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How to tell if someone is truly confident or just faking it

She wore the black turtleneck sweater, the signature Steve Jobs Silicon Valley successful entrepreneur look.

She was confident and had full conviction that her innovative blood testing device would make expensive blood testing accessible to millions.

Her charismatic husky voice and too good to be true promises won the trust of “the most illustrious board in U.S. corporate history”.

Her company, Theranos, was valued at $9B buoyed by billionaire investors “who should have known better”.

In 2014 Forbes recognized her as the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire.

Today Elizabeth Holmes is in jail and penniless.

Her ability to project confidence was undermined by lies and fraudulent claims.


Today I’m thinking about the relationships between confidence, over-confidence, trust, and competence.

Confidence is attractive.

We want to hire confident people.

We want to project confidence ourselves.

Most of all, we want to FEEL confident.


How can confidence slip into over-confidence?

How can we tell when the person in front of us is justifiably confident? Or just faking it?

How do we determine when we should trust others? Trust ourselves?

I have thoughts. (And I am confident in them!)

The 5 pitfalls of confidence: 5 red flags for when confidence deserves skepticism.

1. Just because someone appears confident doesn’t mean they are competent.

It’s important to recognize that the appearance of confidence does not necessarily equate to actual competence.

A person might project confidence to hide their insecurities or lack of knowledge.

In fact, the more expert we become, the more we realize what we don’t know.

Being a competent expert should generate confidence in a skill, but simply being confident doesn’t imply competence.

2. Never confuse confidence with certainty.

Sure, being confident in an outcome provides a sense of certainty; almost an assumption that an outcome is inevitable.

However, when we become certain we limit the possibilities for uncertainty.

How many times has the confident promise of “be there in 10 minutes” disappointed you?

3. Over-Confidence can hinder deep listening.

When I’m very confident in an outcome or direction, it usually also means I’m invested in being “right”.

I’m unconsciously tuning out dissenting information and focusing on making my argument even better.

If a person is too confident in their own opinions, they might dismiss others’ contributions, leading to missed opportunities for learning and growth.

“If you want someone to lose trust and confidence in you, then don’t listen to them.” – Ken Roseboom

4. Don’t mistake a confident explanation for an accurate prediction.

Just because someone presents their predictions or explanations with confidence does not mean they are correct.

Many decisions are based upon incorrect assumptions, biases, and inferences.

This doesn’t make them bad decisions; it just means the accuracy of the predicted outcome deserves less confidence.

Critical thinking and evidence-based evaluation are essential to distinguish between a confident assertion and a reliable prediction.

5. Passionate confidence doesn’t make it righter.

Personal testimonies and anecdotes can be persuasive, especially when delivered with confidence.

Some folks are just more demonstrative and passionate about their opinions and beliefs.

That doesn’t make them any more correct.

They just have more of your attention.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

Just because a person is coldly dispassionate with their confidence, they can still be missing valuable information.

In scientific research, anecdotal evidence is considered weak because it lacks the rigor and replicability of controlled studies. It’s important to differentiate between anecdotal and empirical evidence to avoid being swayed by false arguments supported by mere confidence.

“Well, I think we tried very hard not to be overconfident, because when you get overconfident, that’s when something snaps up and bites you.” – Neil Armstrong

About now you may be thinking:

“Hey Ken, helpful, but not helpful.

I see your logic, but you can’t keep bashing confidence.

I need my leaders to be confident.

I need to be confident in my decisions and actions.

I want to act with the belief I’ll get what I want.”

Thanks for hanging in there. I have a path forward.

The key to discerning true confidence: outcome vs ability

The two definitions of confidence

According to Oxford confidence can be seen in two ways:

  1. the state of feeling certain about the truth of something.

“It is not possible to say with confidence how much of the increase in sea levels is due to melting glaciers.”

  1. a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.

“She’s brimming with confidence.”

Go back to the 5 pitfalls of confidence.

Notice how confidence in an outcome and confidence in ability are intertwined.

Let’s look at an example.

“Come hell or high water, we are meeting this deadline!”

I admire the commitment, but I’m skeptical of the outcome when a manager’s confidence sounds like this. Hell and high water are likely not in the Risk Management Plan, but I’m certain there are derailing risks in every plan.

Pro tip: You will be seen as more confident, more competent, and more trustworthy if you describe the level the accuracy of your predictions for the future with a level of confidence.

Consider these examples:

“Given the assumptions we have shared with you, the current level of productivity, and our acceleration plan; I have a strong level of confidence we will achieve the completion date.”  


“I have great confidence in her commitment to the team. I’m hopeful her capabilities will grow in the new assignment. I’m fully committed to supporting her growth.”


“I’m less confident we will solve this problem so easily. I’m concerned we will divert more resources to this solution than we can afford.”

Confidence is a critical factor in becoming a masterful leader.

It’s our job to project confidence – and to judge the competence of the people we hire.

It’s unfortunate that Elizabeth Holm’s ability to exude confidence created trust in a massive product failure.

Her confidence was blind, motivated only by personal ambitions, and unsupported by facts. She led a company and created a culture that conspired to create the fraud.

However, it does speak to the power of confidence to move people.

By watching for the 5 red flags and discerning the difference between confidence in an outcome and confidence in ability, you will be better prepared to spot the frauds and poor decisions – and to be more confident about being confident!

Would you like to develop more authentic confidence?

Many of my coaching clients aspire to have the leadership skills and presence that influences and motivates. They want to walk into a room with confidence in their abilities and the outcomes they produce.

I love working with clients who want to speak and act with integrity and authenticity.  Who want to be recognized for their contribution and for their teams to have the same winning experience.

If this sounds like you, then give me a call. I’m absolutely confident it will be a great experience for both of us.

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Ken Roseboom

Ken Roseboom is the President of Thinking Partners. He partners with leaders to increase impact, create aligned teams, and deliver better results. He leverages the Alignment process, assessment tools, expert coaching, and years of front line leadership experience to support his clients.
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