Unconscious Incompetence

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Unconscious Incompetence

We all know them, people who think that they are experts on a certain topic (in extreme cases on all topics!) when in fact they know very little.  I recently found out that there is actually a name for this – it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect which is defined as: “the phenomenon wherein people who have little knowledge think that they know more than others who have much more knowledge”

It’s named for Justin Kruger and David Dunning who first demonstrated the phenomenon in a series of experiments, when they were both at Cornell University. Their results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 1999.

In short what is comes down to is the following: Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill, and are typically unable to recognise recognize genuine skill in others. On the other end of the scale, truly knowledgeable individuals tend to under-estimate their own competence. Personally I’d rather deal with someone who knows very little about something but is aware of his inadequacy and willing to admit to it, than with someone who is unaware of his own incompetence.

I think the most dangerous person to have on your payroll is the ‘unconsciously incompetent’! I can think of several implications of this phenomenon in organisation, mostly in the areas of Knowledge Management and Learning & Development. How do you encourage a culture of knowledge sharing if half the people think that they already know everything? Also, how much of their ‘ignorance’ is propagated?

In one of the South African projects in a local bank, narrative techniques were used to determine why staff members weren’t paying attention to the quality of data that they were entering into the Customer Information File. In this study we found that people tended to look to colleagues for assistance – they seldomly read policies and procedure updates, instead they ‘phoned a friend’ when they needed to know something. So, if as in this case, some of these friends were unconsciously incompetent you can see how miss-information can rapidly spread throughout a community. It shows once again the power of social networks, this time to the negative.

This problem is compounded in organisations where skill shortages and an ageing workforce leads to situations where there are very few truely skilled individuals who are able to spot these incompetent individuals.  When allowed free reign, their stupid decisions and costly mistakes often cause serious long-term issues for companies (or countries!).

As Darwin said: “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”

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