Here's Why All the Terrible Dudes in Your Office Keep Getting Promotions

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has a solution for the epidemic of incompetent male leadership.

male boss

As a personal finance writer who is only 5’8” (ok fine, 5’7” and a half), I think all the time about whether I’d make more money if I was taller. The so-called height premium is not insignificant: One study found that moving from moderately short (around the 25th percentile) to moderately tall (around the 75th percentile) translates to an earnings premium of between nine and 15 percent. If you make the median household income in the US, that’s a difference of about $6,000.

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There are likely two reasons why taller people earn more. One is nutrition, as eating better yields both cognitive and physical benefits. Being tall, then, correlates with having had better nutrition growing up. But there’s another reason why tall people earn more, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychologist who studies the nature of leadership and confidence, tells Inverse. Put simply, we don’t really know what makes a good leader, so we rely a lot on stereotypes and “from the gut” thinking. This phenomenon, he says, explains in part why so many incompetent men ascend so high in the workforce.

His new book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It) came out last month.

Incompetent men
Chamorro-Premuzic's book was published last month. 

Considering all that’s gone down since Chamorro-Premuzic first broke the internet with this controversial thesis in a 2013 Harvard Business Review essay, his view on the subject of incompetent dudes has not really evolved at all. We tend to find more evidence of incompetent men in the workplace in large part because of a simple human problem: People conflate confidence with competence. In other words, because no one can be an expert in everything, we tend to assume that since “oh, that dude sure seems confident about his blockchain predictions, he must really know what he’s talking about.” This disconnect, he says, explains your Michael Scotts, your Lumberghs, your Mr. Krabs.

“Many of the leadership problems we have are caused by this inability to distinguish between confidence and competence, how good they think they are, and how good they actually are,” Chamarro-Premuzic tells Inverse. “There’s a paradoxical phenomenon where people, especially men, are rewarded with career success when they’re not as good as they think they are because they manage to fool people.”

There’s an abundance of evidence that men are more predisposed to overconfidence. Just a few days ago, LinkedIn published the results of a study using job application data from its 610 million members. Women, their study found, are about 16 percent less likely to apply for a job than men are. (This might not be quite such a bad thing, however, as women are also about 16 percent more likely to get the jobs they do apply for.)

So why does over-confidence seem to come into play so often in promotions? Chamorro-Premuzic points out that, unlike, say, the ability to sing, the skills that make someone a good leader — interpersonal skills, integrity, empathy — are not easily observable.

“These skills that truly make up the essence of leadership potential cannot be easily observed in short-term interactions with others,” he explains. “So we stick to what we can observe: bravado. We still want to trust our instincts. When someone appears to be assertive or fearless, we activate our stereotypes.”

Chamorro-Premuzic thinks there is an epidemic of incompetent male bosses because we conflate competence and confidence. 

Because of the role it plays in helping us decide who to listen to, Chamorro-Premuzic says that confidence is likely overrated. We wouldn’t want a dentist or an airline pilot who “seemed confident,” he points out. But in the US, in particular, he argues, people seem to think that more confidence is always better even when this is clearly not the case.

“It’s not beneficial to think you can cross a road when you can’t,” he notes. “You’ll get hit by a car.”

The main solution to the problem, he says, is to stop relying on our guts so much. Instead of picking a president because we’d like to have a beer with them, we should look to more objective measures. Germany, for example, maintains a quiz you can take to help you figure out what parties and candidates to vote for. After saying how you feel about topics ranging from the national debt to terrorism to the environment, and ranking your priorities, the quiz tells you which candidate most aligns with your beliefs.

“That’s how you end up with uncharismatic, boring candidates like Angela Merkel,” he says. “But guess what? She’s doing a pretty good job.”

Chamorro-Premuzic is right about that. A staggering 86 percent of Germans think their economy is headed in the right direction, according to Pew data from 2017. Fifty-eight percent of the country favors Merkel’s center-right party, and even more — 68 percent — like the center left party. Think about that for a second: most people like both of the biggest parties. At the risk of being yet another overconfident male, please go ahead and shoot me any job or apartment listings you find in Berlin.