Does perceiving incompetence require competence? The Paradigm of the Dunning-Kruger effect

Does perceiving incompetence require competence? The Paradigm of the Dunning-Kruger effect

Let me introduce you to Donald, a fictional employee of mine. After three years of working for me in the finance department, Donald is convinced that his finance skills and his knowledge are the best in the department. Donald perceives his skills to be well beyond that of his peers and supervisors not only in our company, but likely everywhere else.

After only 36 months on the job, Donald thinks he is a pioneer, a genius of some sort. In Donald’s mind, he is not only competent, he is brilliant and generating innovation that warrants a promotion and recognition. But, when Donald sees his well below average performance ratings for the year, and for the third year in a row, he is shocked.

When I explained to Donald that his performance ratings were based on the feedback of several of his supervisors and peers, he screamed, “this is unfair”. Donald not only criticized his reviewers, he challenged the whole evaluation process, never accepting any lapse on his part. Donald then went on to criticize me and dismissed his performance review as nothing more than, “a witch hunt”.

After three years of working with Donald, management and staff in the office have pretty much had it with him. Around the water cooler, Donald can be consistently heard giving colleagues unwanted medical advice, even though he has no medical education, or training. But, Donald doesn’t confine himself to one subject he knows very little about. Donald loves to meddle into domestic politics, history, technology and complex geo-political matters where he clearly confuses his own opinions with fact. When confronted with obvious misstatements, or outright falsehoods, Donald often says things like “I know more about medicine than the Doctor’s do”, or “I know more about war than the general’s do”. Donald’s other line of defense is to remind those around him that he went to an Ivy League school and this is why he can’t be wrong. If that too fails, Donald criticizes his critics vehemently often mocking them and giving them childish nicknames.

Could Donald be an illustration of a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect? The Dunning-Kruger effect, is a cognitive bias in which poor performers greatly overestimate their abilities. Dunning and Kruger’s research shows that underperforming individuals “reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.” This incompetence, in turn, leads them to “hold inflated views of their performance and ability.”

To reach these findings, Dunning and Kruger conducted a study that tested participants’ abilities in various areas. Before showing the participants their scores, Dunning and Kruger had them judge their own performance on a percentile scale. What they found confirmed their prediction of self-inflated assessment among underperforming individuals. Basically, participants scoring very poorly were evaluating themselves very highly.

Were the underperforming individuals unable to recognize competence due to their lack of it? Do people like Donald need the competence to perceive competence, or even their own incompetence?

If it takes competence to be aware of incompetence, how are under performers and unqualified individuals supposed to recognize their own lack of ability?

The answer is the question itself. Because it takes competence to be aware, underperformers must become competent to recognize their own failures. In essence, an incompetent person can’t reach a high level of competence without actively seeking feedback and knowledge. And for any activity — whether it’s economics, finance, medicine, or something as simple as knitting — it takes an open mind to gain the experiences that help us see our mistakes and grow from them. If we are unwilling to learn because our ego blinds us to our own ineptitude, we will continuously confuse our incompetence with competence and likely criticize those with aptitude who question our ability. 

The hallmark of intelligence, according to Dunning, is being “good at knowing what we don’t know.” And, this is why it is so difficult to interact with someone like Donald. People like Donald are not good at knowing that they don’t know, and are also unwilling to learn, or to take advice from others. They are also vehement critics of those pointing out their errors, or trying to give them direction. If this is the case, the action you need to take as a supervisor for an employee like Donald is obvious.

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© Khaled F. Sherif, 2020

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