The Dunning-Kruger effect represents one of the most comprehensive models as to why people who have a tendency to have little to no idea about what they’re doing, have supreme confidence in their abilities. In the workplace, this often translates to “over-promise, under-deliver”.
Probably the most classic example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in action is in reference to Donald Trump. While is probably not the most correct example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in action, as ultimately Trump was able to win the election (to the surprise of many), it represents the inverse correlation between confidence and competence. In the workplace this can have significant impacts on both team dynamics and productivity.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect in Action
The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the psychological phenomenon of those with little ability in an area, grossly overestimating their competence. Conversely, it also describes the underestimation of an experts view of their mastery of a given topic, commonly referred to as “imposter syndrome”. It seems we as humans are very poor at rating our own performance and ability. This goes even further, with the lowest performing of us overrating by the most, leading to resistance when given feedback reflecting this poor performance.
Dunning-Kruger Effect in the workplace
Evolutionarily, the Dunning-Kruger effect makes sense. The brain seeks to make sense of the complex and dynamic world around it, and does so by seeking patterns which provide shortcuts to understanding called heuristics. These allow quick decisions to be made, but sometimes they can lead to mistakes, as they give the impression that the practitioner has greater knowledge than they actually possess through the recognition of the pattern.
This pattern of behaviour feeds into workplace culture. As individuals can believe in their competence due to their quick decision making, or through general confidence believe they are more competent in their role, direct credit to themselves leading to quick promotion.
This leads to both resentment felt by their colleagues, and sometimes the best and brightest being left behind in the same positions. Furthermore, having those who cannot see their lack of competence on your team can be frustrating for management.
Strategies to deal with the Dunning-Kruger Effect
So what can be done about this?
Firstly, ensure monitoring of performance is done in concrete and quantifiable measures. Setting performance targets based around team play instead of individual effect on the team can mitigate this.
Another strategy is to encourage a mentoring culture. Though we as humans are generally poor at giving self-feedback and self analysis, feedback that comes from a more senior employee from a place of assistance with learning is often received more favourably. If this can be a frequent part of professional development for employees, individual team members can over time become better at appreciating their own performance with reference to others. Mentoring culture is a very powerful asset in building an effective, productive work environment, with employees at their best.
Ultimately, employees who fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect are not bad people and not even necessarily bad workers. Through mentoring and through honest, concrete feedback, employees can appraise their performance.