In a tweet that spawned a million tote bags, Sarah Hagi said “God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude”.  And I love the meme in that special way I love anything that is both funny and scientifically valid.  A plethora of studies about the confidence gap between white men and both women and people of color, coupled with the brain’s tendency to inappropriately perceive confidence as a proxy for competence, explains a world full of mediocre white dudes with disproportionate power.  The term “failing upwards” comes to mind.

But why are white men so overconfident in the workplace? 

In Start At The End, my book on how to create behavior change, I talk about behaviors as the result of a competition between two sets of pressures: promoting pressures (reasons to do something) and inhibiting pressures (reasons not to do something).  

One of the two must be at play for these white men.  Either there is a strong promoting pressure (like believing they are simply incredibly competent) or a weak inhibiting pressure (like believing that failure isn’t such a big deal).  And because nobody seems to know exactly which one it is, I grabbed former colleague and equity-minded data scientist white dude Tyler Burleigh and co-author Rhapsodi Douglas and we went off to gather data.

The survey design was fairly simple.  We asked two sets of questions to 500 people over the age of 18.  All respondents were in the United States and as demographically representative as possible.

The first set of questions assessed occupational self-efficacy, a construct that is essentially a measure of how competent we think we are in the workplace.  Typical items are things like “No matter what comes my way at work, I’m usually able to handle it.” and “When I am confronted with a problem at work, I can usually find several solutions.”  This tested the strong promoting pressure explanation: white men are overconfident because they believe in their own absolute competence.

The second set of questions assessed psychological safety: the belief that a work culture is gentle, human, and forgiving.  It is measured by items like “People at work are able to bring up problems and tough issues.” and “It is safe to take a risk at work.”  This tested the weak inhibiting pressure explanation: white men are overconfident because there is really no reason not to be, since work is a place where it is acceptable to fail.

Two sets of explanations, 144 white men.  Next up: compare their answers to those of our 356 women and people of color.

Before we get to the big reveal, there are a few trends that are worth noting. First, the average person feels relatively competent at work, scoring 5.44 on a 7-point scale.  This isn’t all that surprising, given the very strong motivation to both take work that you can actually do and to believe that you can do the work you have. In contrast, people generally don’t feel as psychologically safe at work: the average score was 4.32, so higher than the midpoint but not as high as self-efficacy.

Second, having high workplace self-efficacy and feeling psychologically safe are moderately correlated, around r = 0.38.  For comparison, that’s about the same correlation as thinking something is a good idea and actually doing it across a variety of domains (which explains why we all know we should go to the gym but tend not to go).

And now, the secret to the peculiar psychology of #MediocreWhiteMen: confidence or psychological safety?

The simple answer is both.  White men had higher self-efficacy than women/people of color (5.65 versus 5.36, p = 0.02) and felt greater psychological safety (4.43 versus 4.27, p = 0.04).  Note that these aren’t huge differences in absolute numbers but on a 7-point scale, it is a combined ~10% difference. And since confidence is seen as a proxy for competence, which translates to compensation, suddenly 10% starts looking quite large.

So now we’ve got data: both promoting and inhibiting pressures are acting in favor of white men.  We’ve quantified white male privilege. But there is reason to believe that one is actually much more important than the other if we want to disrupt that privilege and create a more equitable workplace.

Underrepresented people consistently underestimate their competency in almost every domain you can measure, and the workplace is no exception.  And thus interventions that help foster self-efficacy will likely be effective at increasing promoting pressures for risk taking and confidence in the workplace and may lower the compensation and promotion gaps (so long as we manage to get underrepresented people credit for the work they do, which is its own struggle).

But it is increasing psychological safety that potentially holds greater promise.  Remember, for women and people of color, the mean for workplace self-efficacy is already 5.5 on a 7-point scale; there is only room for a ~20% improvement.  The mean for psychological safety, by contrast, is 4.2, implying room for a ~40% improvement. We need to make workplaces feel safer for women and people of color by constantly reinforcing collaboration over competition, finding both personal and professional common ground, and moving from the Golden Rule (treat others as you would want to be treated) to the Platinum Rule (treat others as they want to be treated).

We also need to acknowledge that psychological safety may be a misnomer.  We measured perception, not reality, but given that there is abundant research that suggests that workplaces actually are less safe for women and people of color, it may very well be that these groups are simply reflecting an accurate understanding of their environment.  Underrepresented people are more likely to be judged harshly for the same failures, more likely to be sabotaged, etc. And white men are more often judged on their potential than their actual demonstrated experience.  

The overconfidence of #MediocreWhiteMen isn’t irrational, but rather the product of an environment that has been designed to reward them.  And it is only by disrupting the design of that environment that we can create change.

Side Note: For a rabbit hole on psychological safety, check out Amy Edmondson’s work on the topic, particularly this review piece.  Google has been very strident about their belief that it is the defining characteristic of high performing teams, so much so that they’ve implemented manager training on it across the country, using materials like this.  Personally, I feel very safe working with Tyler and Rhapsodi, which may be why I keep making so many mistakes in front of them.  For an excellent deeper dive into the statistics behind this article (including sample descriptives and other geekery), Tyler put together a longer stats-focused post.

Also, we decided to honor the original Tweet with the hashtag in the title but I did crowdsource alternatives and feel some deserve to be included: #historyoftheworld, #BornOn2ndBase, #himpocracy, and my personal favorite, #himposter.  If someone wants to make me a t-shirt that says “Don’t be a #himposter”, I will gladly wear it to GHC.