Incompetent and unaware…

There is a popular Internet meme out there nowadays:

“The thing with death, is that no one knows they are dead. Everyone else knows, but the dead person has no idea… It is the same… with stupid”.

I have just finished reading a very interesting research article entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognising Ones Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from Cornell University.

The research postulates and then proves via experimentation, the following 4 statements:

1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria. (Put simply – incompetent people think they are more skilled than they are)

2. Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers, to recognise competence when they see it – be it their own or anyone else’s. (Put simply – incompetent people don’t know what excellence looks like)

3. Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of comparison with others (Put simply – incompetent people are less likely to self-diagnose and therefore less likely to self-improve, just by looking around them)

4. Incompetent people can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes by making them more competent. (Put simply – incompetent people need outside help to overcome their own shortcomings)

The article was challenging for me, as an HR professional. We are the capability planners, the people strategists and the performance enhancers, through our unique skillset. We are called upon to develop employees, to enhance their skills through training, mentorship, coaching and work experience. And in reality, I would say that most training achieves something of what we want it to, but perhaps not nearly enough? It would be hard to evaluate, but I have long wondered if it ever earns back its dollar investment or time commitment. Mentorship and coaching are better strategies by far, but they still fall short of the mark most times, I fear. Our capability improvement strategies are not always as effective as we hope they will be!

I think this article helps to shine a light on why this might be. When someone has a skills gap or a performance gap, as managers or employers we often focus directly on improving the skills and the behaviour. But this is nothing more than the band-aid on the problem, unless we can take it far deeper. If we take the bigger picture as discussed here, we are seeking to bring personal change to an individual who probably cannot even see the need for change, and for whom denial of the need for change is almost instinctive.

We are asking an employee to acknowledge something that is deep at the core of their security and self image – to utter the words to themselves “I am incompetent in this area and I am failing myself and my team” These are hard words to hear let alone say to oneself.

It seems to me that the real problem is that old adage – that “in order for change to occur, it must become far more uncomfortable to stay the same, than it is to change”. Until a tipping point is reached, where staying the same becomes even more uncomfortable than the process of change, people will not be motivated to embrace change. There seems to be a ”push” into change, rather than a “pull” into it. A “Push” driver is a change precipitator born of reluctance, an “ok, then, if I have to” mindset, rather than a “pull” driver which would be more visionary and growth oriented – a “wow, look at the potential” mindset.

It’s probably realistic to say that change is always personal. Even if it is corporate. Because the individual has to choose it, and then change, as an individual. This applies to corporate structural change processes, but even more so to employees where the change is required because of a personal failing such as incompetence.

Having had personal experience with employees who are in this situation of unacknowledged incompetence, or wilful blindness, or are actually being prevented by colleagues or seniors from recognising their own incompetence (no, its not you, its the other person…!), I can confirm that the challenge a manager faces in this situation is huge. In a situation where there is no perceived need to change – where discomfort of the status quo has been removed, or dulled, the employee is not required to face the facts. The employee’s denial of their own incompetence, and of the need to change can become absolute and non-negotiable. In fact, the response to their own incompetence being identified and exposed can be actively toxic. Where employees are politically active within the workplace, this can become downright destructive to the office environment.

The problem is, according to this research, is that incompetence itself, is the biggest obstacle to dealing with incompetence. 

Where an employee has a performance or a skills issue the first port of call for a change agent should perhaps not be the skill set or the behaviour, but rather the employee’s unrealistic perception of themselves! Maybe the secret to successful performance management, or any change process, is to focus on the benefit to the employee from the start!

It is insightful to note that the usual approach of a manager is to insist on change that will first and foremost benefit the employer, of course, through improved performance, and only as a secondary outcome do we anticipate it will also benefit the employee in some way. So the chances are fairly good that the need for change is not even the employee’s need – it is the employer’s need, being projected onto the individual from the outside! I’m not disagreeing with this, just pointing it out.

But according to what I have read, not only are the incompetent convinced that they are actually fantastic, despite plenty of obvious evidence to the contrary, they equally are unable to see excellence when it is shown to them or to realise that they are not actually achieving it! So the obvious strategies we all embrace for initiating change in an underperforming employee, are not actually likely to succeed!

In reality, this article proposes that the employee cannot even see the problem, can’t understand what the company/manager wants, can’t fix it themselves and – crucially – needs other people to help them realise this.

So in order to create lasting change in an employee’s performance, increasing competence, is only the 4th of 4 requirements! And paradoxically, increasing competence is the only way to fix problems one, two and three!

Underneath all change strategies aimed at incompetent individuals, must be the unrelenting and unavoidable personal discomfort of not changing. Without this, there will NOT be change. That comes down to recognisable and oncoming personal consequences for a failure to grow. Then, and only then…

Firstly we need to help employees honestly see their own performance accurately. Secondly we need to find a way to show them what excellence looks like directly in comparison to what they currently deliver. Thirdly we need to show them how to self evaluate, and fourthly we need to offer help.

Next post: What kind of manager gets this right?


About Vaughan Granier

Just Thinking...
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