40 – Unskilled, unaware, or both? The Dunning–Kruger effect at work.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         800 words

One of my favourite sayings is that ‘anything is possible when you don’t know what you are talking about’. I have often wondered why I feel the need to use it so often at work. After a colleague sent me link on the Dunning-Kruger effect I am starting to understand why.

The Dunning–Kruger effect is named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University. They published ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’ in 1999. The title gives you a good idea about the contents. The focus of the paper is;

We argue that when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realise it.

I remember reading the Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong’ many years ago as a young manager. It was published in 1969 (I didn’t read it then!) and discussed in some detail how it is that managers rise to their ‘level of their incompetence’.   It had an impact on me because it explained why some of the top management I was dealing with were struggling in their role.   The authors, Laurence Peters and Raymond Hull describe how people in an organisation are promoted because of their performance in their current role, which leads to a series of promotions to arrive at their highest level of competence. Then they get the next promotion and find themselves in a role in which they are not competent, i.e. they have reached their level of incompetence.

Over time, every role is filled by someone who is incompetent to carry out their duties. The work is then done by the people below them who are still in roles for which they are competent. The reason for incompetence could be that different skills are required, rather than the job has simply become more difficult. For example, a highly competent technical person is promoted into a management role when they have limited interpersonal skills. Peters and Hulls suggest that when a person has been promoted to their level of incompetence, the risk for the organisation is that they will ‘set up’ the talented junior employees to fail because these employees are likely to ‘violate the first commandment of hierarchical life with incompetent leadership: the hierarchy must be preserved’.

I am sure you have all worked for managers who are technically capable and regularly demonstrate it by taking on technical tasks rather than dealing with the team management and leadership challenges in their role. They were obviously high performing in a technical role before they became a manager. That performance resulted in them being promoted out of their depth. You have probably also experienced persecution by incompetent management who reject you like an immune system reacting to an infection. Someone once described this to me as a ‘change in the management environment’. This is a polite way to view it.

When I think about people who are unskilled and unaware, it brings to mind the effect of oblivious narcissism. As discussed in a previous post, the oblivious narcissist is completely unaware of their narcissistic behaviours. Coming back to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a key implication is the ‘double curse’ in which the skills needed to produce a correct response are virtually identical to the skill required to evaluate the accuracy of a response. For example, the skills needed to produce a logical argument are the same as the skills needed to recognise when a logical argument has been made. Therefore, if you lack the skills to produce correct answers or solutions, you will also be unable to know when other’s answers are right or wrong.

I suppose the value of knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect is that when you find you have a manager who has been promoted to their level of incompetence, don’t expect them to recognise it or to recognise your competence. And if they do see you as competent, beware, because they are likely to find it challenging or threatening and they will behave accordingly.

Being clueless about your own abilities is one thing. Misjudging other’s abilities is relatively more serious. If it happens to you, I advise keeping your head down, not saying too much (especially if your manager could find it challenging), make them feel good about their incompetence (if you can bring yourself to do it) and start looking for a better job at a better managed organisation.

Dunning, David, Johnsons, Kerri, Ehrlinger, Joyce and Kruger, Justin 2003. Why people fail to Recognise Their Own Incompetence (http://psy.mq.edu.au/vision/~peterw/corella/237/incompetence.pdf)

Peter, Laurence J and Hull, Raymond 1969. The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.