Incompetent people may have no idea

A fascinating Cornell University study a few years ago found that people who are incompetent tend to dramatically overestimate their own competence, and people who truly are quite competent tend to underestimate their own performance.

This makes a certain sense: After all, if you’re incompetent, you’re inherently more likely not to be able to competently self-assess (or assess the people you’re comparing yourself to). As the researchers write, “Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

And if you’re competent, you tend to assume others are performing at a similar level to you (since you can’t imagine why they wouldn’t be), and plus, part of competence is being aware of your own shortcomings.

This study has interesting implications for managers. For one, it reinforces the idea that you must be explicit with employees who aren’t meeting your expectations — particularly about the severity of the problem and what the possible consequences could be. All too often, managers assume that employees surely must know they are in danger of being fired, given all the warnings and serious talks being directed their way, and so they don’t bother to spell it out … and then the employee is shocked when he or she gets fired. The manager is baffled by this surprise, since the person should have seen it coming.

I suspect that many low performers are used to hearing negative feedback from bosses and thus don’t process it as a danger sign. So managers should commit to saying the words, “I must warn you that your job is in jeopardy if you don’t improve.” Don’t assume the person should know. If they’re as incompetent as you worry they are, there’s a good chance they have no idea.

{ 4 comments… read them below }

  1. liz williams*

    I love this post. I want to bottle it and give it all my clients. I remember that study, and love your practical advice, especially to turn up the volume with a low performer. I see it all the time – the manager thinks they are speaking loud and clear, but may as well be whispering across a crowded room. Just perfect – thank you.

  2. Chris Schroeder*

    As a young professional who considers himself ‘competent’, I really appreciated this blog. I too agree that a boss or manager needs to be explicit with employees. I’d prefer the honest evaluation more than having a manager let me float in mediocrity.

  3. Wally Bock*

    Excellent post. I have a couple of additions, based on working with individual managers as coaching clients and trainees. Feedback needs to be frequent and usable and based on clear expectations.

    If expectations are not clear, the employee will not know what to do. They may not understand the importance of improvement.

    Frequent feedback lets a manager catch problems early. But the feedback, as you suggest, must be specific about what should change, by when, how both parties will know if it’s changed and what the consequences will be if there is improvement or no improvement.

    There should also be a very clear transition from the “noticing” kind of informal feedback that should be part of everyday interactions to formal, documented feedback. Then there must be documentation of behavior and performance and the counseling sessions.

  4. Managing Leadership*

    This is an excellent observation – and an excellent take on it. You are right to conclude that many substandard employees are inured to negative feedback that isn’t accompanied with explicit consequences or an explanation of what they might be. The need, then, to be explicit with these – with all – employees is made more cogent – very good, much appreciated point!

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