Leadership and the Dunning–Kruger Effect

“Useful men, who do useful things, don’t mind being treated as useless. But the useless always judge themselves as being important and hide all their incompetence behind authority.” – Paulo Coelho

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In 1999, a couple of psychologists from Cornell University, named Kruger and Dunning, published some research findings* which essentially said that there is a tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability, and a tendency for experts to underestimate their own ability. This incorrect self-assessment of competence became known as the Dunning–Kruger Effect. When organizing to effect change, this tendency creates unique challenges.

Over-Estimators

If someone has assumed a leadership role, the failure to recognize their own lack of skill, as well as the extent of that inadequacy, is a potential recipe for disaster. This is doubly problematic as the researchers also found that over-estimators also fail to accurately gauge skill in others.

I have written previously about emotional intelligence, and how people can develop their capacity for it. Similarly, I believe that people can train themselves to more realistically assess their abilities in a variety of skills. The fact that under-performance is accompanied by tangible evidence in the end, means that there is incentive for people to seek honest, realistic self-assessment.

Under-Estimators

The real tragedy lies with the under-estimators. Undervaluing your own abilities isn’t just sad and unfortunate on a personal level. It has an impact on group morale, commitment, productivity, and ultimately, success.

One strategy to overcome this challenge would be to use appreciative inquiry, or one-to-one conversations, to map the assets of individuals. People sometimes forget about skills and talents that they have, and require others help to uncover those assets.

If you have examples of how an individual’s over-, or under-estimating their own abilities has played out in you work, please share them in the comments below.


*Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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