As a company passionate about innovation we are regularly evaluating and re-evaluating knowledge – whether it’s our collective own, an employee’s or a client’s. Knowledge is a funny thing. Common sense might suggest that the more one learns about a subject the more confident one becomes. However, this is not entirely true, at least not in the beginning.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
The Dunning-Kruger effect (DKE) is a cognitive bias that has been known for some time, but was only formalised in 1999 by two Cornell psychologists. It involves the seemingly contradictory idea that often those with little knowledge on a subject may come across as exceedingly confident about the subject. Conversely those with more knowledge may be less confident.
You may recognise DKE in the rise of political populism, science-versus-pseudo-science debate (e.g. with anti-vaccination proponents, flat-Earth theorists, etc.), music talent show contestants but you probably have also experienced it in the work-place with other colleagues, different departments and perhaps even with yourself as you learn more about a new topic.
The natural process of learning about something novel is that you learn a little and get quite excited about it. You may then feel quite confident to talk about the topic. However, as you learn more, you are struck with the realisation that you know very little about the topic. From that point, you may decide to abandon learning about the topic (frequent problem in the innovation space) or spend time learning more about the problem until you (and/or your team/company) have gained a suitable level of proficiency to act on that knowledge.
Common problems reflected in the workplace
Both internally and externally, we frequently see the DKE at work. Examples are listed below:
- We get excited about a new topic and decide we want to develop product, but when we start looking into the topic it becomes more complex than we ever imagined. We either abandon, adapt, phase or take longer to roll-out the product.
- We meet operational managers who are concerned that their team has many members who are completely unaware that they lack in depth knowledge on a topic/s.
- We witness IT and business teams clashing as both are unaware as to what they don’t know in the other’s field. The IT professional may be oblivious to the operational realities and business pressures in the business space. The business professional may have little appreciation for technical implication and complexities of what they are asking for.
How to address the Dunning-Kruger effect in the workplace?
- Create a knowledge-sharing and learning culture throughout the company. In this way knowledge will always be flowing from department to department.
- Weekly knowledge shares (inter-department and cross-department)
- Implement a repository of information to help employees learn on demand e.g. an internal Wiki.
- Consider the use of external consultants who work with a range of other companies to regularly help train and mentor your teams. You may know your environment best, but consultants can bring invaluable knowledge and perspective breaking through your company’s echo chamber – if used effectively.
- Support those who are in the “valley of realisation” – support and enable them to learn and grow.
- When recruiting, look to recruit based on both aptitude and attitude. A willing and able learner is a crucial asset in an ever-changing environment. Depending on the role, you should look to test for behavioural traits that emphasise full competency. This should include ability, attitude, resilience to change, self-awareness and enthusiasm to learn. When we interview for consulting, analytical and IT developer positions, we ask the candidate to present on a topic of choice. This we find the most informative part of the interview process and we are normally pretty sure of our decision at this point.
Becoming personally resilient to the Dunning-Kruger effect
While addressing knowledge challenges within your work team, be aware that each one of us is subject to the same similar flaws in thinking. Through self-awareness, metacognition (awareness of one’s own thought process) and a continued willingness to learn, one is better equipped to avoid the Dunning-Kruger trap. Resilience to DK is all too evident in management performance. A 2013 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology indeed showed that successful managers were those more self-aware, willing to learn and open to self-improvement. Create that learning culture and lead by example. It’s also about constantly pushing yourself and others out of the comfort zone – only then do you get the opportunity to know how much more there is to learn.