August 28, 2017
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Unskilled and unaware

Workers who fail to recognize their own incompetence can compromise both performance and safety. Luckily, there's a fix for that.

By David Maloney

I recently heard a podcast that discussed the Dunning-Kruger effect. I am sure you have encountered fellow employees, subordinates, bosses, and others in your daily life who feel they are highly skilled and among the best workers in their fields. But in reality, they don't have a clue. What's more, they are often annoying in their bravado.

Putting a name to this familiar phenomenon was the work of Professor David Dunning and his research assistant Justin Kruger of Cornell University. They revealed their findings in a 1999 paper titled "Unskilled and Unaware of It."

Dunning and Kruger conducted a series of tests asking students to assess their own abilities. What they discovered is that students who performed in the bottom of their class—around the 11th to 13th percentile—actually thought they were among performers in the 60th to 70th percentile. They believed themselves to be highly competent, besting the majority, but were actually quite incompetent. They also believed that they were so skilled that they possessed the ability to teach others. They completely misjudged their abilities.

Another odd research finding was that people who are good performers actually think that they score worse than they do. They believe their performance is merely average. They figure that others are just as smart and hardworking as they are.

Such self-perceptions can be a problem if you're a manager with supervisory responsibilities. Not only will incompetent workers make mistakes, but they are also unlikely to catch and correct the mistakes or change their ways. This can lead to performance issues and even jeopardize safety.

So, how do you as a supervisor deal with people who feel they are highly skilled when they aren't? How do you interact with people who believe you are treating them unfairly when you attempt to correct performance that they feel is already exemplary?

These dilemmas point up the importance of performance-based data. Labor management software, picking solutions, driver logs, and other technologies available today all have the ability to accurately monitor and track performance. Rather than basing evaluations on opinion, these tools can provide objective data on individual work. They also provide supervisors with a way to make fair comparisons among employees and teams performing similar tasks. Using these tools is essential for managers to provide fact-based evidence to the employees they supervise. It is a way to counter the Dunning-Kruger effect.

As for dealing with a boss who is unskilled and unaware—I think you're on your own for that one.

About the Author

David Maloney
Chief Editor
David Maloney has been a journalist for more than 35 years and is currently the editorial director for DC Velocity and Supply Chain Quarterly magazines. In this role, he is responsible for the editorial content of both brands of Agile Business Media. Dave joined DC Velocity in April of 2004. Prior to that, he was a senior editor for Modern Materials Handling magazine. Dave also has extensive experience as a broadcast journalist. Before writing for supply chain publications, he was a journalist, television producer and director in Pittsburgh. Dave combines a background of reporting on logistics with his video production experience to bring new opportunities to DC Velocity readers, including web videos highlighting top distribution and logistics facilities, webcasts and other cross-media projects. He continues to live and work in the Pittsburgh area.

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