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.”