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Overconfidence Is No Laughing Matter

Aug. 10, 2012
New research shows that people are reluctant to provide negative feedback to their peers. But a situation that involves workplace safety is no time to be polite – speak up if an overconfident worker is putting himself or others at risk.
We’ve all been there: cornered by a fellow employee who is in the process of telling a really bad joke. If you’re like most people, you’ll grit your teeth and bear it until the bitter end, when you’ll inevitably force out a laugh.

Now here’s a sobering thought – maybe those jokes you tell around the water cooler aren’t generating real laughs after all. Instead, maybe your own coworkers are giving you the polite laugh, too. The horror!

But why do people laugh at jokes they don’t find funny? According to a researcher at Florida State University, many people feel pressured to withhold negative information. No one wants to be the person to say, “Bob, you’re just not funny.” Hence the token chuckle.

In her recent paper, “Polite But Not Honest: How an Absence of Negative Social Feedback Contributes to Overconfidence,” Joyce Ehrlinger, a Florida State University assistant professor of psychology, explored how social norms make us averse to providing negative feedback.

Ehrlinger maintains that because society trains us not to hurt others’ feelings, we rarely hear the truth about ourselves — even when it’s well deserved. And that can be a problem for overly self-confident people who carry around inaccurate, overly positive perceptions of how others view them. Like Bob at the water cooler, who mistakenly believes he’s hilarious.

“There’s definitely no harm in some types of overconfidence, and I am not suggesting that we should stop living in a polite society. The worst that might come from someone believing that they are funnier than, in reality, they are is a bit of embarrassment or wasted effort auditioning for ‘America’s Got Talent,’” Ehrlinger.

That said, she argues it’s important to note when politeness might come at a cost. In some situations, overconfidence carries serious consequences, such as if overconfident doctors or lawyers give their patients or clients poor advice.

For those of us in the occupational safety world, we know that overconfidence in safety-related areas can be matters of life and death. Workers who think they don’t have to follow safety guidelines because they already “know it all” could hurt themselves or others.

So in cases when the health or safety of any employee could be affected, feel free to throw politeness out the window and speak up. If you ask me, providing negative feedback in situations that could save a worker’s life is actually a positive thing.

“There are ways in which overconfidence is dangerous, and it might be important to set aside politeness in the service of helping people avoid the perils of overconfidence,” Ehrlinger concluded.

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