More on the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Posted on February 25, 2014 by Robert Ringer Comments (23)

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After my article on the Dunning-Kruger effect, a couple of readers asked me to describe a specific example of an incompetent, overconfident person I’ve had to deal with in the past.  The best example I can think of is one that I wrote about in my book Action! Nothing Happens Until Something Moves.

In an age when young people believe they should be rewarded just for being alive, a large percentage of job applicants have a remarkably inflated perception of their abilities.  Many applicants today can’t even spell the word competency, let alone display it in their work.  They are, of course, carriers of the Dunning-Kruger virus.

I found out the hard way that it’s a dangerous mistake to assume that someone is competent just because he talks confidently in an interview.  There’s many a slip between the interview and a person’s performance on the job.

My own experience in this area has taught me to be especially wary when an individual is over the top in making a case for himself.  It seems as though a whole cult of people has grown up who, lacking marketable skills and competency, have become amazingly adept at fooling interviewers.

The objective in today’s easy-come, easy-go America isn’t to become competent at a job; it’s to become competent at being interviewed.  Early in my career, I thought I was quite good at judging prospects during interviews, but, without being consciously aware of it, I apparently lost pace with the rapid proliferation of the professional interviewee’s staggering array of tricks.

My memory takes me back to a frantic search for a high-level “executive secretary.”  (I use quote marks around the words executive secretary, because it seems as though anyone who knows how to type fifty words a minute, talks in an authoritative tone on the telephone, and has managed to stay with one employer for at least six months fancies him or herself to be an executive secretary.)

After interviewing a number of prospects, one candidate in particular made a big impression on me with her air of self-confidence.  In fact, at one point she just came right out and told me, in a matter-of-fact tone, that she was “the best.”

Of course, because she was the best, she also wanted a starting salary that was far in excess of anything I had previously paid to anyone whose skills were unproven.  Naively, I assumed that given the fact that she had declared herself to be the best, she certainly must, at the very least, be very good.  Otherwise, how would she have the audacity to say she was the best?  (Yes, I was blushing as I wrote that.)

Since I was not able to contact her previous employer (naturally, he was out of business, apparently living in Guam or some such place, and thus inaccessible), I based my hiring of her on assumptions.  (Note:  Ex-employers who have disappeared are almost always a red flag.)

The result?  After a couple of weeks, I noticed a few things that Ms. Best was doing wrong, but I wasn’t too concerned about them, because I had the comfort of knowing that she was “the best.”  After all, she had told me so.

While complimenting her on her “progress,” I also tactfully suggested that there were a few areas where she might want to sharpen up a bit — such as trying not to make so many assumptions herself (which seemed to be leading her to make numerous mistakes), being more alert when listening to dictation (so as to make fewer of those mistakes), and cutting down on her social calls during business hours.

By the third month, I was ready to concede that Ms. Best was not “the best” after all.  To those in the office who were thinking more in terms of setting the back of her hair on fire, I said, “Look, maybe she isn’t the superstar I thought she was, but she is good.  She just seems to have mental lapses now and then.”

But by the end of the fourth month, I was beginning to weaken.  “All right,” I confided to some of my staff, “I admit that she makes a lot of mistakes.  I admit she sometimes forgets to write down phone messages.  I admit she has a habit of making costly assumptions.  I admit she often misplaces important documents.  But she is mechanically proficient,” I protested to my troops in defensive desperation.

Nevertheless, by the fifth month it was I who was considering putting a torch to Ms. Best’s hair.  The urge came when I called her into my office to point out yet another mistake she had made, one which had resulted in some costly repercussions.  My primary intent was to forestall a repetition of the unhappy event, but she wasn’t about to let it go at that.

Her first reaction was to tell me that it was I who was mistaken, because my recollection of my instructions to her was incorrect.  After I strongly suggested that my instructions had been exactly as I had stated, Ms. Best broke into tears and ran out of my office.  It was a touching sight — extraordinarily appropriate business behavior for an executive secretary who claimed to be “the best.”

Subsequently, she reviewed her transcription notes and found, to her chagrin, that she had been wrong after all.  Did that prompt her to offer a brief and immediate apology?  Of course not.  That’s not the way “the best” operate.

Instead, she typed up a two-page explanation of the situation — on company time — in which she admitted her mistake, but emphasized that “(my) handling of the situation begged for defensive action on (her) part.”

At that point, I realized that I had an important decision to make:  Either I had to go into the professional baby-sitting business fulltime or admit to the rest of the office that I had been guilty of making an embarrassing and incorrect assumption.  I decided on the latter.  Not only was Ms. Best guilty of all of the aforementioned mistakes, but, my previous assertions notwithstanding, she really was not even mechanically proficient.

Alas, it was time to come clean and acknowledge the truth.  If Ms. Best was “the best,” I was the Dalai Lama.  She was not the best; she was not good; she was not average; she was not even bad.  She was, in fact, the worst secretary I had ever hired — a living, breathing, full-fledged carrier of the Dunning-Kruger virus, fit only for employment by a government agency.

Job applicants with inflated self-perceptions are primarily guilty of self-delusion; i.e., they base their actions on who and what they would like to be, rather than who and what they are.  That being the case, it’s a bad mistake to assume that an interviewee is even marginally competent, let alone great, just because he or she excels at puffery.

Instead, hire the person on a ninety-day trial basis and let him or her prove how good they are.  And if they are not willing to prove themselves, have the stones to tell them simply, “Thank you so much coming in and talking to me, but I think I’ll take a pass for now.”

Robert Ringer

+Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

23 Responses to “More on the Dunning-Kruger Effect”

  1. Scott says:

    Great article. Perry Marshall shared a cool "audition" program he has for job applicants in his 80/20 book. Very much like your nintety-day trial only shorter.

  2. Paradox says:

    Hmmmmm Reminds me of a certain presidential candidate who assured everyone he was "the best" despite a glaring lack of experience to support that contention.

  3. Paul Anthony says:

    Thanks for a good laugh and a recollection. I was working for a government agency and had been assigned a secretary whose spelling abilities were beyond atrocious. But, no one had told her (or she didn't believe them) so whenever I gave her a letter to type, she would "correct" my spelling. I couldn't fire her (she and I were Civil Service employees) so every day, after she went home, I would re-type the letters.
    I resigned eventually, and I have her to thank for helping me realize the error of my ways. I should have known better than to accept employment from a bureaucracy.

  4. Gemma_Laming says:

    If there's one key to all this hiring business – it's to see if they voluntarily offer an insight into something they're not good at, or got wrong in some way or other.

    There are very few people who have the courage to do this, most want the job so desperately that they'll do anything to land it. The ones who really can handle the job are not always those who come across well in interviews either.

  5. theczech says:

    I've heard it said that humility is the beginning of wisdom.

  6. Peter Jensen says:

    In an article about other people's faults and weaknesses – he makes the glaring error of writing "extraordinarily appropriate" – when he surely meant "extraordinarily inappropriate."

    • Daniel says:

      I may have misunderstood, but I thought he was being sarcastic. Do you delight in pointing out others' errors; perceived or otherwise? Maybe you ought to give others the benefit of the doubt; especially one as erudite as Mr. Ringer (and in his own article, no less). I may be going out on a limb here; but perhaps one as observant as you could write a book on proper use of phrases, idioms and such. I'm sure it would be a riveting read, and chock full of enlightening advice.

    • Robert Ringer RJR says:

      Pretty harsh, Peter. I, of course, was saying it sarcastically. I appreciate your feedback, but for your own health, you to need to lighten up.

    • Patrick says:

      Why you being such a Family Guy for PJ? Your the reason why people hate teachers, you officious pompous jerk. Did I misspell you're. You betcha, darn skippy.

  7. arjkondamani says:

    I agree and disagree. The professional interviewing skills and "polish" are part of the charade in both the interviewer's and the interviewed. In today's complex service world, what metrics do we have? Unlike Henry Ford's auto plants, there is ambiguous metrics for firms like law firms (billing hours? panache?), PR firms, Wall Street and numerous others. Firms themselves are incompetent without knowing it and are living off "connections", "relationships" and inertia. Look at hedge funds who charge 1 and 20 in fees and do not even generate market returns. And yet, they have stable clients who value the "marquee" name of the fund and helps cover their behind. Same with law firms. When firms themselves are incompetent, why should not applicants be the same?

  8. laleydelexito says:

    Thank you Robert =)

  9. george says:

    I think it was Lee Iacocca that said "You can't tell if a person is lazy at a job interview."

  10. I've made similar mistakes in the past too.

    Upon reflection, I notice it;s because I had mentally decided that the candidate was the right one on first impression. You know what they say about first impressions. The person was either attractive, confident or had good posture and during the interview it's more like to look for a reason to confirm my premature decision.

    It's tough to be objective but definitely possible. I guess the trick is to not be desperate in filling a position.

    • Robert Ringer RJR says:

      You are absolutely right, James. In many cases, I was far too anxious to fill a position. Being overanxious always leads to making bad deals.

  11. Murray Suid says:

    Today's essay is instructive and amusing. However, one sentence puzzles me: "She was, in fact, the worst secretary I had ever hired — a living, breathing, full-fledged carrier of the Dunning-Kruger virus, fit only for employment by a government agency."

    I have worked in government agencies that boasted top-notch workers, including highly efficient and honest secretaries. I have worked in private companies which had wretched workers.

    A casual attack on government agencies doesn't interest me. But I would be interested in data that compares the quality of workers and management in government and the private sector. By way of full disclosure, while I have had a couple of government jobs, for most my life I have worked for small, private businesses.

    • Robert Ringer RJR says:

      An attempt at humor is a writer's prerogative, and not liking the humor is a reader's prerogative. AS a reader, I try not to be rigid in my thinking so I can enjoy the author's writing style.

  12. Liz says:

    Sorry, RJR, but I think you invited that misery on yourself. No way I'd hire anyone on the basis of their self evaluation and without a previous employer to contact for even the vacuous "eligible for rehire" the interview would have reduced to "thank you for your interest." Furthermore, if the person had just charmed my pants off (so to speak) in the interview, I always played "sudden death in the first 30" where even a hint of a problem in the first thirty days would be enough for me to terminate. And you know how I came to develop my rules for crew building? By reading your book Winning Through Intimidation as a fresh faced manager (and one of the new "feminism" experiments for my employer) back in the mid 70s.

  13. Jean says:

    Your "executive secretary" sounds like my "Mrs. Wiggins" – a so-called "accounting expert" who had no computer skills, consistently posted invoices to the wrong vendor account and believed she was too important and qualified to make and distribute copies of the monthly financials to the top execs. She complained about me constantly, stating I put too much pressure on her, and she really blew up when I got into her e-mail and discovered she had failed to open and download two months' worth of invoices from one of our top vendors. She walked out – thankfully – and we hired a person with minimal accounting skills who excelled at the job.

  14. Rob C says:

    Like you I have learned that when a prospective employee feels that it's important to tell you that they are the best watch out. Big red flag. And the same applies to hiring contractors.

  15. Great insight on the Dunning-Kruger Effect. If supports a theory we've developed on why 3 out of 4 sales hires turn out to be duds. I wrote a blog post based on this article. Thanks http://www.advancedhiring.com/blog/dont-get-foole

  16. Anthony Alfidi says:

    I agree with you that competence has become more scarce in American business. This effect may be related to sociopathic behavior. Wall Street and corporations are full of Dunning-Kruger fools. They are promoted on the Peter Principle. http://goo.gl/DrEtL5

  17. Heather says:

    I think we all can relate to this, Robert! I have definitely been there – I basically believe in people and want to give them the opportunity to grow and become their better selves, but I have become wiser (thank goodness!) to these types of people

  18. raj says:

    Great Article !

    I have experienced similar effect among my own peer especially IT workers from other side of the globe.

    But the worst virus I found with advertising agency upper managements. There job is to create ads for products like 'delicious' McD burger etc. In that process, they them-self are infected with this virus since it has become a part of there business model.

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