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Are Your Hiring Practices Getting in the Way of Picking Better Leaders?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
August 17, 2019

Over 75 percent of those who quit their job cite that the reason they do so is because of their direct manager. And, when given the choice, 65 percent of employees say they would rather change their current boss than receive a pay raise. The impact to employee disengagement and turnover caused by poor leadership is clear. Yet it’s not as if we intentionally hire poor leaders. In fact, given the time and effort that HR staff and hiring managers dedicate to the hiring process, you’d think things would be different. So, where’s the disconnect?

Let’s look at the job interview process. Many hiring managers proudly claim to rely on their intuition when selecting between candidates, citing their ability to assess leadership talent or potential based on the confidence shown by the candidate during the interview. Yet research by business psychologists shows this to be a mistake because intuition is neither reliable or valid and invites both unconscious and conscious bias into the decision-making process.

While we’ve come to associate confidence with leadership, there is absolutely no connection between confidence and competence. The disconnect is that our assumptions of leadership have nothing to do with actual leadership talent, and our hiring practices fail to acknowledge that the biggest cause for bad leadership is our inability to tell the difference between competence and confidence.

Competence versus Confidence

Competence is characterized by how good you are at something, or your ability to accomplish a task. Confidence is how good you think you are, or your belief in that ability. When someone is overconfident, they often convey the impression of success and invincibility. This results in them convincing others that they are more competent than they actually are.

In contrast, when someone is competent, they are more aware of their own limitations. As a result, they are more cautious, spend more time preparing and become familiar with potential problems or risks. This extra effort and caution frequently contributes to better performance.

The Masculine Leadership Norm

As a society, we’ve developed stereotypes of what a leader looks like. Through experience, women and men learn the socially appropriate gender roles they are expected to adopt and it’s these societal expectations, rather than gender, that drive different behaviors for men and women. We are taught that agentic leadership behaviors such as confidence, assertiveness and dominance are traditionally considered masculine. In this way, the masculine standard of leadership lends a bias towards men and away from women because it reinforces stereotypic expectations that men take charge while women take care.

This accepted norm of masculine leadership contributes to our inability to detect incompetence in men. In fact, we’ve developed a tolerance for people (usually men) who aren’t as talented as they think. Research has repeatedly shown that when evaluating similar leadership behaviors, women leaders often experience prejudices not faced by their male peers, are treated as less qualified and are considered less effective than their male counterparts. So how does this play out in our hiring practices? Let’s go back to the interview process.

How Women Experience the Interview Process

The media has popularized the assumption that women don’t apply for positions because they simply don’t see themselves as qualified; however, this is disputed by research which has shown that women don’t view hiring processes as fair. Women see themselves as qualified, but they don’t apply because their experience in the organization has taught them that they can’t trust the process. Because women tend to place greater weight than men on the fairness of the recruitment and selection processes, it impacts their willingness to apply.

Dispelling the Confidence Myth

The difference in promotion rates between women and men isn’t based on their behavior, but in how women and men are treated. The assumption that women don’t speak up or contribute in meetings due to a lack of confidence fails to acknowledge how women are treated when they do speak up in meetings. Frequently their ideas are either shot down or ignored until a man restates them (and receives credit for the idea). When women display confidence, it often goes unrecognized by others. In fact, we are less likely to tolerate high confidence in women as we are in men. This results in women’s executive presence and confident behavior being perceived, judged, or rewarded differently than men’s, with black female leaders being especially vulnerable to this bias.

Hiring for Competence Instead of Confidence

While the solution isn’t simply increasing the number of women, it is appropriate to acknowledge the lack of career obstacles for men. Perhaps a solution to the prevalence of poor leadership is to improve our definition of leadership, particularly during the hiring process. That includes being aware of how gendered expectations impact our perceptions, while also relying more on data to determine competence. Such data can then be used to more objectively measure leadership potential based on expertise, intelligence and curiosity. As Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic claims, “We don’t need lower standards to select women—we need to raise them when we select men.”


Author: For over 30 years, Dr. April Townsend worked in local government where she held top leadership and management positions. As a practitioner and a scholar, her focus has been on organizational effectiveness, financial accountability, and leadership development. Recently retired, she continues to research and advocate for the advancement of women leaders in government. She can be reached at [email protected].

Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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