Incompetent Leaders Don’t Realize How Incompetent They Are
The Dunning–Kruger Effect (DKE) and how it impacts organizations would be funny, if its results were not so devastating.
In 1999, psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning published “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” The duo examined the results of four studies that focused on people who tested in the bottom quartile for knowledge in specific domains, such as grammar. They noticed a subset of people who despite having little actual knowledge, self-rated as being well above average.
On the other hand, knowledgeable people tend to under value their expertise.
Dunning and Kruger concluded, and additional research has confirmed, this group of people lack enough knowledge to create an accurate frame of reference to judge their own ignorance. It is not a lack of overall intelligence, however, it is a lack of self awareness with a dash of too much ego.
Ignorance Is Not Always Bliss
This type of ignorance is not bliss, especially in the workplace. DKE leaders who are experts in one area, such as finance, who believe they have the same expertise in human resources, IT or fundraising make large mistakes in fields they lack knowledge.
Even worse, DKE leaders are guilty of dual errors of judgment. In addition to giving themselves too much credit, research confirms DKE leaders rate knowledgeable people as less competent than themselves.
Thankfully, I have worked for only one textbook DKE leader. A newly minted vice president was put in charge of marketing (of which I was director) and several other departments without previous experience in those fields. However, he often bragged that he “took a class” in marketing, which made him a self-proclaimed marketing expert.
Since none of the experienced marketing people knew what we were doing, he quickly dismantled almost every marketing campaign. My weekly meetings with him were like scenes from “Groundhog Day.” We covered the same topics and had the same discussions about next steps, and never came to any resolution because he couldn’t make a decision and wouldn’t let anyone else make one.
I quickly left and was followed by one of my managers. In the three years before he was removed, he never put a full marketing campaign into the market, and despite no visible measure of achievement, feels his time at the company was a great success.
Managing A DKE Leader
Fortunately, most DKE leaders are not put in charge of departments they have no experience with. They are simply lobbing stones of ignorance to undermine other leaders and puff themselves up. However, if you get stuck with a clueless leader, there are several things you can do while you bide your time.
- Get it writing. When you execute stupidity, you want to document where it came from
- Do not try to educate a DKE leader. Since he thinks he knows more than you, he will not listen to your pearls of wisdom
- Do not take any derogatory statements personally. He is, after all, ignorant
- If you can, get out of Dodge
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Gregory Alford, MS. Psy., is founder of Accelerated Coaching & Consulting LLC, and specializes in business, leadership and life coaching and Marcom consulting.