Dunning-Kruger Effect: But I’m a Great Driver

September 27, 2022

by Stephen T. Messenger

I recently rode in the car with a really bad driver. He took the corners too fast, stopped abruptly, and generally made me fear for my life. Yet, when I subtly brought up his lack of driving skills, he brushed it off as if he could be a driving instructor in his spare time.

What would cause such a bad driver to think they’re good?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect states that people routinely overestimate their own performance in areas they lack competence, and they dismiss any evidence that would prove them wrong.

In other words, everyone sees I’m terrible, but I think I’m pretty good.

This dangerous concept traps all of us. We all think we’re above average at work, as a member of society, and yes, even behind the wheel of a car. Yet 50% of us will always be below average. Am I one of them and just don’t realize it?

Maybe a more interesting part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is the graphing of a person’s competence and confidence over time.

Base Camp

I started my new job 76 days ago. On Day Zero, my competence was the same level as the number of days I had been working here: zero. I call this base camp. I didn’t know anything, I was concerned about my lack of knowledge, and I knew that in every meeting I was literally the most clueless person in the room.

This is not a scary place to be for me. Military organizations are built around great people, and they all want to see the new boss succeed. “Be comfortable being uncomfortable.” However, my confidence in making decisions was also extremely low, and rightly so.

Mount Hubris

Fast forward two-and-a-half months and my competence is… still low. But as the saying goes, “I know enough to be dangerous.” Never has a truer statement been made. My confidence is at an all-time high.

I’ve summitted Mount Hubris. I still know only a small portion of the job, yet I’m gaining the confidence to make increasingly complex decisions. I rely on experts less and make snap decisions more based on my still-limited knowledge. This is a scary place to be.

It’s similar to a teenager driving a car after two years of licensing. They’re feeling competent, extremely confident, and curious how high that speedometer actually will go. I’ve been there.

The Valley of Despair

What happens next is an incident that forces us to descend the mountain. For a new driver, it’s a fender bender. For a leader, it’s a failed decision.

Good leaders know they need to change at this point, and they descend Mount Hubris embarrassed. They didn’t know as much as they thought and enter the Valley of Despair. They realize there’s still so much left to learn.

I haven’t reached this point yet, but it could happen any day now. When it does, I guarantee my self-confidence will be shattered and my decision-making will be significantly more conservative for a while afterward.

The Path of Enlightenment

It’s a leader’s responsibility to acknowledge that they have more to learn, and their journey is just beginning. Only then will a leader continue to grow in competence and confidence at an equal rate.

We need leaders who understand that they don’t know everything and aren’t afraid to ask questions. We need leaders who ask for recommendations from their team for every decision. We need leaders who are not standing on Mount Hubris thinking they know everything.

In this new job of mine, I’ve challenged myself to “dampen the sine wave.” I want to take the irrational spike in confidence at the beginning of my job, and turn it into a steady, upwards slope of competence and confidence over time and remain on the slope of enlightenment.

Ways to go about this:

  • Be curious. Continue to ask questions to experts and grow your knowledge
  • Trust others. Leaders have smart people working with them. Use them!
  • Empower teams. If you’re making every decision, congrats! You’ve summitted Mount Hubris
  • Be humble. It’s okay to ask others for help, advice, or feedback. We’re in this together

Learning Never Stops

We need leaders with less hubris and more curiosity; leaders who are willing to learn continuously and leverage their great people for the good of the organization. We were not meant to lead alone. That’s why leaders have followers.

Believe me, your people will thank you for your slow ascent up the path of enlightenment. After all, not all of us are the best drivers on the road.

Lead well!

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