Are the incompetent too stupid to realise it?
Have you ever noticed that people who are low performers at work tend to think they are doing a great job? And, tragically, that high-performers tend to be quite self-critical, think that others are doing much better, and are often filled with self-doubt?
Cornell University Psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger found there is a tendency on the part of those with low ability, to fail to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately. Put simply, they are too stupid to realise they are stupid. Put in a kinder way, they are lacking the skills to improve.
Dunning and Kruger found that incompetent people will:
- Fail to recognize their own lack of skill
- Fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
- Fail to accurately gauge skill in others
- Recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill
Low performers, as a result of this bias, are more likely to become defensive to feedback about their performance. “I’m doing a great job. This criticism is unfair!”
Dunning and Kruger’s research also suggests that high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may falsely assume that tasks, which are easy for them, are also easy for others.
The skills that people need to assess their performance and improve are the same skills that are lacking in the low performers – a clear understanding of what is required, an acceptance that it is ok to admit imperfection, an openness to feedback, and a desire to improve.
This at least gives us something we can work with. We can help to counter the Dunning-Kruger effect in the low performers by:
- Providing training in areas in which those individuals struggle
- Communicating clear expectations about the standards required
- Normalising - that there are no perfect people and we can all improve
- Emphasising and modeling that we all need to be open to feedback
- Giving regular, balanced feedback about their performance
With the self-critical high-performers, we need to affirm their willingness to self-reflect, their openness to feedback, and their desire to improve. But we can also reassure them that they are doing a great job, show how they are meeting the benchmarks, and encourage a little less self-criticism and self-doubt.
Are the incompetent too stupid to improve? Certainly, over time, some people will demonstrate a lack of capacity for change. The challenge then is helping them find a role that is a better fit for their strengths. Sometimes, that role might be outside of your workplace :-)
Ultimately, there are no perfect people. Whether we are a low, average or high performer, we all have to work at something.