Perpetuating Incompetence

Ignorance begets Confidence

There’s a cognitive bias known as The Dunning-Kruger Effect that describes how people who are very bad at something, actually think that they are quite good because they don’t know enough to understand just how bad they are; they overestimate their performance.

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell

Although humorous, Russell gets one thing wrong – this isn’t about intelligence it is about a person’s world view; most probably through a lifetime of confirmation bias and positive reinforcement (I blame sports days at school where “everyone wins”) – they simply can’t see their own ineptitude.

This issue is amplified when you have incompetent managers (see my post on The Peter Principle) as they don’t have the expertise to even spot the incompetence let alone help coach and nurture an employee towards mastery. And this is the vicious cycle referenced in a 2010 blog post on Psychology Today.

*Dunning and Kruger often refer to a “double curse” when interpreting their findings: People fail to grasp their own incompetence, precisely because they are so incompetent. And since overcoming their incompetence would first require the ability to distinguish competence from incompetence, people get stuck in a vicious cycle.

“The skills needed to produce logically sound arguments, for instance, are the same skills that are necessary to recognize when a logically sound argument has been made. Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own.”*

According to the wikipedia article on this study:

Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
* tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
* fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
* fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
* recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.

The Impatient Generation

This effect isn’t limited to any demographic, but it is particularly noticeable with Gen-Y employees. This generation is known for their overconfidence, ambition and impatience. And it’s the impatience that needs to be managed. Far too often, employees are promoted to appease this desire for forward progress without them fully mastering the skills required to perform highly at the current level. This is as bad for the employee as it is the employer as it simply creates incompetent managers and perpetuates the whole process.

Care and Feeding

The first step to reducing this effect is to stop giving praise and badges for sub-standard work. We all want to soften the blow of negative feedback, but in order to change the behaviour we need to be explicit and specific. Furthermore, long lectures on how things should be done won’t work either as these employees don’t see that their work is anything less than amazing.

The only way, according to Dunning and Kruger is to train them to understand what good performance looks like and then (and only then) show them examples of their own inferior work. Once they understand and can see it, you can agree a process of improvement.

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