If you sucked at something, would you know it?

Sucked at Something: Last week I heard something that made me laugh, mad, and cry in the span of 30 seconds. Donald Trump gave an interview to the New York Times where he stated “I know more about the big bills than any president that’s ever been in office. Whether its health care and taxes. Especially taxes. I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest C.P.A. I know the details of health care better than most, better than most.”

From my viewpoint this was extreme overconfidence, and no signs of humility (a trait I find critical in a leader). I also recognized this statement was an extreme example of one of my favorite cognitive biases: The Dunning-Kruger effect. In the simplest terms, the D-K effect is when people who are bad at certain tasks mistakenly think they are in fact good at them.

While the majority of us will never be on the Donald Trump end of the spectrum, we can all fall victim to this simple bias in our thinking. Without a humble mindset and listening to different sources of feedback, we too may end up acting like we know it all. When when clearly we don’t…

The Dunning-Kruger effect was discovered by Dr. David Dunning and Dr. Justin Kruger in 1999. Similar to the overconfidence in the Lake Wobegon effect, people misjudged their own skill levels. This overconfidence occurred most frequently in people with low skill levels. For example, students who scored in the bottom 10% of a test believed they were actually ranked in the 60th percentile. Aside from not understanding how percentiles work, these people with low skill levels could not objectively measure their competence or incompetence in that skill. They did not know what they did not know.

On the other hand, experts know a lot, but they also know what they do not know. They understand where their knowledge and skills are strongest and where they have gaps. The world’s best CPA understands that there is a lot of complexity in a 1097-page tax document, and that it will take a while to build in depth knowledge/expertise on it.

If you sucked at something, would you know it? - image Dunning-Kruger-Effect-2-300x283 on http://cavemaninasuit.com

But this bias is not limited to politicians. We have seen this effect throughout our education, our working career, and our personal lives.

  • Think back to your time as a freshman in college. You probably thought you had all the answers, but the reality was you knew little to nothing.
  • Newcomers to a company brush off the advice of all the ‘Old timers’, and think they know better.
  • Armchair athletes think that with the right practice and facilities they too could have been a professional athlete.
  • Tone deaf competitors on American Idol (or whatever your local country equivalent) are surprised to hear they are not selected to compete against real singers.

One situation that frustrates me the most is when a person moves from an individual contributor role to a people manager role. This moment has all the risks of falling victim to the D-K effect. The person already has high confidence because they just got promoted into the role. They also have a false sense of knowledge on what it takes to be a good leader. They have experienced good and bad leaders themselves, and so they think it will be easy for them to be a great leader. But the reality is that being a first time leader is never easy.

That is why we believe humbleness is one of the best ways to prevent the D-K effect from impacting you. Whenever you enter in a new situation (starting new job, learning a new skill, etc…) start by assuming that you will have to learn a lot before you reach a basic competence level. Having a humble mindset will help you seek out true experts and learn from them.

The other way to mitigate the D-K effect is to constantly seek feedback from all sources. If all you hear are your ‘yes men’ telling you how amazing you are, then most likely you don’t have a clue on your incompetence. Talk with the direct reports of your direct reports. Talk with your colleagues. Talk with everyone, and be willing to listen and learn from them. You may hear things that bruise your ego, and you may realize you aren’t as great as you think you are. But that is good. Only by truly knowing your strengths and your weaknesses can you do something about it.

Without a humble mindset and constantly seeking feedback, you might never realize how incompetent you really are.

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