Merge's Blog

Are you falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Dunning-KrugerHave you ever been in a conversation with a co-worker or a manager where it is obvious that he knows absolutely nothing about the subject at hand, and yet has plenty to say?  Not only is everything he says clearly wrong, but he is adamant about his point of view and cannot be convinced otherwise?

If you answered yes to this question, you have observed the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.  The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low abilities tend to overestimate their ability.  They think they have skills at the level at which they really don’t.

Now if you think about it, it’s not really their fault.  If you lack knowledge or expertise in a certain subject area, then it is very difficult to assess how much you actually don’t know.  When you make factual mistakes and judgement errors because you lack competency (which others can see), because you don’t know enough to know that you are making errors, you also can’t identify them as mistakes.  So you think you are right.  See the inherent paradox?  In the workplace, that means that employees who know the least often think that they know the most – causing them to make errors in judgement.

Managers can fall prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect too

But it could also mean that managers who think they’re exceptional leaders actually aren’t.  Which is what I want to focus on.  If you think you’re an exceptional leader, and therefore you can’t fully see your own shortcomings, then you are not (and can never be) an exceptional leader.

So how can you avoid falling into the Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias trap?  Here are two ideas, both of which require active deliberate effort on your part.

  1. Adopt a philosophy of continuous learning. No matter what your area of expertise, recognize that you need to keep current and stay open-minded about new discoveries, revised practices, and alternate ways of thinking.  If you understand that knowledge is fluid and always changing, and you make a conscious effort to stay updated in your field, you can at least partially overcome the cognitive bias of not knowing what you don’t know.
  2. Ask for feedback from others. And be at least open to what they have to tell you.  And not just from your boss, but also from your staff and your peers.  Don’t shoot the messenger – make it safe for people to give you constructive feedback.  You don’t have to act on everything you hear, but watch for repetitions and patterns; those are likely obvious clues about areas in which you can develop greater knowledge and skills.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think.  Have you seen the Dunning-Kruger effect in action?  What do you do to avoid this sort of cognitive bias?  Please share by commenting below.

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