Helping Employees See Incompetence

Why is it that people possessing low competence in any set of skills often do not recognize their incompetence and assess themselves as having a much higher level of competence than they actually possess? I was hired to help a supervisor enhance his skills.  In my initial interview and in watching his performance on site I noted that he did not possess even the most fundamental of skill in planning, relating to employees, problem solving, conflict resolution or assessing performance. This is why his response to a self assessment of capabilities surprised me. How was I to help him recognize his need when he possessed such an inflated perspective of his capability? Tom is an office manager in a small professional business (less than 50 employees). He is a confident and pleasant person but after encountering repeated conflicts with the owner of the business and other employees he was directed to seek out coaching on his leadership and management skills. In our conversations about what he was facing and what he had done to address his challenges it was quickly apparent that while he was a competent employee with experience at supervising others he had not developed several critical supervisory skills.

I supposed that Tom’s difficulty in defining what skills he was missing resulted from his lack of exposure to larger organizational dynamics and the relatively flat and fluctuating organizational design in the business he presently worked. Pam, the owner of this business was entrepreneurial and sales focused. Pam could add new business to the work load of her team at a rate that consistently outstripped their ability to keep up. Structure and policies felt more constrictive than helpful to Pam hence she had delegated the operational structure to Tom and Tom had done a sufficient job putting the basic structures in place based on the model of Gerber’s E-Myth. However, while the structures existed on paper they were not followed in behavior.

Pam’s employees were well cared for and had an intuitive understanding that they had to meet high expectations of performance, appearance and loyalty. Because of Pam’s care for them (they had great benefits in profit sharing, healthcare, retirement, professional training) the employees loved Pam but also dreaded her entrepreneurial vision that felt more like sudden and undulating upheavals of normalcy that would emerge and subside with both the frequency and unpredictability of a southern California earth quake. Pam had bought the business right out of college from a retiring professional that had given Pam her first internship. He saw Pam’s potential and worked out a fabulous retirement for himself in the sale of the business on the sure bet on Pam’s abilities. Tom was floundering in (1) his inability to successfully engage and negotiate conflict between employees and (2) an inability to apply policy consistently in performance and assessment of performance. His assessment of his peers abilities was surprisingly inaccurate to what I observed when I was on site.

Tom described himself as vice president material – the assessment floored me, I was stunned. How could a person who barely met the qualifications of a supervisor feel he could function at a corporate level in the C-suite? This was more than a lack of exposure to larger organizations this was a significant lapse of self awareness. Tom felt slighted by Pam’s failure to recognize his true talent and felt that Pam had torpedoed his career potential by removing some of his supervisory responsibilities from him. Tom was assigned to design processes, check them to regulatory requirements and maintain the documentation of all operational and human resources procedures. However, Tom was removed from direct supervision of the other employees. When personnel issues arose Pam stepped into the gap often reminding Tom that he needed to work on his people skills. At this point in the conversation I knew that Tom needed some fierce feedback.

What explains this gap in self assessment? Justin Kruger and David Dunning’s study on self awareness posits that individuals who utilize incompetent methods to achieve success or fulfillment diminishes their ability accurately assess their own abilities or to realize their own self deception. As a result Kruger and Dunning made four predictions:

Prediction 1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria.

Prediction 2. Incompetent individuals will suffer from deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it—be it their own or anyone else's.

Prediction 3. Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of social comparison information. In particular, because of their difficulty recognizing competence in others, incompetent individuals will be unable to use information about the choices and performances of others to form more accurate impressions of their own ability.

Prediction 4. The incompetent can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that they have performed poorly.  (Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessment” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1999, Vol. 77, No. 6), 1122.)

I could see all four problems in Tom’s situation. Not only did he fail to recognize his incompetence, he could not see competence in those he was supposed to be supervising. As a result he cut off their suggestions for improving performance or morale and reverted to an enforcement of rules that often had no direct bearing on the situation in which he sought to apply them.

The most hopeful insight Kruger and Dunning provided in their study was that the incompetent can be trained to be more competent thus enhancing the metacognitive skills needed to gain a more accurate assessment of their own and others performance. I began to work with Tom by providing the exercises he needed to gain supervisory skill and a more accurate picture of his own inadequate performance.

What recommendation do I have for employers? Pre-promotion training must be a critical component to talent development to avoid both overinflated self assessment and exceptionally poor assessment of the performance of others. Expose potential supervisors, managers, or executives to the challenges, skills and knowledge base they will need in succeeding at a functional role. Provide training in skills and test knowledge prior to promoting people to new responsibilities. If this is not done a very real risk of exists of driving true talent out of the company because supervisory or management talent cannot see their own incompetence nor recognize competence in others. Even more alarming is that a lack in metacognitive skill means they will not learn from experience. Experience will only reinforce their inflated self-assessment thus compounding the problem for employers.

What if Tom already exists in your company? Engage him/her in the training, testing and coaching needed to enhance their metacognitive skills i.e., the ability to reflect on thinking as thinking and to determine one’s relative level of competence or incompetence in any given domain of knowledge. The predictable result of not intervening in the incompetence of supervisors, managers or executives is passive contribution to continued poor judgment and all its legal, interpersonal, financial and customer impacts. Why does it seem your employees are not learning from experience? They may not possess the cognitive tools, yet, to recognize that there are lessons there to learn.