Dunning-Kruger And You

One episode that has stayed with me for many years involved a young employee that I managed. Like most of the folks I hired, he had a lot of raw talent in the areas that you really can’t teach – excellent intellectual curiosity, a good work ethic, etc. As I saw it, my job and that of his immediate supervisor was to develop that raw talent over time.

When review time came up, he asked me when he’d get made a VP. He had been with us about 6 months and had been out of school for about 18 months. Now, most of the people who achieved VP rank were 10-15 years older than him and used those years to develop their work skills to a point that was light years past where he was. I asked him why he thought he should be made a VP and he went on about having paid his dues and that he knew as much as many of the VP’s he’d met.

He was a perfect example of something called the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people fail to recognize their own incompetence. I see it on the golf course all the time as my playing partners will often try to hit shots that they might be able to pull off 1% of the time or they overestimate how far they actually hit the ball and come up woefully short of their target. The kid was a business example, one with which I’m sure you’re familiar.

Have you ever walked out of a meeting in which someone thought they were being brilliant while it was obvious that they really had no clue about the subject matter? The sad fact, borne out by research, is that the most incompetent individuals are the ones that are most convinced of their competence while the most competent people often underestimate their competence. I’m a believer in knowing what you don’t know and in not assuming that just because you’re smart and very knowledgeable about one subject that you can translate that into expertise in another area without doing the work to understand that area.

It’s not just stupid people who don’t know they’re stupid. Entire organizations can behave this way, believing that they can get beyond their core competency and into another business sector with equal success. Management sees that the business has a good year and deludes itself into thinking the organization is performing at peak efficiency when competitors are actually doing better and are gaining share.

We need to be on the lookout for Dunning-Kruger everywhere. For businesses, use an independent standard of measurement, hopefully, something that’s reflective of your entire industry. As individuals, a little humility and getting outside your own bubble helps to keep your perspective. That kid didn’t make VP and in fact, ended up leaving the organization to a higher level job from which he got fired. He Dunning-Krugered himself to unemployment. I’m sure he was convinced it was due to something other than his own incompetence. You’d never make that mistake, would you?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?, Reality checks

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