Confidence vs. Competence


Do you know what you’re doing?

Do you look like you know what you’re doing?

Although these things are connected, they aren’t the same.

Some of the most common advice a new EMT might hear is to be more confident. And it’s justified: the typical new guy looks and behaves like a scared bunny, and it’s perceivable by everyone around him. You can’t be an effective field provider that way. Other responders won’t take you seriously, patients will decide they’re better off taking the bus, and other medical personnel will mentally delete your input. You won’t make the right decisions, because you won’t have the confidence to commit to them. Plus, your shifts will be nerve-wracking, and your hair may fall out. No good.

Oddly enough, though, this isn’t the worst-case scenario. Worse still is this: you’re supremely confident… even though you’re clueless.

Confidence is a statement. It says to the world, “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.” In response, they grant you further responsibility. “If this guy knows what he’s doing, then let him handle it,” they think.

If you project that message, yet are making things up as you go along, you’re telling a lie. You will be given responsibility, only to err terribly. You were trusted according to your level of confidence, but didn’t deserve it; your confidence exceeded your actual competence.

So, you need both. We want EMTs on the ambulance with the ability to assess, treat, and transport sick people. And we want them to demonstrate that they have that ability, by their words, body language, and appearance.

The good news is that confidence tends to grow from competence, which how it should be. As you learn the ropes, you become more comfortable, smoother in your actions, and more certain of your conclusions. Rest assured, you’ll broadcast this difference to everyone around you.

So where’s the problem? The problem arises when there’s an imbalance between the two qualities. Some people are just naturally “nervous-looking” or withdrawn; they may be entirely competent, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. These are the folks who need a slap on the ass, and to be told to throw their chest out, strut a little, and say it like they mean it. Even generally mousy people can usually learn to develop a “patient face,” a professional, commanding persona they wear during calls. (Think of your favorite medic… now think of his “medic voice.” Talk about heavy artillery.)

Conversely, some people are either overly confident in their abilities, or have simply been taught to fake it until they make it. (“A commander can be wrong,” as Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “but never uncertain.”) In fact, some of the most difficult partners to work with fall into this category — the “newish” guy who can perform the everyday basics of the job, but whose cockiness swelled far beyond his actual knowledge, to the extent that he can no longer be educated or corrected. He knows it all, so he’s done learning. These folks need to be taken down a peg, because while ignorance is temporary, wrongness can last forever. If they’re simply afraid to admit when they’re unsure, it helps to reassure them that nobody has it all figured out yet, this is a team sport, and asking for help is much better than dropping the ball.

In the end, the goal should be supreme confidence, clearly palpable to those around you, yet directly built upon a foundation of clinical competence. If you’re good enough, you don’t have to put on a show; you can even hide your moves a little, because they’re going to come out anyway, and a certain amount of humility is professionally appropriate. (Plus, you won’t have to act like a douche all the time.) If you know your stuff but come up short in confidence, that’s your cue to start strutting a little more. And if you lack both, then start by developing quiet competence — not ignorant cockiness.


  1. Great Blog Post… the best ALS provider does his/her BLS first. Paramedics usually forget this and go straight to thinking about what drug they want to give them.


  1. relationship Quizzes

    Confidence vs. Competence

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