Over 90% of leaders think they’re better than average at their jobs, while 84% of employees think that they could do a better job than their manager.

Clearly, there’s a mismatch here.

It’s mathematically impossible for 90% of leaders to be better than average, especially when you consider that most employees certainly don’t think that their leaders are great. So what’s really going on here?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect – Why Leaders Think They’re Better Than They Are

We all have a cognitive bias that impedes our ability to accurately self-assess. This applies to all areas, and not only leadership. When rating our ability to drive cars, to evaluating our personality traits, evaluating our knowledge, and even evaluating how attractive we are, we are generally incapable of assessing ourselves.

You’ve most likely been involved in a lunchtime conversation with a colleague who knows absolutely nothing about a certain subject area and who is clearly wrong, who is so stubbornly convinced that they’re right that they can’t be convinced otherwise. At the same table you may have seen another colleague, who is in fact an expert in that area, choose to remain silent and start to hesitate over their own knowledge in that field.

Have you seen this before? It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias that we all have, that limits our ability to properly perceive our own abilities.

The problem is that if we lack knowledge in a subject area, we can’t know how much we actually don’t know. We make mistakes because we’re not competent in an area, but we can’t even identify these as mistakes as we don’t know that they are wrong.

In the workplace, this means that employees who know the least think they know the most – leading to them thinking they can do a better job than their managers. On the other hand, most leaders can’t fully see their own shortcomings, making it difficult for them to improve at their job.

Tore Byström, VP of EMEA Sales at Celemi, has experienced the Dunning-Kruger effect first-hand while running simulations. “I often see managers come in who think that all of their employees love them, but when I talk to the employees, they paint a different picture. They say that their managers are ineffective and bad a communication, but they see no opportunities to actually communicate this with their leaders. This usually means low productivity and low retention rates for the companies.”


How do you combat the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Though the Dunning-Kruger effect is to some degree inevitable, there are ways that you can fight this cognitive bias in the workplace:

  1. One of the most important things to do is to keep learning. By recognizing that knowledge fades and trends change, and trying to stay updated in your fields of expertise, you can combat the cognitive bias of not knowing what you don’t know. If you can admit and accept that you aren’t an expert in your field, and actively try to learn more, you’re already one step in the right direction.
  2. Another important way to combat the Dunning-Kruger effect is by asking for feedback from others. Encourage a feedback culture by cultivating safe environments where employees feel free to give constructive feedback without facing the fear of reprimand. A feedback culture means not only giving feedback, but also receiving it, and taking all feedback into equal consideration. Remember the colleague, who is blatantly wrong, but who stubbornly refuses to accept the truth? Pretend you are that person, and give all the feedback you receive equal consideration.
  3. Finally, focus on specific tasks instead of on your general abilities. Saying that you are a great leader is a lot easier than focusing on a specific task, such as spotting your employees’ strengths and weaknesses, and specifically describing your abilities in that area (i.e. “I am very competent at seeing my employees’ tasks-related strengths, but less competent at evaluating their relationship-building strengths”). When self-evaluating, try to be as specific as you can.

How does this work in real life?

During one Celemi Tango™ simulation, Tore Byström saw the results of a feedback culture first-hand.

“I was brought in to run Tango for a company that had a major leadership problem – across the board, employees were quitting, as they weren’t happy with company management. Tango is a people-based simulation, designed to improve relationship-building skills.

Mid-way through the simulation, I interrupted everyone to run a team reflection exercise, and have participants focus on how they made decisions instead of what they decided. When returning from the breakouts, one C-level participant was really startled by the feedback he had received. Throughout his long career, he had always considered himself highly democratic and good at listening. His teammates painted a very different picture of his behavior. This was a major eye-opener.”

Combating the Dunning-Kruger effect takes daily work, but Celemi business simulations are the perfect place to start. Gather your employees in a safe environment, learn more about your subject area, and encourage a feedback culture. Our simulations can be custom-tailored to imitate your company’s reality and provide the perfect sounding board for leadership development.

Contact us today if you’d like to hear more about how we can help you develop exceptional leaders.