Friday, January 07, 2011

Over-confidence and why it's wrecking everything

I recently came across this interview (jp) of the CEOs of McDonalds Japan and GE. It talks about how Japanese culture teaches new employees to say on their first day:
Although my abilities are poor, I'll try my hardest to allow myself to contribute. However, I don't yet have the confidence since my abilities are insufficient..
This is standard practice and the employee is appreciated for their humility.

Contrast this with the Western view. If an employee were to say "my abilities are poor" on their first day, everyone would look at them strangely and ask the hiring manager: "Why did you hire them? They don't even have any confidence in their work!"

As the article notes, the correct thing to say in Western (American?) thinking is:
"I'm so excited. I'm so committed."
I had the same conflict when joining my local community band here in Japan. I've played the flute on and off since highschool, and so when faced with describing my background on the first day, I had to choose one of the following:
  1. "Oh, I'm really not very good, I'm really rusty so I hope you can still accept me!" 
  2. "I've been playing for 14 years. I'm really excited to be here!"
I was conflicted because saying "I'm not very good" may lead them to say "Maybe you're not up to our level and should try a different group." Out of fear of being rejected, I awkwardly chose the 2nd route. Gaijin smash.

But I think the real question is the following. What's up with the rest of the world* preferring that 2nd route of over-confidence? When you're leaning on the fence as to your abilities, do you choose to underestimate them, or overestimate them?

The article states that, in order for Japanese companies to match up in the worldwide game of business, not only do employees have to speak English, but learn to speak with that American culture of assurance.

I've heard this culture of assurance thing mentioned elsewhere. For example, take a look at Gail Carmichael's post on how to answer a question you don't know the answer to. Here, the question came down to (at least for me) -- how do you answer a question like a man? Isn't it a masculine thing to be uber-confident? If you want to get ahead, then don't you have to throw away that feminine hesitance and forge ahead?

Clearly, it's not a question of male versus female. As we've seen, down-playing one's skills is also a large part of Japanese culture. Here's my point: IT'S NOT A BAD THING.

If only the rest of the world (I'm looking at you, America) could take a lesson from Japanese culture and appreciate humility, make it a factor for success. A lot of groups would benefit, including women trying to rise to the top.

* I say "the rest of the world" but mean the rest of the Anglo-saxon, English-speaking world. Actually, I can only generalize for the U.S. because I'm American and know how it is. Things may be different in India, for example.


Kate said...

I'm not sure that the non-Japanese way is so much 'over-confidence' as it is just hiding your weaknesses (even just self-perceived ones). Saying you are very excited isn't exactly saying you are super awesome.

I think there are times when #2 might be more helpful than #1 as well - like if you are having surgery and the doctor goes with method #1, you might not feel so good about surgery with him. Or test-taking, I can think of many times when I felt confident in taking a test and a classmate went with #1 - I started to reexamine everything when it probably wasn't necessary and/or the best use of my time.

Not saying #2 is the best route all the time, just wondering if maybe there are certain times when each approach might be more appropriate.

Angelica said...

You're right -- I doubt it would be very nice to have a doctor who didn't seem confident in their skills. But to be doing surgery, your doctor should *actually* be good, and thus it wouldn't be over-confidence. It would just be the truth.

But that's just it -- what I don't want is a doctor who "acts" confident about their skills but doesn't have them. Under-estimating their skills might not be the right approach, either, but in most situations where it's not life-or-death, we can just be happily surprised.

I suppose the 'gist is that being straight-out honest (neither #1 or #2) isn't being valued enough in society, and the ones that consistently (i.e. in 100% of situations) over-value themselves are getting ahead not because of skill, but because of that trait.

Angelica said...

Btw, I don't mean for it to be a rant, I just really wonder what is the best strategy as an individual. :-)

Kate said...

I think the honesty is right on the money - the doctor who gives you the stats and likelihood of success in the surgery is better than the one who takes route #1 OR #2.

Now, how many people are well versed enough in probability/odds/stats to do that? Haha!

Kate said...

Just thought of something else - in Science you often need to sell your work, whether to get your paper published or get the grant. How does it work in Japan? Honesty is absolutely important in both these cases, but presentation counts for a lot too.

Gail Carmichael said...

Interesting post! I actually never thought about whether I was taking one of these routes during my comps; in that case, I actually probably should have taken less of route two because I didn't really know the answer too well and got caught up in my wrong confidence. That lead me to not think enough about my answers. I had much better things to say for one of my subjects in particular but never got it into the conscious part of my brain.

Angelica said...

I really like the comment on your blog post, Gail, that suggests to say "I don't know" with a lot of confidence. I think it's also important for our CS culture to appreciate *not* knowing something.

For example if you ask a question in UNIX forums, you're likely to get shot down, insulted, told to read the Man page... I think if we can create a culture where asking questions is encouraged and celebrated, then we wouldn't be scared to say "I don't know, and here's why"

Angelica said...

Kate, that's a good question. As for papers, I'm not sure because I can't read kanji well enough to appreciate the nuances. I do know that there is an academic/formal writing style that includes expressions like "◯◯だろう” which means "wouldn't it be that...", so I guess the #1 route seeps in a little bit.

As for selling one's research, it is still important to find what they call a "story" in Japan. That's the motivation, the why, the introduction of a paper. A good paper should have a "ストーリー", so that's similar to the rest of the academic world.

In research presentations, I have a feeling that it's still tough to measure up to Western standards. I've been called "Steve Jobs" when I present, and I have a feeling it might be because of my out-of-the-Japanese-ordinary selling skills :/

Kate said...

Wow, that's pretty interesting! I remember being told a lot to think about 'the story' when I was a grad student, too.

Steve Jobs! Oh noes! But you *do* like macs...;)