Coming Down To Earth, or How Do You Handle Overconfident Employees?


Recently the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) released its survey of math, science, and reading skills of 500,000 15-year-olds across the globe.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the U.S. ranked somewhere in the middle.

What is surprising is that the U.S. students ranked among the highest in their perception of their abilities — confidence without the goods to back it up.

We’ve all seen the employee who has an over-inflated sense of his or her performance. Reviews either become confrontational and non-productive, or worse, reinforce the perception.

How do we re-boot expectations without destroying engagement and killing confidence?

Typically this person falls into one of two categories:

  1. Either she has been at the organization for a very long time; or,
  2. He is brand new and brimming with enthusiasm (for himself).

The Long-Timer

Sally was probably one of the very first employees. She’s been here for 15 years and knows where all the bodies are buried.

To keep her happy she has been bumped up every few years in salary and title, without necessarily a proportional increase scope or responsibility. Her title and salary have little correlation with the market.

She could not replicate her deal at another company if she left.

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The Newbie

Fred is a new graduate who never went without praise from parents, teachers, and coaches.

He’s got a stacked resume with the right degree, grades, and internship experiences. He’s unfamiliar with the word “no.”

  1. Assess the ROI — First decide if the energy and resources to correct the situation are well-placed. Will this person’s contributions justify the investment? Be honest. Is this delaying the inevitable and there are other underlying issues, or is this a redeemable situation? Assuming it’s fixable, proceed to steps two-five.
  2. Performance expectations have to be well-defined and transparent with clear metrics —  Sally has to understand that the organization is different from when she joined, and her skills have to keep pace. She may have to be given the option to level-down to a job commensurate with her responsibilities or given the opportunity to step up her game. There has to be acknowledgement that tenure is not a substitute for performance. External market data with job responsibilities and compensation can be helpful in re-setting expectations. It’s a painful discussion and transition process, especially if Sally is a friend. However, it must be done as much for Sally’s sake as for equity among employees. With Fred, you have the opportunity to get it right from the onset.
  3. Feedback has to be regular, meaningful and multi-sourced — Forget the annual performance review. You are unlikely to bridge the perception gap with a once-a-year retrospective. Instead, check in regularly with real-time constructive and positive feedback. The more closely connected the feedback is to an actual event, the more instructive the message. Correct their missteps and give them a chance to reflect on how to do things differently next time, but also “catch them in the act” of desirable behavior and reward it. Make use of 360 feedback and multiple sources, so they recognize that it’s not just you being unfair.
  4. Play to their strong suit: Them! –– Confidence, whether misplaced or not, is an infectious quality. Provide them opportunities to shine where they DO have the goods to back it up. Sally has a lot of history and a good relationship with a difficult client. Have her contribute to the new proposal. Fred has a deep understanding of social media and technology. Include Fred on the panel to establish the social media strategy.
  5. Show and Tell — Give them examples of good performance, internal and external to their line of sight, making the concepts tangible. Provide them a mentor or coach and set the expectations of the relationship.

Conversations you need to have

Everyone probably has some areas where they might rate themselves more highly than the results would indicate, but it becomes an issue where the gulf is widespread and pervasive.

If the situation is worth rectifying, then difficult conversations need to be had. Most people will appreciate the message that their contributions are valued enough for the investment.

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.

Barbara Milhizer, CCP, SPHR is a partner at PeopleResults, a human capital consultancy focusing on change, organization, talent and communications/new media. Barbara’s background includes over 15 years of HR with key leadership roles in rewards & recognition and talent strategy at both Accenture and PeopleResults. Contact her at


14 Comments on “Coming Down To Earth, or How Do You Handle Overconfident Employees?

  1. Great article Barbara and one of the most common challenges I hear from managers. Here’s a recent article I wrote that offers some “how to’s” when you do give feedback and they disagree.

    As you noted in your article, this can be especially challenging with the Newbie who has never gotten anything but praise, so of course getting negative feedback will be hard for them.

    1. Thanks, those are great examples of how to turn potentially destructive conversations into constructive ones.

  2. Terrific article…especially as I am dealing with a “Sally” at the moment…however, having never been “talked to” before, it really dealt a blow to her self-esteem, which it turns out is not so great. Thoughts on how to handle this as well…I’m mentoring her on a daily basis and giving constant feedback, but it takes a lot of energy and effort. She’s very much worth it as she is terrific at her job, but it takes away from some of my other responsibilities. Thoughts?

    1. Thanks, Amy! Unfortunately the length and effort required for the fix are in proportion to how long the problem was overlooked. Sounds like you are doing the right things. Actions that demonstrate your belief in her value to the organization are positive. You might think about finding a mentor outside your group or even organization to give her some additional perspective. Make sure you are setting goals and carving out ways to use her strengths. That can be a way to boost her self-esteem with real results. Chances are her self-esteem is low because at some level she knew she was not at the level she should be. Help her celebrate the ways in which she does add value.

  3. Great article – the “Sally” scenario is hugely difficult. Your suggestions for how to proceed are great.

    I would add that since this person is likely networked all over the place, there may need to be some alignment among the leadership on the messages she needs to hear. That way your difficult conversation isn’t followed up with her running to 10 other people who continue the mantra of “of course you’re wonderful”.

  4. I’m still trying to figuring when “No” became a bad thing. Can I get a ribbon for showing up?

  5. Barbara – I love your writing and totally agree with your perspective on this! Yes, they can be difficult conversations but if they are conducted in the spirit of development, you will be doing that employee such a HUGE favor. All those working with them will appreciate it too!

  6. Barbara, I like this article and we have all worked with the Sally’s. Like your suggestions for trying to synch up reality with self perception. Also, there are some interesting connections to promotion and salary on this topic that can make it worse -as you point out.

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