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The More We Know, The Less We Think We Know

by David Brock on March 8th, 2018

I’ve been having a fascinating discussion with Charlie Green, Jill Konrath, and Andy Paul on something known as the Kruger-Dunning effect.  It’s a fascinating piece of research, published in 1999.  Here’s a short description of it:

“People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

In plainer English, what this means is that people unskilled in various areas (think of selling) dramatically overestimate their skills and competencies in these areas, and their lack of ability blinds them to this issue.  (The interesting additional observation is that people who have very high levels of competence, consistently underestimate their competence.)

This presents an interesting challenge to managers and sales enablement professionals.  For all but our top performers, our people are likely to have a very inaccurate assessment of their own skills and capabilities, they will not only be bling to this, but they will actually believe they are far better than they really are.  These are unconscious behaviors or tricks our brains play on us.

The study also examines the impact of feedback on helping correct the assessments of our people on their own skills and capabilities.  One would expect, over time, a person that consistently fails to perform would recognize the problem and seek help to improve.  For people to understand their weaknesses, they have to have an accurate understanding of why they failed in the first place.  In the absence of this, it is virtually impossible for them to recognize the failure and learn how to improve.

This is why, so often, we hear “excuses.”  For example, people don’t understand why they are consistently losing, “Our products suck, the competition has better pricing, the leads are terrible, it’s the customer…….”  Too often, when asked to explain what went wrong, they are simply unable to, because they don’t have the ability to correctly diagnose the situation.

There’s one further aspect to this.  Sometimes, we make the assumption, “all they have to do is see great behaviors and great examples of top performers, then copy them.”  The problem is, since they are unable to understand their own incompetence, they are less able to understand and see what top performers do differently, correcting their own behaviors.

As managers and sales enablement professionals, we need to take away some important lessons:

  1. Coaching is critical to improving performance–we already know this, but here’s the science to help us better understand.
  2. That coaching has to be very focused, we can’t just say, “You need to improve your prospecting skills,” or, “You need to do a better job qualifying,” or “You need to learn better techniques for objection handling,” or “Your closing skills are bad…”  We have to be very specific about our feedback,  for example, “You seem to be targeting the wrong people in your prospecting efforts… do we help you identify the right people/companies to get better response….”
  3. To give this very specific feedback, we can’t be relying on reports, we have to actually see/hear what our people are doing and be able to help them understand specifically what they are doing/not doing.
  4. In many of our onboarding, training, and related sales enablement programs/tools, we rely on self assessments.  But if our ability to accurately assess our own capabilities is so poor, then we are doomed to failure in these programs.  We have to have the ability to really assess people, perhaps through observation, testing, or other techniques to better understand their real capabilities.

For our own personal learning and improvement initiatives, there are some cautions.  While it’s critical to constantly learn and improve, with the abundance of information—books, blogs, conferences, podcasts, videos, there’s a tendency to think we are instantly “experts,” just because we have read, watched or listened to something.  We have to be cautious , now knowing we have a very high propensity to overestimate our expertise and competency.  We have to test our experience in applying that knowledge and the results we get.  If we are failing, we know something’s wrong, but we are unlikely to recognize exactly where we are deficient in our skills, and should seek coaching/help from someone more knowledgeable.

Finally, the Kruger-Dunning effect should teach us, “Beware of experts bearing gifts.”  It seems, the louder one may claim their expertise, the less expert they are likely to be, and those true experts are likely to be a little more humble.


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