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By APTMetrics‘ Jamie Madigan

Here’s something every expert eventually realizes: the more you know, the more you know what you don’t know, and the less you know, the more you think you know because of what you don’t know.

That was confusing, I know. But it’s emblematic of a robust and ever-present psychological phenomenon known as The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Named after Cornell University professor David Dunning and his one-time graduate student Justin Kruger, the effect describes how novices overestimate their skill while experts tend to sell themselves short. In their initial research, Kruger and Dunning gave students tests of logic and grammar. When the researchers asked the subjects to guess at their performance on these tests, they consistently found that poorest performers overestimated themselves. Further investigation showed that the poorer performing subjects overestimated their ability simply because they weren’t good enough to know how difficult the tasks really were or what the upper bounds on quality were. Because the more skilled you are in some complicated task the more you understand what’s possible or that there are aspects to it that you don’t understand.

You can see the Dunning-Kruger effect in the world of work, especially in areas related to talent management and training. Employees who are new to a function or completed some basic training may be overconfident, overestimate their ability, and not pursue deeper knowledge. Or they may become frustrated and blame their failures on random chance or other things they think should be outside of the picture. Or they may draw incorrect conclusions or make avoidable errors yet be unable to realize it because their inexperience denies them a vantage point from which to see what’s happening. Experts in the field, on the other hand, may frustrate others by refusing to simplify what they understand to be complex issues or tasks.

Managers and other leaders can combat the Dunning-Kruger effect by crafting situations and expectations where people of all levels incorporate multiple points of view and collaboration in tasks so that people of various levels of expertise can have a benefit. Also, build a culture for learning so that people know they are always expected to examine their own limitations, remove blinders, and improve themselves. Use empirical measurements, benchmarks, and normative data whenever possible to evaluate the success of a project, program, or other endeavor. This is especially important for when people are new at a task or situation.

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