How to Reach Workers Who Overestimate Their Competence

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How accurately do your employees see their work? If you ranked employees in order of competence, are the employees in the bottom half of your list aware they’re in the bottom half? Do they truly understand your expectations and what outstanding performance looks like?

A growing pile of research suggests that a large number of American workers overestimate their own competence or fail to recognize their own weaknesses. This Illusory superiority is a natural human tendency.

Through a series of manipulated studies, social psychologist David Dunning PhD, found that people consistently overestimate themselves, reports apa.org. The least competent among his Cornell University test subjects inflated their abilities the most—leading him to conclude that ignorance, rather than arrogance is often the culprit for this over-inflation. The lack of accurate feedback contributes.

Here’s where managers come in … Most bosses are pretty comfortable (although sometimes stingy) complimenting the work of employees. This recognition and positive feedback helps employees feel appreciated. It also builds employee confidence and keeps them engaged.

But if your employees don’t clearly understand how they’re doing—that they could be doing a few things better—how can they be expected to improve? When you give a raise to one employee and not another, likely you can justify this difference in your mind. But to the employee who’s received nothing but positive feedback (and no raise), it might reek of favoritism or worse—discrimination.

You owe it to your employees to be clear about where they stand. But, doing so without damaging morale can be tricky, especially when the odds are you’re dealing with at least a few people who think they’re way more competent than they really are.

Accurate, specific, well-delivered and timely feedback and communication is critical. Here are some suggestions to help keep it real, without deflating workers:

  • Clearly communicate expected performance and encourage questions. What does a successful outcome look like? It’s critical that your employees know what’s expected and that you clearly see (through their questions) whether they have the necessary experience or skills to accomplish it.
  • Increase the amount of positive feedback. Use a 5-to-1 praise-to-criticism ratio suggested by standard.net.
  • Increase the frequency of feedback. Don’t save negative feedback for once a year. When someone is underperforming, he or she should know it as it happens.
  • Give employees information that enables them to self-assess. When objective, quantifiable measures of performance are available, give them to your employees.
  • Frame performance concerns in a broad, non-restrictive way. Without drawing conclusions, create open discussions that enable you to get to the root of a performance issue, suggests hbr.org. Asking questions worded in a non-threatening, fair way helps uncover hidden concerns or obstacles that may be contributing to substandard work.

Will a little straight talk from the boss help under-performing, over-inflated employees develop a more accurate self image—help them see room for improvement? Possibly. But, the bad news, according to an online survey by leadershipiq.com it’s not a panacea. “Only 39% of employees handle constructive criticism by systematically dissecting every step leading up to the thing they just got criticized for … wanting to understand and correct the underlying issues. The rest (61%) don’t see their deficiencies even after they’re pointed out and therefore don’t work to improve,” reports forbes.com.

As a young manager, I struggled to give honest assessments … get someone to see their flaws and try to improve. But, candid, timely performance conversations are a step in the right direction. And this ongoing dialog does help clarify expectations and uncover instances where an employee simply doesn’t understand. Because just possibly (tiny, tiny chance), I, myself, underestimated my own inadequacies as a new manager.

Related article: Use These 9 Tips When Giving Negative Feedback

Related article: Take the Anxiety out of Performance Reviews

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2 thoughts on “How to Reach Workers Who Overestimate Their Competence

  1. Good premise for this article. With a lot of talk in today’s world about the Dunning-Kruger effect, it’s good to see how it can be used in a positive, turn-things-around way. Whether it’s older workers talking about the younger generation or people deriding co-workers’ competence, it seems like – paraphrasing Anton Ego in Ratatouille – criticism is easier than taking the steps to do something.

    “… leading him to conclude that ignorance, rather than arrogance is often the culprit …”

    This is the best line for someone dealing with a Dunning-Kruger employee or co-worker. What steps can be taken to educate and improve the person’s performance? Honestly looking at a situation and getting to the underlying cause – then taking steps to fix it if possible – makes more of an impact than either accepting it as permanent fact or waiting for the big screw-up that ends in termination. Honestly, there’s so much to say to keep going into this topic, but your article is a wonderful kickstart to the conversation.

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