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The Fine Line Between Modesty and Cockiness

Bubbleheads and people with an oversized ego are rarely the likeable people you want in your own ranks. Nevertheless, in my day-to-day consulting work, I observe time and time again that candidates display a high degree of self-overestimation. Where does that come from?

From our archive by da professionals ag.

This article was originally written in German.

Modesty is known to be an adornment, but does one really get ahead without it? And even only with greed, as a variation of the saying ironically suggests?

There is often a short distance between modesty and cockiness, which can be aptly observed in the human “vanity fair” – as well as in the job market. In the following, some thoughts on possible causes of exaggerated self-perception and its excesses, as we observe them in our everyday consulting work with candidates. I would like to note that companies and employers are not immune to self-overestimation: Their self-image often differs considerably from the external image of employees and applicants.

Overestimating Oneself in Salary Negotiations

Excessive overestimation of one’s own capabilities is most frequently and sometimes highly evident in job interviews when it comes to the question of the desired salary. Whether out of pure speculation, arrogance or ignorance of salary trends over the past ten years since the financial crisis, those who reach for the stars with their financial desires recklessly lose their chances in the application process.

This was the case for an executive assistant whose demands included a salary increase of exactly seven percent, payment of the forfeited training costs and bonus compensation from her last employer. Unfortunately, she thoroughly miscalculated. The assumption that a change of job – as in the boom years – is automatically associated with a salary increase is unfortunately very often tempi passati. As a rule, reference values such as the previous salary have also become obsolete. It even happens that candidates have to accept a reasonable downward adjustment.

To ensure that candidates do not sell themselves short, it is advisable to get a precise picture of the salaries customary in the market in the respective industry at the location in question. Too much willingness to compromise financially can even have a negative effect on the credibility of the candidate, as HR or line managers may then doubt their seriousness or fear for the long-term nature of such a position.

At the same time, one has to wonder about the partial lack of flexibility when it comes to an employer’s concession of a few thousand francs for a handsome annual salary. It seems short-sighted that decision-makers are not more accommodating, especially with regard to desired candidates in a dried-up specialist market.

Realism Instead of Overconfidence

There is no doubt that in today’s rapidly changing world of work, it has become more difficult to determine one’s own market value despite digital transparency. This makes it all the more worthwhile to subject one’s own market value to a critical and honest reality check at regular intervals.

This is the responsibility of every employee, regardless of age. Are my qualifications already or still up to scratch, or is it worth investing in further training? If your English is barely good enough for a rudimentary menu order in London, you can by no means speak of good knowledge – and also not “very good” if you have a First degree.

If pivot tables are a closed book for an assistant, her Excel skills certainly do not deserve the rating “excellent”. Such live findings in an interview immediately expose the affected blowhards in the most embarrassing way. The same applies to other competencies that can be easily tested in the selection process with specific tests or questions.

Employees who are looking for a job after many years of employment with the same employer awaken particularly abruptly. Especially those whose wage expectations are detached from the prevailing reality outside the current biotope and whose last formal training often lies far in the past.

Getting out of the Monoculture

For the purpose of an unvarnished self-image, an honest reflection outside the usual habitat is also recommended. Where one’s own self-reflection proves to be too biased, people from other industries and companies may provide helpful feedback, i.e., corrections to the external perception of one’s closest environment.

In the case of certain applicants, one cannot deny the impression that trends on the labor market and the current development of our economy have completely passed them by. One thinks of the widespread cost pressure, which inevitably has an impact on wage structures.

Industry and company size influence self-image. Within homogeneous populations, whether in corporations or in the financial environment, a fertile breeding ground for distorted self-images can be found. One-sided contact with homogeneous populations at work and sometimes also in leisure time harbors the danger of a narrowed spectrum of vision.

In the hamster wheel of continuous success and the hunt for ever better results, the perception of one’s own market value also explodes in certain employees in a linear fashion. To use the language of mice, such competitively inclined gerbils in such biotopes define themselves exclusively by their performance. Exaggerated notions of “deserved” salary, bonus and share package are often the logical consequence.

Broadly based, mixed teams in the sense of diversity in practice prevent tendencies toward such exaggerated self-aggrandizement.

Individual professional groups are characterized by particularly strong egos. Sales specialists and marketeers, for example, tend to oversell themselves in their extroversion, while engineers tend to undersell themselves in their objectivity. Executive assistants also tend to have an occasional mismatch between their individual track record and the level of their demands.

Healthy Self-Assessment Increases Your Chances of Success

But overestimating oneself generally goes down badly in Switzerland – and in the zwinglian Zurich metropolitan area in particular. False modesty is not the recipe either. However, blandishers, boasters and generally people with an oversized ego are seldom the likeable people one wants in one’s own ranks – not even in the workplace. A healthy mixture of justified pride in one’s own abilities and knowledge of one’s personal deficits, on the other hand, is much more promising.