If You Think Your Coworkers are Incompetent, You’re Probably Right

Credit: Warner Bros. Television / leslienorp.tumblr.com

On a daily basis we’re confronted with individuals that have no clue how to do their job.  In really severe cases, those individuals also may be arrogant enough to think that their performance is above par.  You think, “How can it be that these idiots are still employed?”  Well, you’re not alone.  In fact, if you spend a large part of your day thinking you’re surrounded by overly confident, yet completely incompetent coworkers, you just might be right.

In 1999 Dr. David Dunning and Dr. Justin Kruger published “Unskilled and Unaware of It” which put this theory to the test at Cornell University.  They devised three quizzes with subjects ranging from grammar to humor.  After individuals completed these tests, they would then be asked to assess their performance against their peers.  Did they think they tested higher than the other participants or lower?  This score would then be juxtaposed to their actual performance to understand how good those individuals were at assessing their own competence.

This is where it gets interesting… The very individuals that had the worst scores on the tests thought their score would be at least above average compared to their peers.  So what does this mean?  The Dunning-Kruger Effect proposed that the very skills that the low testers lacked in selecting the correct answers on their quiz, were also the skills they were lacking in accurately assessing their performance.  They had a much harder time distinguishing “accuracy from error” in general.  

Alternatively, the individuals that scored best on the quiz thought their performance was slightly worse than where they actually ranked.  These individuals had their own reason for the differential between self-assessment and reality.  Essentially, they weren’t underestimating their own competency, but instead they had overestimated the competency of their peers.  In other words, if you’re questioning yourself everyday and constantly feeling like you don’t measure up to your peers, you just may be one of the top performers.

Like any study, these results should be taken with a grain of salt, but it did help me understand one thing I had always questioned at work.  Many companies require their employees to undergo an annual or bi-annual review process in which the employee is required to self-assess his or her performance and then a manager will review that assessment.  I always questioned why the employee should self-assess when it seems that everyone would over-inflate their performance.  Now I can see that this may actually help employers identify and work with the employees that may be suffering from the paradoxical impact of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.    

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