Point Lookout An email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
Point Lookout, a free weekly email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
January 7, 2009 Volume 9, Issue 1
 
Recommend this issue to a friend
Join the Friends of Point Lookout
HTML to link to this article…
Archive: By Topic    By Date
Links to Related Articles
Sign Up for A Tip A Day!
Create a perpetual bookmark to the current issue Bookmark and Share
Tweet this! | Follow @RickBrenner Random Article

The Paradox of Confidence

by

Most of us interpret a confident manner as evidence of competence, and a hesitant manner as evidence of lesser ability. Recent research suggests that confidence and competence are inversely correlated. If so, our assessments of credibility and competence are thrown into question.

In this culture, and others, we value confidence in leaders, mechanics, doctors, generals, and even strangers we've asked for directions. But in all these cases, and more, we're actually seeking expertise, knowledge, and capability — in short, competence.

U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin (left) with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan

U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin (left) with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan in discussion before meeting with the House Banking Committee on 20 May 1999, just six months before the work of Kruger and Dunning appeared. They were then both at the height of their power, which both used liberally to resist calls for regulation of new and growing sectors of the financial markets — the very sectors that contributed so much to the financial crisis at the end of 2008. Both men were studies in confidence, and that confidence played a role in persuading officials and the population at large that the U.S. economy was healthy and on course. Yet, on 23 October 2008, under questioning by Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives, former Chairman Greenspan testified, with regard to his "conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality," that, "…I found a flaw, I don't know how significant or permanent it is, but I have been very distressed by that fact." He went on, "I found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works…I was shocked." One model of what might have happened to him is that he had discovered the limits of his competence. The fourth factor observed by Dunning and Kruger states that, "Incompetent individuals can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by gaining competence." If this model applies, one might conclude that by October, 2008, Mr. Greenspan was somewhat more competent than he had been in 1999. Read Mr. Greenspan's complete testimony and view other documents related to the hearing. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of the Treasury.

We usually assume that confidence comes from competence. We apply this assumption personally when we seek health care, investment advice or other services. But we also apply it at work — when we make hiring decisions, when we evaluate the assertions of superiors and subordinates, and when we get advice from consultants.

Trouble is, the assumption is wrong.

We know this because of the pioneering work of Justin Kruger and David Dunning, who, working at Cornell in 1999, discovered a phenomenon now called the Dunning-Kruger effect. They performed experiments that yielded results consistent with these four principles (paraphrasing):

  1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, dramatically overestimate their ability and performance.
  2. Incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it.
  3. Incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance.
  4. Incompetent individuals can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by gaining competence.

Taken together, these four factors contribute to an inverse correlation between confidence and competence — exactly the opposite of what most of us assume.

If we can't rely on confidence as an indicator of competence, on what can we rely? In assessing competence, when we do consider factors beyond confidence, we tend to focus on domain-specific content. That helps, but it's not enough. Here are four generic indicators of competence for application in the workplace.

Awareness of limitations
The truly competent understand that their competence is limited — that there are things they can't do or don't know. This knowledge drives a continued desire to learn.
Desire to learn
Curiosity, practice, questioning, and continued study are signs of a drive to enhance competence. It is this drive that established the existing level of competence. Where this drive is weak, competence is questionable.
Constructive response to failure
Responding to Incompetent individuals, compared
with their more competent peers,
dramatically overestimate their
ability and performance
failure in constructive ways is another important way to build competence. This ability is probably essential to building competence.
Ability to assess risk realistically
Realistic risk assessment requires a reservoir of experience — competence — in the relevant domains. Incompetence leads to mis-assessment of risk. The fearful and incompetent tend to overestimate risks; the brash and incompetent tend to underestimate them. Competence tempers both.

I'm not 100% sure that these indicators are necessary and sufficient — probably not. But they've come to me through a lifetime of experience. If you have others you rely on, send them to me and I'll consider adding them to my list. Go to top Top  Next issue: Asking Clarifying Questions  Next Issue
Bookmark and Share

Read Kruger and Dunning's original paper, courtesy the American Psychological Association.

For applications of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "How to Reject Expert Opinion: Part II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012, and "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012.


52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Pulling at each otherWhen You Think They've Made Up Their Minds
In tough negotiations, when attempts to resolve differences have failed, we sometimes conclude that "they've made up their minds," but other explanations abound. Keeping an open mind about why other people seem to have closed theirs can help us find a resolution.

An eyeTake Any Seat: Part II
In meetings, where you sit in the room influences your effectiveness, both in the formal part of the meeting and in the milling-abouts that occur around breaks. You can take any seat, but if you make your choice strategically, you can better maintain your autonomy and power.

USS Lexington, an early aircraft carrierTroublesome Terminology
The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.

Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent Van GoghVirtual Conflict
Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common, we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.

The Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rain ForestTeamwork Myths: I vs. We
In high performance teams, cooperative behavior is a given. But in the experience of many, truly cooperative behavior is so rare that they believe that something fundamental is at work — that cooperative behavior requires surrendering the self, which most people are unwilling to do. It's another teamwork myth.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

A highway sign on the way to AbileneComing March 4: Virtual Trips to Abilene
One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerAnd on March 11: Historical Debates at Work
One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Decision-Making for Team Leaders
EffecDecision-Making for Team Leaderstive group decision-making requires far more than knowing how to organize a discussion or take a vote. This program is designed for both new and experienced team leaders or team sponsors, managers, project managers, portfolio managers, program managers, and executives and general managers. It is especially valuable to people who work in organizations that confront fluid environments, in which decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Managing in Fluid Environments
Most Managing in Fluid Environmentspeople now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know what's coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
For mCognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Makingost of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace -- with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.