A little while ago I was introduced to a new member of staff at work, just a few days after they started. I work for a long-established, huge, sprawling organisation, with many illogical structures and unwritten rules that seem specifically designed to confuse the newbie.
I launched my usual ‘new starter’ conversation. ‘How are you finding it?’ I asked with a smile. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll give you a few weeks to get your head around everything.’
The response was cold, firm and direct: ‘I’ve done this type of work many times before. It’s not difficult.’
I have no doubt that this person was well-qualified for the role. Yes, she had done similar work in the past and well, what we do isn’t rocket science.
But her complete lack of humility took me by surprise. Surely she hadn’t really worked everything out by day three? And even if she had, why did she feel the need to tell me at our first meeting?
I saw it again this week, in a job application that was so full of superlatives that I had to wonder whether the candidate had accidentally sent me his application for Leader of the Free World instead of the casual office role I am looking to fill.
And it’s fuelled by what plays out on our television screens every night of the week, as reality show judges tell contestants they are the best singer/dancer/chef they have ever seen before picking up their pay cheque and heading back to work with people who genuinely do meet that description.
Yes, confidence is good. With a healthy level of self-confidence, you will ultimately do better in your career. You’ll be more attractive to potential romantic partners and you will feel better – confidence builds resilience. But we need to know when self-confidence is justified, and when it becomes arrogance. Too often it seems like real skill is valued less then the ability to talk about it. How many meetings have you sat through where the brightest person in the room keeps quiet, bored because the blowhard at the other end of the table just wants to make sure everyone knows how clever they are?
Maybe it’s because I’m Scottish. The Scots are smart. We’ve invented and discovered loads of really cool stuff. But do you hear us banging on about it? No. For the most part we just let everyone else think we’re a nation of violent drunkards who eat deep-fried Mars Bars for breakfast. Self-deprecation is our default setting.
Puff and swagger don’t impress me. If you’ve won the Nobel Prize (or whatever the equivalent is in your field), go on, boast a little. You’ve earned it. Otherwise, keep schtum, play along with the social niceties and let me work out how brilliant you are for myself. If you’re really that great, it shouldn’t take me long.