In this culture, and others, we value confidence in leaders, mechanics, doctors, generals, and even strangers we've asked for directions. But in all these cases, and more, we're actually seeking expertise, knowledge, and capability — in short, competence.
We usually assume that confidence comes from competence. We apply this assumption personally when we seek health care, investment advice, or other services. But we also apply it at work — when we make hiring decisions, when we evaluate the assertions of superiors and subordinates, and when we get advice from consultants.
Trouble is, the assumption is wrong.
We know this because of the pioneering work of Justin Kruger and David Dunning, who, working at Cornell in 1999, discovered a phenomenon now called the Dunning-Kruger effect. [Kruger 1999] They performed experiments that yielded results consistent with these four principles (paraphrasing):
- Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, dramatically overestimate their ability and performance.
- Incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it.
- Incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance.
- Incompetent individuals can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by gaining competence.
Taken together, these four factors contribute to an inverse correlation between confidence and competence — exactly the opposite of what most of us assume.
If we can't rely on confidence as an indicator of competence, on what can we rely? In assessing competence, when we do consider factors beyond confidence, we tend to focus on domain-specific content. That helps, but it's not enough. Here are four generic indicators of competence for application in the workplace.
- Awareness of limitations
- The truly competent understand that their competence is limited — that there are things they can't do or don't know. This knowledge drives a continued desire to learn.
- Desire to learn
- Curiosity, practice, questioning, and continued study are signs of a drive to enhance competence. It is this drive that established the existing level of competence. Where this drive is weak, competence is questionable.
- Constructive response to failure
- Responding to Incompetent individuals, compared
with their more competent peers,
dramatically overestimate their
ability and performancefailure in constructive ways is another important way to build competence. This ability is probably essential to building competence.
- Ability to assess risk realistically
- Realistic risk assessment requires a reservoir of experience — competence — in the relevant domains. Incompetence leads to mis-assessment of risk. The fearful and incompetent tend to overestimate risks; the brash and incompetent tend to underestimate them. Competence tempers both.
I'm not 100% sure that these indicators are necessary and sufficient — probably not. But they've come to me through a lifetime of experience. If you have others you rely on, send them to me and I'll consider adding them to my list. Top Next Issue
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For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "How to Reject Expert Opinion: II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012; "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012; "Overconfidence at Work," Point Lookout for April 15, 2015; "Wishful Thinking and Perception: II," Point Lookout for November 4, 2015; "Wishful Significance: II," Point Lookout for December 23, 2015; "Cognitive Biases and Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2016; "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016; and "Risk Acceptance: One Path," Point Lookout for March 3, 2021.
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