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How often are you blind to your incompetence?


Today is June 28 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you blind to your incompetence?" In the 19th century Andrew Carnegie noted "a genius is a person who surrounds himself with people smarter than himself.” In 1971 the English rock band Yes released the song “I’ve Seen All Good People” that included the line “don’t surround yourself with yourself, move on back two squares.” These two quotes open up today’s reflection as they both serve as a reminder to be cognizant of your own incompetence. Those who navigate the chaos understand the absolute necessity to surround themselves with those who are smarter and different from themselves.


Canadian educator Laurence Johnston Peter examined the relationship between one’s self and incompetence and said, "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a mechanic.” Peter became widely famous in 1968, on the publication of The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. The Peter Principle is a special case of a ubiquitous observation: Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails. This is the "generalised Peter Principle."


Peter noted that there is a strong temptation for people to use what has worked before, even when this might not be appropriate for the current situation. In an organizational structure, assessing an employee's potential for a promotion is often based on their performance in the current job. This eventually results in their being promoted to their highest level of competence and potentially then to a role in which they are not competent, referred to as their "level of incompetence.”


There is a fine line between imagination and being blind to one’s incompetence. For example, in his book The Element, Ken Robinson talks about a little girl who was drawing a picture. When her teacher asked what it was the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher responded, “but no one knows what God looks like” to which the girl replied, “they will when I show them my picture.” Such childhood innocence allows one to use imagination to solve problems without any concern for an awareness of competence. Adults, however, are held to a higher standard and must have eyes wide open when it comes to their incompetence.


This blend of being blind to one’s incompetence is known in social psychology as the Dunning-Kruger effect coined in 1999 by then-Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The irony of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is according to Dunning: “the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.” Another way of defining this phenomenon is “the less someone knows about a topic, the more they are likely to have strong opinions about that topic.”


The 1999 paper that launched the Dunning-Kruger Effect was called “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence led to inflated self-assessments.” Across four studies, Professor Dunning and his team administered tests of humor, grammar, and logic. And they found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. As Mark Murphy wrote in Forbes, you can find examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect everywhere. One study of high-tech firms discovered that 32-42% of software engineers rated their skills as being in the top 5% of their companies. A nationwide survey found that 21% of Americans believe that it is ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ that they’ll become millionaires within the next 10 years.


Moreover, back in 2000 a Time magazine survey asked people if they were in the top 1 percent of earners. Stunningly 19 percent of Americans said they were in the richest 1 percent and a further 20 percent expect to be someday. So right away you have 39 percent of Americans who thought they were in the top 1 percent of earners in the country. Talk about being blind to one’s incompetence! Additionally, drivers consistently rate themselves above average.


Medical technicians overestimate their knowledge in real-world lab procedures. In a classic study of faculty at the University of Nebraska, 68% rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability, and more than 90% rated themselves above average (mathematically impossible). For many professions it is important to surround yourself with people who can tell you when you make a mistake. For example, an accountant should not be ignorant of laws governing taxes. Such ignorance could be troublesome for the accountant and client.

  • How can you expect to increase your self-awareness if you lack the ability to surround yourself with people who will tell you when you are wrong?

  • How can you practice the art of living well if you never expand your horizons on a specific topic and listen to people with different opinions than yourself?

  • If you are part of a team, manage people, or raise children, how can you expect others in your sphere to respect you if you act as if you know everything about everything all the time without any consideration of how others think?

  • How comfortable are you surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you?

  • If you do not surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, what is holding you back from doing so?

  • How often are you blind to your incompetence?