The Virtual CISO

Leadership & Executive Communication , Training & Security Leadership

Are You as Competent as You Think You Are?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and the Truth About How You Evaluate Your Career Skills
Are You as Competent as You Think You Are?

Have you ever felt as if your leader thinks he - the gender is intentional - is much better at his job than he actually is? This condition is often referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

See Also: The Cybersecurity Swiss Army Knife for Info Guardians: ISO/IEC 27001

It is not just annoying. It can be disastrous to your business and your own performance as your input, based on actual time spent in the trenches, is ignored and replaced with the "wisdom" that emanate' from your leader’s unchecked ego.

Knowing how competent we are and how our skills stack up against those of others gives us more than a self-esteem boost. This knowledge gives us the ability to determine when we can proceed based on our own experience and instincts and when we instead need to seek advice.

We're Not Very Good at Self-Evaluation

Psychological research tells us that we are lousy at evaluating our own capabilities, and we frequently overestimate our skills.

For example, in a survey that asked software engineers at two separate companies to rate their own performance, 74% placed themselves in the top 5%. In the field of sales, how many sales reps would place themselves in the top 5% were it not for the lousy leads they get from marketing or the lack of product fit with market demand or the pushback on pricing?

When psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger first described the effect in 1999, they posited that people lacking knowledge and skill were stuck with a double curse. First, they make lots of mistakes and many poor decisions. And second - but more important, those same gaps prevent them from recognizing and correcting their mistakes or reversing their bad decisions.

Does that sound familiar?

The 80/20 Rule Lives On

The crux of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that poor performers lack the expertise needed to recognize how badly they’re performing. If, for example, a sales person doesn’t know how to sell effectively, how can they know that they're a bad sales rep?

The obvious answer isn't always true. That is why we cannot ever get away from the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of your sales team is somewhere between mediocre and awful, yet they continue to make enough sales to somehow justify their role, while 20% keep the entire team afloat.

When someone gets 55% of the answers correct on a test in which 60% of the answers need to be correct to pass, that person can't avoid admitting failure. But very few operational things in life are like that.

For example, when that same person scores 61%, do they believe they didn’t fail? Does the rep who barely makes quota each quarter believe they are succeeding? In my experience, barely making quota places one squarely into the 80% squad.

Knowing What You Don't Know Is Rare

Most people with a moderate amount of experience or expertise have less confidence in their abilities because they thankfully know just enough to know that there's a lot they don't know.

But your sales leader probably isn't one of those people. More likely, they are one of the people caught in the bubble of inaccurate self-perception. When people are unskilled, they can't see their own faults. But when they're exceptionally competent, they don't perceive how unusual their abilities are because they assume that everyone else is competent too.

I once had a development partner who was like that. He was always legitimately stunned when folks didn't get what he was saying because they did not have the background he assumed they had. They were, after all, senior cybersecurity practitioners.

Everyone Regresses Toward a Mean

In the context of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the argument is that incompetent people simply regress toward the mean when you ask them to evaluate their own performance.

Since perceived performance is influenced not only by actual performance but also by many other factors - e.g., one's personality, meta-cognitive ability, measurement error, etc. - it follows that, on average, people with extreme levels of actual performance won't be quite as extreme in terms of their perception of their performance.

Sales coaches such as Grant Cardone tell us that most sales reps have never read a book on selling and don't have any forward-thinking sales training. But because those reps are led by the same people, the Dunning-Kruger effect frequently becomes institutionalized. And because they all think they are doing it correctly, they don't look for feedback or bother to continue seeking additional knowledge about their craft.

Why learn more if you are already doing it right?

After all, it is not the sales team or the leadership that's screwed up. It's the product, the pricing, the market, the support, the leads, the marketing, the messaging, the service, the tech stack, the budget, the CEO, the founders - that's what prevents us from making those sales.

Maybe You're Just in the Wrong Event

The funny thing about learning is that the more we do it the less likely we are to have these invisible holes in our competence.

Maybe instead of continuing to perform near the top of the 80% and thinking that we're doing just great, we can simply change the way we do our thing a little.

Maybe instead of focusing so hard on the transactional events - the 100-meter dash - we can slide on over to the 1,500-meter event and start working on creating value, building trust and engendering a relationship. Maybe we'll find that we are truly great at the longer event and that suddenly we are no longer falling victim to all that other stuff.

Maybe the Dunning-Kruger effect doesn't apply to us after all.



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