THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT AND POOR PERFORMERS: WHEN YOU JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW…


"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." - Charles Darwin. Managing poor performance is arguably one of the more difficult tasks faced by managers in the modern workplace. Terminating the service of an employee who was caught with his ‘hand in the cookie jar’ is often easier that letting someone go who really tries hard to get the job done, but fails. We appear to be more comfortable at taking tough decisions where the employee is to blame or at fault than where the employee is unable to perform due to no fault on his part. Perhaps it resonates more with our innate sense of fairness that there should be consequences attached to the intentional or negligent breach of rule? It takes greater courage to give up on someone who constantly slaves away at a goal but just never reaches it.


In many jurisdictions, employers may fairly terminate the service of an employee where the employee fails to meet the required performance standard. Incapacity due to poor performance is distinguishable from workplace misconduct in that misconduct entails the intentional or negligent breach of the workplace rules or standards. Poor performance, as a form of employee incapacity, occurs where the employee lacks the ability or capability to perform to the required standard.

Theorists often use the example of an employee who does not want to do the work required (misconduct) versus one who cannot do the work required (incapacity). The latter category of employee can often be seen immersed in his work, slaving away at his work station, feverishly trying to meet deadlines and perform required tasks, yet still bearing the brunt of a frustrated manager's anger when he (again) fails to deliver work in time or at the required standard. What is often very difficult for such under-performing employees to appreciate is that they are at risk of termination, notwithstanding their work ethic or commitment to the cause. Poor performers regularly feel disgruntled when taken to task for not performing up the required standard as, in their view, they are trying their utmost to get the job done and cannot be faulted for not achieving the required standard.

In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conducted a series of experiments, inspired by the curious case of McArthur Wheeler. A failed bank robber, Wheeler infamously robbed two banks after covering his face with lemon juice. His rationale behind his cunning disguise - as lemon juice can be used as invisible ink, covering his face with lemon juice would prevent his face from being recorded on the closed-circuit television cameras. What could possibly go wrong?

Dunning and Kruger found that relatively unskilled people suffer from illusionary superiority - they erroneously assess their own ability to be much higher than their actual ability or performance. They attributed this to an "inability of the unskilled to recognise their own ineptitude and evaluate their ability accurately”. Dunning stating it differently proffered that "if you're incompetent, you can't know that your incompetent" or "[t]he skills you need to produce the right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognise what a right answer is”. Incompetent people overestimate their own level of ability and furthermore lack the metacognition to realise their mistake. Interestingly, the research also suggests that competent people frequently over-estimate the competence of others, reasoning that the task is easy for them therefore it must be easy for everyone.

Whilst these findings may appear to be a harsh judgment on poor performers, it may resonate with a manager who needed to have the performance discussion with a subordinate. It is not uncommon for underperforming employees to be taken aback when confronted with allegations of their poor performance. Considering Dunning and Kruger's findings, the discussion between the manager and under-achieving subordinate is a recipe for strive. The manager, who may be a good performer, would often not appreciate that tasks that come easily to her would not be as simple to perform for others. Add to this mixture, the fact that the poor performer is likely to lack the appreciation of his under-performance for the very reason that he under-performs: he fundamentally lacks the skills (to appreciate what constitutes good performance or assess his own performance in relation thereto).

The conversation could thus quickly spiral downwards into 'I cannot understand why you are unable to perform such simple tasks" and "But I have always done more than what I had to do!" But the error is more complicated for the employee as he lacks the competence to recognise his own incompetence. Improving the metacognitive skills of employees resulted in lowed (more realistic) self-assessment scores as they became better evaluators of their own limitations. Understanding the Dunning-Kruger effect may assist managers and employees with performance issues to avoid performance discussions ending in bitter acrimony.

The first leaning point to be taken from the research appears to be that managers should take greater care in communicating standards of expected performance to subordinates. Don't conclude that communicating outcomes and expectations are not required because it is clear to you or you would not have required anyone to explain the task to you. You may be drawing on a body of knowledge that could be vastly different than that of the employee required to perform the task. Communicating detailed outcomes and allowing for questions and responses will create an opportunity for employees to indicate their inability to perform or lack of understanding of the task ahead.

Secondly, most employees benefit from more regular feedback on their performance. Providing employees with the information they need to assess their own performance could decrease the prospects of them over-estimating their own ability. Objective performance standards, such as sales targets, are stark performance indicators that assist employees to objectively measure their performance in relation to their peers. It is more difficult to suffer from illusions of grandeur where the numbers point in the opposite direction (not impossible, regrettably, but more difficult).

Lastly, the research again seems to highlight the need for sound recruitment practices. Some employers still fail to allocate sufficient resources to their recruitment processes. This results in many hours, energy and other resources wasted in managing under-performing employees. The best way to cut cost associated with exiting poor performers must be ensuring they do not enter the office gene pool in the first place.

Whilst this may all sound mercenary and heartless, employers who fail to address under-performing employees run the risk of losing their star performers as well. Exceptional performers may leave an organisation where they feel that they are not valued, even if it is only relatively to their peers. Employees who have to shoulder the burden of an under-achieving colleague will soon lose heart and leave where the organisation fails to address the situation. Unless an employer addresses its poor performers, those employees may be the only ones remaining in the end.

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