Stevenson Coaching Letter #12

Hi, I hope you’re having a good week.

I do love coaching.  So many interesting things to talk about.  So this letter is about one of my favorite psychological phenomena, on display in several places this week, which is that people who are the lowest performers at a given task frequently believe that they are among the top performers—in other words, they experience a cognitive bias of illusory superiority.  There is a whole raft of studies about this, covering reading comprehension, driving, tennis, and many other activities.

This bias is commonly known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named for the two psychologists who first formally identified it, in a 1999 paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing one’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”  But you’ve experienced this effect if you have a mad uncle who thinks he’s a comedian, or a friend who thinks she can cook when her scones are like hockey pucks.  I’m sure you can come up with your own examples.

The flip side of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that people who are highly competent frequently underestimate how much better they are than others.  The explanation given for this is that people who are really good at something think that other people are just as good as they are, and are frequently taken by surprise when they find out that not everyone performs as well as they do.  I am sure that this is something that you can relate to also—in fact, I would bet that at some time, you have been one of those people.

The good news is that, unlike most other cognitive biases, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is correctable.  And there are studies to support this.  The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a failure to self-regulate because the person showing the effect does not have an adequate understanding of what competence in a given field looks like.  Once he comes to understand this, the person is able to self-assess more accurately.  The Dunning-Kruger Effect, therefore, is not an innate disability, nor a limited capacity for metacognition, nor any other personality weakness.  It is a simple failure of comprehension.

What does this have to do with leading and coaching?  For the coach, it means asking good questions when the client is making assumptions about the motives of someone who doesn’t seem to understand what good looks like.  I am sure that what frequently presents as resistance, negativity, or plain orneriness is a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

And from a leadership perspective, one should always start with the theory that gives one the most control, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect, as an explanation, certainly does that.  Because if what looks like resistance or incompetence is actually the Dunning-Kruger Effect, then there is a simple solution: clarity.

Well, it’s not exactly a simple solution.  Clarity regarding what high performance is supposed to look like doesn’t actually make someone a high performer.  But it does enable the person to self-evaluate, which is a crucial step.  As a leader, you do not want to be in the position of being the arbiter of quality if you can possibly help it.  I know that, as a parent, I don’t want my own children, to be taught by teachers who need someone else to tell them when they’re doing a good job.  I think that being a professional means being able to self-evaluate and to take action to close the gap between the results of your self-assessment and your definition of highly competent.  Knowing what highly competent looks like is a necessary first step.

For a more in-depth description of Dunning-Kruger, including the backstory, see  Also, you may wish to read a blog post about Donald Trump as the Dunning-Kruger president, which I include here not because of its statements about Donald Trump, but because of the comment from Professor Dunning himself about his work with Kruger: “We weren’t talking about ‘them out there’ being incompetent. We were talking about how each of us is incompetent,” he said. “Dunning-Kruger should cause people to reflect on themselves, not to throw epithets at others.”

So two very important lessons here: First, clarity is your friend (see also CL #7, again).  Second, we are always more insightful about other people than we are about ourselves—we can see others’ blind spots but not our own.

Thank you again for the feedback on these coaching letters—keep it coming.

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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