How do you avoid promoting incompetent people?

A candidate’s confidence does not always mean competence, argues Alejandro Sposato

Most of us would like to think that people who are hired or promoted get to their positions in the organisation because they are competent and have the potential to do a good job. Unfortunately, we have all met people who clearly could not fill the shoes and we all wondered how they got there. Most of the time companies have guidance and criteria for promotions, but we also know that sometimes these are overlooked or partially ignored.

The short reason for this is confidence. Quite often people act and behave as if they know, which leads others to think that they could do the job. However, extensive academic research has demonstrated that being able to display confidence has no relationship with the actual ability to do the job. Do not get me wrong, in some cases people can do the job and are also confident. In some other cases people can also do the job and are not arrogant about it. What I am arguing here is that confidence is not enough to promote someone, but sometimes people are promoted because they look the part and impress others. 

Promotions should not be taken lightly. People should be promoted because they have the potential to make a larger contribution to the organisation, but employees should not expect to be promoted only because they have been in a post for some time.

Businesses need to succeed, with able people who can do a good job – a job for which they are prepared and able to deliver results. But this can be confused with people who actually pretend to know by displaying a high level of self confidence and having all the answers to the problems.  

Psychologists have identified what they called the Dunning–Kruger effect, which is the perceived bias that makes people think that they are better than they actually are. In essence, the less someone knows about something the more confident they are because they are being completely oblivious to their limitations. This quite often happens in people with a narcissistic personality, who lack self awareness and display illusory superiority. 

In order to address these problems a clearly detailed promotion criteria should be established and the evaluation for promotions should be done by a group of (hopefully) competent and independent people. In addition, interviews for promotion should have structured questions, in an attempt not to deviate from what is actually being evaluated. It also helps, if possible, to interview some of the people who have worked with the candidate. Confidence can fool people for some time but, sooner rather than later, incompetence shows.  

Unfortunately, incompetent people tend to attract other incompetent people, in a vicious circle. Incompetent people do not want to be outshone by people who actually can do their job and prefer to use competent people to claim their achievement for themselves. Sometimes they will hire others who are not a threat to them and fire competent people. This may lead to an organisational culture that thrives on self confidence (often crossing the line to pure arrogance) but lacks actual competence. In some cases, the situation could be so bad that the only reasonable thing to do is to leave the organisation and look for a new job.

Alejandro Sposato is an assistant professor at the College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Zayed University