The Business Times

Not so blissful ignorance: The Dunning-Kruger effect at work

When self-image and reality collide

Published Fri, May 17, 2019 · 09:50 PM
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MANY of us have surely encountered an acquaintance or relative who, upon learning of our occupation, proceeds to (badly) advise us on how to do our job, despite having no relevant experience in the field.

Or maybe you have a colleague who has all the self-confidence of an expert, even though his peers know he would flounder if made to work on a project alone.

What these individuals are experiencing is a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect (DKE). Named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the two researchers who first described it in 1999, it is explained by Dr Dunning as a phenomenon in which "people suffering the most among their peers from ignorance or incompetence fail to recognise just how much they suffer from it."

In other words, people can be unaware of how bad they are at some things, because they do not have enough relevant knowledge to judge their abilities accurately. Unfortunately, this also means that we all suffer from the effect in some aspect of our lives, and are simply oblivious to it.

The experience of dealing with someone with the DKE can be mildly amusing at first, but quickly becomes annoying and frustrating, especially in the workplace. At worst, the DKE can precipitate the downfall of entire companies, if those in leadership positions are the ones suffering from it.

While most instances of the DKE in the workplace may not have such dire consequences, the widespread phenomenon has intrigued researchers, who have tried numerous tactics to manage it, including social comparison, incentives and factual feedback. But all these resulted in various unsatisfying degrees of success, and a surefire solution has been elusive.

For example, participants were asked to compare their performance on a grammar test to those of others, and use the information to refine their self-assessments. Researchers found that top performers, who tend to slightly underestimate their grammar competence relative to others, would adjust their personal ratings to reflect the reality presented by their performances compared with those of their peers.

However, poorer performers stuck to their optimistic self-assessments, even after observing how higher scorers performed on the same test.

In an article on the DKE for social science publication Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Dr Dunning observed that a poorer performer's lack of grammar knowledge could hamper his ability to recognise a better approach to the test when he saw one, making the comparison exercise less useful for measuring his own performance.

In another study, participants in a study who were promised $30 if they could guess their raw scores on a logical reasoning test within 5 per cent of their true score ($100 if their estimate was exactly right) were no more accurate in their self-assessments than others who were given no incentive to make their estimates more carefully.

Meanwhile, providing factual feedback such as raw test scores produced mixed results. When shown their performance on tests for emotional intelligence, a key quality for managers, top performers accepted and readjusted their self-assessments, which were usually underestimates, to match their results. However, the remaining participants would often find ways to downplay their lower-than-expected scores, such as by saying that the tests were inaccurate or irrelevant to their work or success, and retain their conviction that they were more competent than they actually were.

Part of the difficulty lies in human nature, which leads people to defend their abilities and self-esteem when presented with evidence of their shortcomings, and to dismiss or reframe negative feedback to suit their worldview.

Confronted with his consistently bad sales performance, a salesman could argue that his clients tend to be unusually difficult to convince, for example.

The effect could also be stronger when people are in a situation where it benefits them to feign a higher level of knowledge, suggests INSEAD assistant professor of organisational behaviour Andy Yap.

"If you are hired in a role where you have to deal with a client who is completely outside your industry, you may have to put up a show that you already know what you are doing," says Prof Yap.

"Employees who pretend too much sometimes, or fake it till they make it, they never make it and they continue to be unaware of that. If they have done it for a long time, this effect is going to be way stronger on them, because the cost of revealing (the truth) then is going to be higher. It's a sunk cost, and so they would rather like to keep up the pretence." He adds that honest negative feedback is becoming a rarity nowadays, contributing to a lack of accurate information about one's abilities. "With parenting these days, people will say things like 'You need to say positive things and be politically correct. You shouldn't be revealing weaknesses.' But if we don't reveal weaknesses, we never improve. We will never know what's the reality."

Practical solutions

Human resource (HR) consultants have found their own ways to deal with the DKE, although they don't quite call it that.

Jules Yim is a senior consultant at boutique management consultancy Cognitive Edge, and her work straddles academic research and its practical application in business. She explains that while the term describes a behaviour that does exist in the workplace, academic research on the topic still lacks the level of clarity or confidence that would make the DKE practical for use in consulting.

"It's still so controversial because it's not a science, per se," she says. "You can't say that this person has displayed behaviour A at this point in time and will always display behaviour A, at certain intervals over and over again. That's scientific experimentation, and humans are not scientific experiments, as much as we would like them to be. In my opinion, that's why it's not more widely used."

She compares it to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality tests, which have become popular as a standard HR procedure. "It's fun to take the quiz or test, but it's reductionist," she says. "It fulfils the human need to put people in neat little boxes, without wanting to acknowledge that humans are messy, complex and have various facets and identities, and that their identity in the workplace as a worker or manager or subordinate is just one facet of their lives."

Bain & Company partner Peter Slagt and management consultant Lee Xueling prefer to treat such behaviour as unawareness of one's actual abilities, instead of calling it incompetence as research about the DKE often does. Reframed with that perspective, the goal becomes to educate rather than to berate.

Their approach is backed up by research analysis of the DKE. Dr Dunning wrote: "If (bottom performers) misjudge themselves because they do not have the intellectual resources to judge superior versus inferior performance, one has to merely provide them with those resources... That is, one way to train incompetent people to recognise their incompetence is to rid them of that incompetence."

The way this "education" is delivered is key, says Ms Lee. One may find that giving purely factual feedback and pointing out errors results in defensiveness, even if the person was originally willing to be corrected. But sugarcoated feedback may not make an impact either.

"You need to start from a place of kindness, where you believe that everybody's doing their best, and this person just probably doesn't know (his limitations)," she says. With this attitude, one can be frank about an employee's performance while helping them see the benefits of improving.

"There should be no judgment in the whole process," Mr Slagt adds. "If you have judgment around the situations that the other person is in, the person will feel that judgment. Likewise, they will feel the compassion if it's there."

Ms Yim shares that one method she has used to address the DKE is to approach the issue obliquely, or from the side rather than head-on.

When the overconfidence of a project collaborator started to become problematic, Ms Yim used her supervisory position in the team to intervene with a little experiment. She assigned him a harder task than she did to the other group members - one that was not impossible, but would show up the limits of his current skillset. Then, she observed his reaction to see what additional steps needed to be taken.

The collaborator completed his task adequately, though less spectacularly than one might have expected from his confidence. Ms Yim was later pleasantly surprised to receive a note from him, in which he thanked her for her guidance in the project and shared that it had been a useful experience in helping him realise that he had not known as much as he thought he did.

"Not everyone is going to be self-aware enough to react that way, but by doing little interventions like this, knowing how to work with different personalities, by approaching a matter obliquely, you should be able to deal with the Dunning-Kruger effect," says Ms Yim.

If he had reacted negatively and blamed her for setting him a harder task, Ms Yim says she would have referred to his impressive presentation skills to explain why she thought he could handle the tougher assignment. "You should always respond to what they display. If his presentation was so flashy and stylish, it would not be out of the question for me to set him a task at the level that he's displayed."

Ideally, everyone should receive frequent "360" feedback from bosses, subordinates and peers, the consultants agree. This not only provides people with more information to help them assess themselves more accurately, but also helps make "feedback sessions" less intimidating and less likely to provoke a defensive reaction.

Decision-making bodies like board committees should be cognisant of DKE-led behaviour, since the members' seniority and position might result in their receiving less feedback, overestimating their knowledge in areas outside their expertise, and proceeding to make ill-advised decisions.

Lawrence Loh, director of the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations at NUS Business School, says that companies should recruit non-directors with the relevant expertise to sit on technical board committees like risk management and investment.

"At the very least, companies must disclose in detail how experts are being leveraged upon to provide advice to the board committees, so as to avoid the DKE," Prof Loh says.

Creating a company culture of humility could also help, says Marko Pitesa, associate professor of organisational behaviour and human resources at Singapore Management University.

"One way to get around this bias is to use perhaps an even stronger bias, like the tendency to copy others and to be influenced by other people's behaviour," Prof Pitesa says.

"If you create a culture where humility is valued and everybody is like that, you're exploiting the part of the human mind that wants to fit in. That culture will be more likely to make people who need improvement and would otherwise be obstinate to feedback, sit down and learn what they need to learn."

What if you're not the boss?

Moving down the chain of command, it gets harder to do much about the DKE in a peer, and even more so with a superior. Depending on the level of trust and rapport you have with the individual, you could gently offer your feedback and hope that it will be received well.

However, it is wise to check yourself first, if you are dissatisfied with your boss's performance and judge that they are suffering from the DKE.

"It's easy to conflate feelings of dissatisfaction with your life and your job with thinking that your supervisor displays the DKE," says Ms Yim. One thing to consider is that people react to the behaviours of others, and your negative attitude could be fostering less than positive reactions from your boss, colouring your judgment of his or her job competence.

In addition, studies have found that interpersonal warmth, rather than competence, is the determining factor for employees' like or dislike of their bosses.

Sam Yam, assistant professor of management and organisation at NUS Business School, says: "If people say, 'My boss is incompetent at his job,' most of the time it's not about the boss being bad at whatever he does.

"Most of the time, it's because the boss is not very socially warm, somewhat of a jerk, and you don't like him for that reason. The competence part is just used as an argument to justify that (dislike)."

Avoid the DKE

No one wants to be a victim of the DKE, but it is difficult to eliminate a perception that originates in our own brains. While awareness of our susceptibility to the effect is the first step to avoiding it, a further mindset shift is required - one must adopt an attitude of humility and develop a constant desire to learn. This is particularly important when one is in a leadership position, say consultants.

"From a leadership perspective, oftentimes the best leaders are the most humble," says Wong Su-Yen, founder and CEO of consultancy Bronze Phoenix. "They are highly self-aware, recognise their limitations, and are genuinely curious and open to new ideas and experiences. They tend to surround themselves with people who are as capable as, or more capable than themselves."

Changing one's mindset in this way is no easy task, says Martijn Schouten, Singapore People & Organisation Leader at PwC South East Asian Consulting.

"There is a strong preconceived notion that as a leader, you have to be perfect, which arguably could cause people to mask their insecurities and present themselves overly confident, i.e. perfect," Mr Schouten shares. "But a leader doesn't have to be perfect, because she or he simply isn't. Embrace your imperfections and work with peers, subordinates and superiors who can do things you might not."

On the plus side, embracing constant learning to stave off the DKE can also help one avoid one's skills or business becoming obsolete in the current age of disruption, says INSEAD's Prof Yap.

"To keep having to learn can be quite tiring," he agrees. "But to be fair, if you look at the history of all industries, they're always experiencing a time of disruption anyway. And the more you learn, the more you realise what you don't know. And that's how you can disrupt things even more."

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