make quick decisions, and defer dealing with consequences until later. While it may not be practical to discuss every decision with colleagues, it can be beneficial to vocalize the assumptions you're making while working towards a solution. Verbalize your thought process, particularly during problem-solving, and encourage others to challenge liberal assumptions. Ask questions, even when you believe you already know the answers, and promote collaborative brainstorming to ensure the best ideas reach the decision-making table.

Play Both Sides of the Fence

One of my favorite coaching questions is asking clients what advice they would give to someone in their position to ensure positive outcomes. What should they double-check, what additional information should they gather, and who should they consult for assurance? When leaders step outside their own perspective and think like mentors on their own behalf, they often gain access to valuable insights that support effective decision-making. Act as your own coach and consider the safeguards you'd recommend to someone you're rooting for to uncover blind spots in your thinking.

Appoint a Balloon Popper

As you can imagine, a balloon popper’s job is to challenge a seemingly good decision. They play the devil’s advocate and expose erroneous assumptions, flawed arguments, and unsubstantiated evidence in executive decisions. Leaders who engage a series of rotating colleagues (or just one if they are particularly good at it) to play this role, subject their solutions to rigorous scrutiny and significantly reduce the risk of intuitive overconfidence. Plus it’s fun for colleagues to try on new roles and become the appointed naysayer every once in a while. Balloon poppers may have the courage to say what no one else will and positively reinforce a culture of psychological safety, where colleagues feel comfortable telling each other when their ideas fall short.

Cultivate Consciousness

Professionals position themselves for success when they understand the pitfalls of combining overconfidence with pressure to succeed. Effective leaders must not only caution against assumptive decision-making among tenured employees, but also alleviate the pressures under which high-performing individuals are expected to operate. Carefully consider decisions that limit the bandwidth of high-performing individuals, including restrictions on headcount, mandatory meeting attendance, and return-to-office mandates. Take responsibility for proactively addressing sources of performance limitation, as people need sufficient headspace to overcome overconfidence bias and validate their intuitive solutions for successful decision-making.

Successful leaders should think about the challenges that accompany significant tenure and experience, and consider best practices to reach a delicate balance between professional confidence and the critical thinking required for sound decision making. This lesson serves as a guide to support leaders in avoiding the traps of overconfidence and instead cultivate the habit of questioning the automatic or intuitive responses, which often wield more influence over our decisions than we realize. Just imagine the potential outcomes when we invest time in selecting the right response. Perhaps MENSA membership isn’t lost after all.

Still Stumped?

If you were still stumped after reading the correct answer to the bat and ball question, you’re not alone. We couldn’t think of how the answer could be $.05 until we checked our work. If the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, the ball would have to be $.05. If the ball was $.10, the cost of the bat would have to be $1.10 to be $1.00 more than the ball, yielding a combined amount of $1.20. A $.05 ball plus a $1.05 bat combines to $1.10. Ah! Now we get it!

Danielle Terranova is the voice behind Leadership Lessons with Danielle.

She has been an executive coach since 2015 and owner of Terranova Consulting, LLC since 2019.


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