3 tactics to win over the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Psychologists have been studying the correlation between Confidence and Wisdom for quite some time. 

In a perfect scenario, while people got wiser, they would see their confidence grow.

But, scientists found two deviations.

This is the first of two articles about these deviations.

In the late 20th century, David Dunning and Justin Kruger had a breakthrough written at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments“.

They pointed to this event from 1995 as an example. This fellow on the image is called McArthur Wheeler. He was arrested after armed robbery. When presented to the judge, he said, “I don’t understand how the cameras saw me. I wore the juice”. His reference was of the possibility of “invisible writing” with lemon juice. He took a shower of lemon juice and thought he was invisible. Gladly, that shop had an ultra-special-lense on the surveillance camera.

So these two scientists coined the term “Dunning-Kruger effect” as “people who have less knowledge of an actual subject think they know more than some of those more informed“.

As leaders, we are responsible for hiring people to our teams, to our organizations. Most of you may think it is reasonably easy to detect the Dunning-Kruger effect on people.

When we read the Dunning and Kruger scientific paper, we face expressions such as “incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill“.

Now, back to a hiring interview. How often do candidates have their “selling pitch” worked to perfection? Can we, in a simple conversation, detect if they have what it takes to walk the walk or are they just talking the walk?

This is a tricky business.

Because if we hire someone living strong with this Dunning-Kruger effect, it will be challenging for them to be a team player. And we have that easily explained in that paper. Just check the statement “incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others“.

How terrible this is!

“Ahh, not on my watch, I will fix it with proper feedback.”

At least when hiring for software development, we have several tools to help mitigate this risk – coding challenges and technical interviews, to name a few.

But there’s always a probability of winning the lottery. When that happens, the tactics of providing direct feedback may not be the best bet. People dealing with the Dunning-Kruger effect “fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy“. It will not be easy to provide feedback to someone who doesn’t acknowledge the situation’s urgency. It will be like talking to the wind.

Gladly the study provided some hope.

“If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill”

It seems that the real challenge is how to make these people see the light. If we can’t talk sense into them, we have to coach them, in a way, for them to see their improvements and to, finally, face the facts.

I suggest using three tactics for the win.

  • Use as many measurable performance standards as possible.

If the difficulty is for the other party to understand what is going on, use measurable standards. If you can measure it, you can improve it. And keep with the facts. Leave all the subjective feedback out of the meeting room. You face someone who may not recognize your skills even if you are their boss. I use the word “boss” on purpose. I have seen this first hand, a colleague who didn’t recognize any skill or value to our manager and used the word “boss” on purpose, in a derogatory way.

There is no possible way to dodge that bullet when you present the facts.

  • Encourage debate to overcome divergence.

How to encourage a debate with someone who doesn’t attest to any value on you?

When I was a kid, and my father taught me how to swim, I remember him saying that I should swim with the stream when in trouble. Never try to fight a stream. It will beat you by exhaustion. It’s the same when debating with people having a solid Dunning-Kruger effect. Don’t fight them. Keep asking questions and providing validation to their opinions and concerns. Ask them to bring solutions to the table and keep steering the debate in this way. It’s not an easy task to undertake.

  • Any team must have a true senior.

This one is self-explanatory. Any team needs to have someone wiser, who can detect this kind of behaviour, more experienced working with junior people, and know the work itself (this is not strict to software engineering teams, applicable in any field). While debating with a “Dunning-Kruger” (just made this word), a senior team member will help you steer the debate to proper solutions.

Having “Dunning-Krugers” on our teams is something we can not avoid. It will be inevitably a tough challenge but one that is not impossible to undertake.

I hope these tactics will work for you.

See you in a couple days for the second part of this article.

Yours truly,

Ricardo Castelhano