- Being competent and seeming competent to others are not always the same thing
- There are steps you can take to seem more competent, from speaking more quickly to telling appropriate jokes
- However, don’t alter your behaviour or appearance seeking competence in any way that makes you uncomfortable or doesn’t feel genuine
We trust that you’re a highly competent person. But it’s normal to sometimes feel inadequate, especially when you’re in a challenging work environment.
When those situations arise, it can help to have a few tricks up your sleeve to make yourself look more competent than you feel at the moment.
Business Insider dug into the scientific literature and pulled out some of the most creative strategies for making yourself appear competent, confident, and professional. Try the ones you like, and see which work for you.
If you've got something to say, say it fast.
In one 1975 study, published in the journal Language and Speech, Brigham Young University researchers had 28 university students listen to recordings of six people whose voices had been manipulated to sound slower or faster than normal.
The student volunteers rated the speakers most competent when their voices had been sped up and least competent when their voices had been slowed down.
More recent research suggests that speaking quickly is also a sneaky way to win an argument -- at least in the US. One 1991 study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that's because people will have less time to think critically about your position.
You might fear that asking for help will make you look stupid.
In one experiment, 170 university students worked on a series of computer tasks and were told they'd be matched with a partner who would complete the same tasks. (The partner was really a computer simulation.) When they'd finished the tasks, the 'partner' either said, 'I hope it went well' or 'I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?'
As it turns out, students who'd been asked for advice rated their 'partner' more competent than those who hadn't been asked for advice.
The researchers explain that when you ask for advice, you're validating the person's intelligence and experience, so they feel good about you in turn.
While soliciting advice can generally help you look more competent, a 2015 study, published in The Leadership Quarterly, found that asking for help might make male leaders in particular seem less competent.
Researchers recruited 65 business students to answer questions about their experiences in 'leadership ventures,' in which they participated in challenges like mountaineering in Antarctica and climbing a volcano in Ecuador. Students took turns acting as the 'leader of the day.'
The researchers asked students to reflect on the behaviour of the leader of the day: Some students answered questions about how often the leader sought help, while others answered questions about how competent that same leader seemed.
As it turns out, male leaders who reportedly asked for help a lot were rated less competent than male leaders who asked less often.
We tend to judge people on two main traits when we first meet them: warmth and competence. But is it possible to be rated highly on both?
A 2009 study, published in the journal Experimental Social Psychology and led by Belgian and American psychologists, suggests that groups of people who are warmer are also judged as less competent.
About 80 undergrads at an American university read descriptions of two different groups. Each group fell into one of four categories: high on competence and high on warmth; high on competence and low on warmth; low on competence and high on warmth; or low on competence and low on warmth.
The participants weren't told that the groups were competent or warm -- instead they received descriptions of each group that implied these traits.
Participants were then asked to rate each group on a number of traits. Results showed that high-competence groups were seen as more competent if they were also low on warmth.
If you're choosing a Facebook or LinkedIn pic, consider selecting one where you're standing a few feet from the camera. That's according to 2012 research published in the journal PLOS ONE.
In multiple experiments with hundreds of participants, researchers found that a group of 18 white men were repeatedly considered more competent, trustworthy, and attractive when they were photographed from about 4.5 feet away, as opposed to about 1.5 feet away.
Research from New York University and the University of Connecticut, published in 2015 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that it's not so easy to make yourself look more competent.
That's because perceptions of competence -- at least when it comes to physical ability -- depend largely on your facial structure.
In the study, participants looked at male faces whose proportions had been digitally altered, so that some looked wider than others. They were asked to choose which man they thought would win a weightlifting competition. (Presumably, they were choosing based on physical ability, or competence.)
Sure enough, men with wider faces were considered more likely to win the weightlifting competition.
While you can't physically alter your facial structure (without getting cosmetic surgery), you can probably work a little Photoshop magic to make your face look slightly wider than it really is -- or just face the camera directly instead of at an angle.
Really, just don't. :)
That's according to a 2017 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Researchers conducted multiple experiments with a total of more than 500 participants in 29 countries and learned that hypothetical employees who included smiling emoticons in professional emails were perceived as less competent than those who sent the same emails without the smiley face.
The researchers learned that the decrease in competence had to do with the fact that participants saw the smiling emoticons as inappropriate in formal contexts.
In 2016, researchers at the Wharton School and Harvard Business School published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found telling a successful, appropriate joke at work can make you seem more competent.
But telling an inappropriate joke can make you seem less competent.
In one experiment from the study, researchers asked 274 participants to imagine a job candidate interviewing with a manager. The manager asks the candidate, 'Where do you see yourself in five years?'
The participants read that the candidate gives one of two responses: 'Continuing to work in this field in a role like this one' (serious) or 'Celebrating the fifth anniversary of you asking me this question' (joke). Among the participants who read the joke, some read that the manager laughs and others read that the manager sits in silence.
As it turns out, the candidate who told a joke -- even a failed joke -- was rated as more competent and confident than the candidate who gave a serious response.
Writing in The Harvard Business Review, the study authors remind readers: 'Don't be afraid of a flop. Bad jokes -- as long as they are appropriate -- won't harm your social standing or affect how competent people think you are. They may even increase how confident you seem.'
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