Actual vs. Perceived Competence

In the Olympics and many other sporting events, you don’t need to worry about perceptions. Your performance is measured down to the hundredths of a second. It is objective.

After the race ends, your actual competence and perceived competence are one and the same.

However, business is different.

Ideas and perception of ideas are subjective. And anything subjective is subject to the influence of human psychology and sociology.

Psychology is the study of how the human mind perceives stimuli under different conditions.

Sociology is the study of how the human being behaves (often differently) in group situations.

Ever since my days at Stanford, I have been fascinated with these fields. I nearly majored in psychology, and I earned my master's degree in Sociology.

The #1 takeaway I got from all that work is that the human factor matters... a lot... in how the world works.

If your perceived competence < your actual competence, then you know how frustrating this can be.

This is especially a problem if you’re young, a woman in a male-dominated field, an ethnic minority, or come from a non-Tier 1 school in a field full of Ivy League graduates.

There is a term to describe the mechanism by which you can close this perception gap in competence.

The term is gravitas.

Gravitas is a Latin-derived word referring to weight (e.g., gravity) or seriousness. It means to be taken seriously.

If your perceived competence < your actual competence, you have a gravitas problem. In short, you lack gravitas.

If you want to be taken more seriously, you need to work on improving your gravitas.

However, if your perceived competence = your actual competence, and neither is very high, this is a different problem entirely.

Here gravitas isn’t the problem, competence (or lack thereof) is the issue. You aren’t very good at what you do.

In this case, devote your energy to improving your skill set.

Never get these two very different problems confused.

To be successful in business (and in any subjective endeavor), you need to both BE and be PERCEIVED as competent.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can develop gravitas to hide your lack of competence. At some point, you will be found out and it won’t end well.

Conversely, don’t think that by just merely getting more competent that perceptions will follow. If you are male, white (at least in the United States), a Harvard graduate, and haven’t damaged your reputation yet, then yes, perception of competence will often increase with actual competence.

If you’re anyone else, perceptions don’t always automatically follow reality. Sometimes you need to take an active role in managing perceptions. Sometimes you need to make developing your gravitas a priority.

I recently taught a class on How to Develop Gravitas for Extreme Career Success. In the class, I shared how to develop an executive presence without appearing arrogant or self-serving -- even if you're in the "anyone else" category, or an introvert, junior employee, or without experience or industry knowledge.

I've decided to release my program on How to Develop Gravitas in the near future. If you missed the class and would be interested in learning from it, you can join the notification list for the release. Just submit the form below to be notified when the program is available.

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