Above Average Performers

This weeks blog comes from our contributor, Jim Gilchrist B.E.S. of Career Advancement Employment Services.

Work done by David Dunning and Justin Kruger (Cornell University) suggests that peoples’ ignorance of performance standards is behind a great deal of incompetence. Now termed the Dunning–Kruger effect, this phenomenon occurs when an unskilled person mistakenly thinks that their ability is much higher than average, which in turn can be attributed to their inability to recognize their own mistakes.

The result: the incompetent don’t know they are incompetent!

Kruger and Dunning proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

o tend to overestimate their own skill level,
o fail to realize just how inadequate they actually are, and
o fail to recognize when other people actually possess these specific skills.

They concluded that, in contrast to high performers, poor performers typically do not learn from suggestions that they need to improve. Only if (and when) they have been trained to improve a specific skill will the incompetent actually recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of that skill.

At the same time, Kruger and Dunning found that people with true ability will sometimes underestimate their above-average competence. When competent people find certain tasks to be relatively easy, they simply assume that the same tasks must be easy for other people as well. Kruger and Dunning concluded that, the incompetent person’s misperception relates to their own lack of self-awareness, whereas the highly competent person’s misperception occurs in their evaluation of other people’s ability.

We can take these hypothesis a little further and suggest that it is quite common for people who have ability in one skill to mistakenly assume that they possess the same level of skill in other areas. Whether supported by their own lack of self-awareness, or by unfounded support by the people around them, their egocentric biases will cause them to “think that they know better” when they actually do not. Yes, they will listen to performance feedback from others but, when egocentric bias dominates, they are reluctant to accept the advice or to apply it. Thus, the incompetent will remain incompetent because of their failure to be open to advice from people who have the knowledge and expertise that they lack.

As well, many people have difficulty in simultaneously holding on to opposing beliefs or ideas (cognitive dissonance). Rather than leave their comfort zone and explore a new approach, they will often justify the continuation of previously taken decisions, opinions, and approaches, preferring to maintain the “status quo”, even when what they are doing is not working. Thus, the incompetent will remain incompetent because they resist change in themselves, in their work and their environment (even through subconscious rationalizations). By doing so, these people fall short in personal and organizational growth, technical and non-technical innovation, and in reaching appropriate levels of competitiveness.

“You are only as good as the people around you”. So, if you want to identify above average performers, you would be wise to look for managers and staff who (among other things) are accurately self-aware, comfortable with change, open to self and team development, and who are committed to growth over time. And you will benefit most by listening to advisors who offer expertise in areas that are beyond your “comfort zone”.

Think about superior athletes – there is a reason they are superior. They want to achieve and because of this they are open to honest evaluation (self-aware), to performance improvement (change) and to external advice (coaching).