Monday Mornings with Madison

Helping Underperforming but Unwitting Employees Improve Skills

Word Count:  1,309 

Estimated Read Time: 5 min.

A study of high-tech firms found that 32-42% of their software engineers rated their skills as being in the top 5% of their companies.  This is mathematically impossible.  A study at the University of Nebraska found that 68% of the faculty rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability, and over 90% rated themselves as above average, which is another mathematical impossibility.   A study of medical technicians found that they consistently overestimate their knowledge of real-world lab procedures.  This problem is not restricted to just employees.  Studies also found this phenomenon in college students.  Students in the bottom quartile of a number of tests on grammar, logic and humor grossly overestimated their ability.  Those who tested in the bottom 10% for grammar actually thought they were in the top 33%.  That’s a huge gap between perception and reality.  And given that a study of over 30,000 employees found that fewer than half said they didn’t know if they were doing a good job while most managers believed their own performance was above par, then this phenomenon seems to also apply to those in management and leadership whose job it is to assess and communicate employee performance.

According to countless studies, many people have an inflated sense of their own skills and abilities.  A large percentage of people are less skilled than they need to be in their work while their own perception of their skills is significantly higher than their actual skills.  It is a common phenomenon.  And, for employers, it is also a significant problem.  Not only do most companies have many employees whose skills are subpar and thus aren’t doing their jobs well, but these marginally-skilled employees have no idea that they aren’t performing well.  In fact, they usually think that their work quality is above average.  This problem is not only widespread, but it is one that seriously hurts productivity and service delivery.  This is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  But what is an employer to do when an employee’s opinion of his skills and performance don’t align with what is needed and expected for the job?    Is there a way to help underperforming but unwitting employees improve their skills?

The DK Effect

What causes the DK Effect?  Well, according to Dr. Justin Kruger and Dr. David Dunning with the Department of Psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains.  This overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these areas not only reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”  In other words, they not only lack skill but, because of this lack of skill, they lack the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error.  They are clueless.   They don’t know what they don’t know.

The DK effect has been proven in countless studies.  It is almost certain that every person reading this article knows someone whose job skills are way below what they should be to do their job well and yet that person thinks his own skills are way above average.   And this is not just false bravado.  This person is genuinely certain that he is doing a great (not just good or average) job.  Perhaps that person is a computer programmer, who thinks his programming skills are top-notch but whose actual code is a mess.  Silicon Valley sees a lot of that.  Or maybe it is a salesperson who has a very high opinion of his ability to influence people and close deals, but whose actual sales numbers just don’t align with that self-perception.   Or perhaps it is a leader who believes he is the best at hiring and managing but continues to overhaul work processes and personnel because of never-ending problems with productivity and performance.  In such cases, there is a big disconnect between the person’s actual skills and his self-assessment.  The poorest performers are least aware of and capable of recognizing their own incompetence.

Solving the DK Effect

People who are experiencing the DK effect cannot just be told that they are under-skilled or under-performing.   Constructive criticism is generally pointless in such situations because the person’s opinion of his own work has no relationship to reality.   Despite messing up at work, failing to perform well, and irritating other people, the incompetent still don’t believe they’re incompetent.

So what is a manager or business owner to do with employees under the DK Effect?  How does a leader overcome egocentric bias?  There are some things that either a manager or individual can do to overcome the DK effect.

1.  Set Measurable Goals

For a manager who is trying to help an employee with the DK effect to recognize how his work measures up, it is important to evaluate work and set measurable goals.  The goal should measure not just quantity but quality.  The standards should be set in comparison to others who do a similar job in a similar setting.  Only then can an employee understand how he fell short of the mark.  So if an average web designer with 2 years of experience takes 60 days to design and code a 15 page website with less than 10 errors and/or broken links, then that is the benchmark by which other web designers’ skills can be measured.  Otherwise, it is impossible for an employee to know if his skills really don’t measure up or if arbitrary benchmarks are being used to assess skill.

2. Increase Competence

Becoming more skilled or competent is always a good thing.  But improving the skills of a person who is not living up to measurable goals but is experiencing the DK effect — and thus increasing their metacognitive competence — helps him recognize the limitations of his abilities.  The more he learns and the more skilled he becomes, the less overconfident he becomes and more able to recognize his own inadequacies.   In these situations, knowledge is truly power.   As Stephen Covey suggested in his seven habits of highly effective people, it is important to sharpen the saw if only to find out just how little we know.

3. Beware during Beginnings

The Dunning-Kruger effect is most likely to strike when a person is new to a skill or topic.  So right after learning or improving on a skill, it is important to be extra careful to gather relevant information and expertise, and not be over-confident about ability.

4. Take Time to Deliberate Decisions

Decisions that are made quickly are generally more biased.  The DK effect is more likely to occur when making quick calls or snap decisions.  Research suggests people should be wary of quick and impulsive decisions.  Those who deliberate over decisions are less likely to get caught up in the DK effect.  Those who jump to conclusions are the most prone to overconfident errors.  Before moving forward with a decision, it is useful to explicitly consider how a decision might be wrong.

5. Balance Caution and Confidence

While confidence isn’t always bad or unmerited, it must be balanced.  While confidence can be extremely useful on the day a company is launching a new product (think of Steve Jobs and Apple Computers), in-the-moment confidence should be balanced with lots of preparatory self-doubt, learning, and deliberation.  In preparing for big events, employees should be cautious and careful.  They should over-plan and have solid contingency plans so that everything is on point for a grand opening or major acquisition.  They shouldn’t use confidence to become complacent.  Instead, they should put in the extra effort and strategizing that will help avoid errors and mistakes.

By combining these strategies, it is possible to help underperforming and unwitting employees recognize their limitations and improve their skills.  And making an employee perform better is good for the employee, the manager and the company.

Quote of the Week

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are unwise, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” Bertrand Russell

 

© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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