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The Effect of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Dunning-Kruger Effect

February 17, 2022

Cognitive biases can be one of the most difficult barriers to overcome when working through a human-centered design strategy. There are many different types of biases, ranging from the most common — confirmation bias — to those that are not as common but can be equally disruptive.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where those who have a low level or limited ability to perform a specific task or meet a certain goal overestimate their ability to perform well or excel at complex tasks or meet the needs of situations that dictate a high degree of competence. Those who suffer from this effect can cause an effort to fail, as they are not objectively able to assess their own performance or track their performance against that of their peers. This is different — and a step beyond — naïve realism, which is the bias that leads us to believe that we all see the world objectively, and those who do not see the same things we do in the same way must be in error.

Any sort of cognitive bias is a cause for concern with regard to strategy development, but this particular effect can be toxic in very specific ways.

Understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Objective assessment of the performance of any strategy — the development and measurement of key performance indicators — is the baseline consideration of the tactical section of any planning framework. If this starts to backslide into a more subjective analysis, performance measurement can take on a more defensive stance — as low performers overstate their progress or inaccurately represent their ability to complete tasks.

Those contributing to this effect may have good intentions. For instance, you may experience a “white knight,” where an individual is overwhelmed by the desire to help, lead or otherwise contribute to an effort, but is motivated by the need to prove they are more capable than their peers or somehow singularly able to complete the task at hand rather than being realistically grounded or tempered by their ability to successfully meet the stated or developing objective.

Social pressures within any organization can create this effect as well. Our desire to be viewed as competent, upwardly mobile and someone who can be looked to for expertise can generate the circumstances where this effect will be present.

Open Collaboration + Transparency

A strong and well-developed organizational culture can counteract this effect. Providing support in an environment of open collaboration where sharing of information and transparency is the norm is generally the principal tonic for remaining objective about individual contributions and honest assessment of team skill levels and mutual support. The overwhelming pressure to perform without the support of those you work with can lead to feeling like one needs to prove their value, and the law of escalation states that — in that environment — one could feel the need to set themselves apart using whatever tools are available to them. In an organization where this is common, at some point that escalation detethers from reality at the expense of the perception of success or superior performance.

A key part of any strategy is an honest assessment of capabilities. But the added consideration to that is the self-assessment and honest self-actualization of team members around their skills and contribution venues in order to accurately determine the realistic outcomes of the effort. The Dunning-Kruger effect is only a single contributing variable to an element destructive to the successful implementation of strategy, but — due to the human-centered nature of its origin — it can be one of the most deleterious.

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Joseph R. Benesh

Joe Benesh is the president and CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, organizational development and design thinking firm based in Des Moines. He can be reached at joe@ingenuitycompany.com and (305) 450-9120.