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Volume 20, Issue 23;   June 3, 2020:

Capability Inversions and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

by

A capability inversion occurs when the person in charge of an effort is far less knowledgeable about the work involved or its purpose than are the people doing that work. In capability inversions, the Dunning-Kruger effect can intensify group dysfunction, sometimes severely disrupting the effort.
Franz Halder, German general and the chief of staff of the Army High Command (OKH) in Nazi Germany from 1938 until September 1942

Franz Halder, German general and the chief of staff of the Army High Command (OKH) in Nazi Germany from 1938 until September 1942. Halder, as chief of staff, was compelled to deal with Adolph Hitler's penchant for involving himself in military strategy and tactics. In 1941, Hitler took over direct command of the field army. Tensions between Hitler and Halder steadily intensified until Halder was reassigned in September 1942. He was replaced by a more junior and compliant officer. Image from 1938, from Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-052-08 / CC-BY-SA 3.0t. Courtesy Wikipedia.

When a less-competent leader of an organization — a group, department, division, or enterprise — must deal with more-competent subordinates, the people involved can descend into a toxic, anger-inducing maelstrom of frustration, paranoia, failure, revenge, and chaos that can threaten the viability of their organization. The Dunning-Kruger effect can play a role, advancing the arrival of unfortunate outcomes.

Some capability inversions escape these disasters. These are the inversions that are in the "open" — inversions that everyone involved acknowledges. I discussed open capability inversions last time, and noted that they usually develop into a leader-and-advisors configuration that works well. The problematic inversions are what I called concealed capability inversions, in which the less-competent leaders (LCLs) try to deny and disguise the inversion, while their more-competent subordinates (MCSs) labor onward trying to complete the organizational mission in spite of the wrong-headed decisions and behavior of the LCL. These concealed capability inversions are the category that are most susceptible to the consequences of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

How the Dunning-Kruger effect manifests itself

Four of the principal findings of Dunning and Kruger [Kruger 1999] are:

  • The less competent overestimate their own competence
  • The more competent tend to underestimate their own relative competence, as a result of a false consensus effect
  • The less competent don't recognize the superior competence of the more competent
  • The more competent tend to estimate accurately the incompetence of the less competent

Applying the findings of Dunning and Kruger to concealed capability inversions we can expect that:

  • LCLs tend to believe that they are more competent than they actually are
  • MCSs tend to believe that they are relatively less competent than they actually are
  • LCLs don't fully appreciate how much more competent MCSs are
  • MCSs accurately assess the incompetence of their LCLs.

The result of all this is that LCLs don't fully appreciate the gap between their own incompetence and the competence of their MCSs. They probably recognize that there is a gap, but they probably believe that the gap is significantly smaller than it actually is, if not reversed in polarity. MCSs also perceive that there is a competence gap, but they estimate that the gap is just slightly smaller than it actually is.

The dynamics of concealed capability inversions

A concealed Less competent leaders don't
fully appreciate the gap
between their own incompetence
and the competence of their
more competent subordinates
capability inversion isn't invisible. Indeed, concealed might be the wrong word. Denied might be more fitting. For these inversions, we might expect the LCL to deny that the inversion exists, despite feelings of looming insurrection brewing among the MCSs. And the MCSs probably know perfectly well what's going on, though they might have reached an agreement not to speak of the LCL's incompetence openly. An elephant-in-the-room sort of thing can develop.

MCSs then likely endure lives of frustration. Their LCLs blunder through the days making wreckage of the good work of MCSs and rejecting their recommendations. Some MCSs try to respond by devising tactful critiques of their LCL's positions, or they try to intervene to protect their work or the enterprise. Their success in these endeavors is limited.

To many LCLs, criticism by MCSs is unfounded, and worse, the MCSs seem to the LCLs to be unqualified critics, because the LCLs cannot recognize the competence of the MCSs. LCLs are likely to experience MCSs' critiques and interventions as insubordination or even personal attacks. Some LCLs then construct a variety of explanations for interventionist behavior by MCSs. Intervening MCSs are:

  • Disloyal, traitorous
  • Not team players
  • Disgruntled, vengeful, bitter
  • Overstepping their bounds, unaware of their proper places
  • Greedy or ambitious

If these characterizations, delivered publicly, don't serve to quiet the insurrection, some LCLs then terminate some or all intervening MCSs, hoping to deter any further interventions. Terminations usually deter interventions in the short run, but as LCL incompetence continues unabated, further "insubordination" by MCSs is inevitable.

The leader's intensifying obsession with security

Safety and security are the second level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. [Maslow 1943] According to this model, the lowest-level unmet need in the hierarchy captures our attention, preventing us from attending to the higher-level needs. In the context of a concealed capability inversion, LCLs might feel insecure about their tenure in their position, or they might fear that the capability inversion might be discovered. LCLs in this frame of mind might tend to focus on remedying that insecurity. They are less able to attend to the next level of needs, loving and belongingness. These LCLs have limited energy for true friendship, trust, and acceptance, which are the foundations of high performance organizations.

The LCLs' focus on safety and security helps them allocate personal and emotional resources to consolidating their political positions in the organization. In some cases they also commandeer organizational resources in service of their own agenda of preserving their tenure. And some LCLs might adopt the tactics of bullies to create a "crew" that helps them enforce loyalty to the LCL.

In this way the capability inversion, the LCL's desire to conceal the inversion, and the Dunning-Kruger effect tend to create all that is needed for a toxic work environment that prevents the organization from achieving its goals. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: They Don't Reply to My Email  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Kruger 1999]
Justin Kruger and David Dunning. "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77:6 (1999), 121-1134. Available here. Retrieved 17 December 2008. Back
[Maslow 1943]
Abraham Harold Maslow. "A theory of human motivation," Psychological Review 50:4 (1943), 370-396. Available here. Back

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