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How to beat the opposite of imposter syndrome: the Dunning-Kruger effect

June 9, 2021 - 11 min read


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Check your assumptions

Get a gut check

Self-reflect on feedback honestly

The Dunning-Kruger effect matters at every career stage

Your colleague Mark is a copywriter who joined the company you work at earlier this year. In the brief period you've known him, you've noticed that he's remarkably self-assured about his work, despite internal clients often requesting multiple revisions.

Six months into the job, Mark comes out of his first performance review, and he can't believe how it went: Mark's manager rated him a poor performer. "I'm so confused," says Mark. "This doesn't make sense."

Does the situation sound familiar? Psychologists call this the Dunning-Kruger effect, a type of cognitive bias where individuals can't perceive their actual ability. This effect results in two situations: underperformers overestimate their competence, or overperformers underestimate their skills.

The Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t helpful for building your career. You might be a talented employee who is completely unaware of your strengths because you assume work is just as easy for everyone else. On the flip side, you might be disappointed if you overestimate your skills and don't receive the recognition you think you deserve.

Learn to understand your abilities for what they are, so you can trust your instincts, build your confidence, and grab opportunities when they come your way. You'll be able to lean into your strengths and work on areas of growth so that you can thrive at work and beyond.

Check your assumptions

As David Dunning says—one of the psychologists who coined the Dunning-Kruger effect—individuals are often ignorant about their ignorance. Often, the source of ignorance is assumptions—about yourself and your environment. The solution is increasing your knowledge about yourself—both in terms of your internal values and how others perceive you. When you're self-aware, you're able to realistically measure your external environment and experiences against your inner values.

Let’s return to the example of Mark. With more self-awareness, he'd quickly realize that he needs to work harder and be more attentive to clients' needs. If he'd done that, his performance review might have gone in a completely different direction.

Although many individuals believe they're self-aware, research shows that only 10% to 15% fit the bill. So how can you cultivate self-awareness to beat the opposite of imposter syndrome? Start by challenging your assumptions. When you make assumptions, you're closing yourself off to alternate possibilities. It may make you overlook a better way of doing things.

"Ask yourself where you could be wrong if the decision is an important one. Or how can your plans end up in disaster?" says Dunning.

New York-based clinical psychologist Jennifer Guttman recommends three tips to avoid making assumptions and build self-awareness:

  1. "Assess the evidence." Any hypothesis needs proof to make it true. Guttman recommends being "as clinical as possible" and detaching yourself emotionally to check your assumptions about something.
  2. "Trust your ability to problem-solve," and you'll be more open to understanding an opposing point of view. When you trust your ability to problem-solve, you're more inclined to view a situation objectively because you'll have a solution to the problem. And that's vital because you'll be able to view problems and situations as they are, without your bias clouding it.
  3. "Develop a strategy of restriction." Distract yourself when you notice your mind is jumping to conclusions without details to support it. This process can help you avoid making assumptions.

Alternately, science-based self-assessments or personality tests can help you develop self-awareness. Keep in mind that test results are a helpful start but shouldn't be your definitive source of truth about yourself. Personalities are too complicated for a test to completely capture them. Examples of personality tests include MBTI/16Personalities, Berkeley Emotional Intelligence, PATH Assessment, Big Five, and CliftonStrengths.

Get a gut check

Getting a gut check from a third party can help you avoid the trap of relying solely on your beliefs. For example, when you’re not sure if your estimation about your skills is right, a gut check can help you get validation or course-correct if it’s incorrect. The result? Better self-awareness and work performance.

“A lot of the issues or problems we get into, we get into because we’re doing it all by ourselves ... We’re making decisions as our own island, if you will,” says Dunning. “... don’t try to do it yourself. Doing it yourself is when you get into trouble.”

Rely on a trusted confidante—be it a friend, family, colleague, or your therapist—for advice and honest opinions.
Keep in mind, the person you rely on needs to be someone who won’t just tell you what you want to hear but will share what you need to hear. Honesty is key here to avoid confirmation bias.

Alternately, you could work with a leadership coach to gut check your thoughts. A coach can help you develop strategies to calibrate and challenge your too-confident assessments in a way that will serve you well over time. In BetterUp coaching, your coach will customize sessions based on your personality, guide you to ask yourself the right questions to process situations objectively, and provide you with the tools needed to avoid the same type of thinking or mistakes in the future.

Gokul Rajaram, a board member at Pinterest and Coinbase, uses the SPADE framework to avoid confirmation bias when making big decisions. SPADE helps Rajaram “solicit feedback without getting group-think,” and the framework strengthens decision-making in a number of other ways as well.

Unlock the potential in your organization through self-awareness, reflection, and greater clarity.

Self-reflect on feedback honestly

When you receive feedback, don’t just process it quickly. Examine it carefully to view yourself critically and see your situation from different perspectives. This reflection will help you overcome the ignorance trap about your work performance or abilities.

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful,” says Margaret Wheatley, a writer, teacher, and management consultant.

When done right, reflection can help you identify your strengths. Once you understand what you’re good at, you can seek opportunities that require your specific skillset. Moreover, studies show that reflection can help you learn, find meaning in your work, and improve performance.

How can you reflect honestly to avoid falling into the trap? First, check whether there are facts to support the feedback.

“One of the things that really concerns me is that people really don’t make the distinction between facts and opinion,” says Dunning.

Jennifer Porter, the managing partner at The Boda Group, says questions are also a great way to reflect. Questions can help you separate facts from opinions and think about the other person’s point of view. Some suggestions include:

  • How do I feel about the feedback?
  • Is there any truth to this feedback? If so, which of my actions could have contributed to this?
  • What am I not willing to face about the feedback, and why?
  • Is there an opportunity for growth in this feedback? If so, what is it?

Porter also recommends setting aside time for reflection every day or week to develop a habit of self-reflection. Reflective journaling can help you release your thoughts and revisit them with a fresh set of eyes to minimize bias.

The Dunning-Kruger effect matters at every career stage

Experience doesn’t inhibit this cognitive bias. Anyone can fall into the Dunning-Kruger effect without knowing it. So, regardless of whether you’re in a leadership role or an entry-level position, stay mindful of your strengths and shortcomings.
After all, greater awareness gives you more self-control, which is essential to becoming a great leader.

Published June 9, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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