Overestimating Your Leadership: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Many people underestimate the complexity of being a good leader while simultaneously overestimating their own leadership skills. According to Psychology Today, “The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area.” The research in this area finds that people who are the least skilled in a particular area are most likely to overestimate their abilities. Skipping the psychological explanation of why this effect might happen, it is still something organizations and leaders must contend with. Organizations are filled with leaders who are likely well-intended yet overestimate their ability to lead.

To help leaders overcome the overestimation of their abilities, it is important to teach them to be keen observers of the impact they have on others. It is also important to know where leadership errors are likely to occur, so leaders know where to look when it comes to assessing their ability to create the desired impact. Below are five common leadership errors that are likely to cause a leader to be ineffective.

No planning in the development of their employees—Most organizations require leaders to plan for business operations such as meeting product demands, improving quality, innovation, or customer experience, but very few organizations demand the same rigor from leaders in the development of their people. To make things worse, most leaders do not understand how employees learn or how to be deliberate in coaching them on skills. Skill development requires repeated practice, feedback, and reinforcement. Coaching employees to develop skills necessitates using that formula plus setting them up for perfect practice—constantly assessing skills to determine the next step in developing that skill and connecting that behavior to natural sources of reinforcement. Without purposeful planning, leaders often take a shotgun approach to employee development or focus only on what is wrong. In both cases, it is less than effective.

Being vague—Imagine getting the instruction, “This client needs a lot of proactive attention. Be sure to deliver on that.” Or, receiving this feedback, “I really appreciate the way you’ve stepped up over the past couple of weeks so keep it up.” On the surface, you might think, “those sound fine to me.” However, these statements offer little to no value to the performer because neither statement tells the performer what to do or what they did well and should repeat. To say it more technically, neither statement is objective (i.e., pinpointed). Without being pinpointed, you are left guessing how you should handle the client or what you should continue doing. This strips a leader’s ability to have influence and often leaves direct reports confused or frustrated, or both. 

Praising results without understanding how they were produced—It’s the start of the day during a pre-shift meeting when a supervisor says, “Nice job yesterday guys. We hit our numbers even with some unexpected downtime.” The next few moments are critical. Does the supervisor ask how the results were produced and look for the connection between the results and achieving them in the right way, or does he/she move on to today’s demands. The error is of course in moving on. How a business result is achieved is more important than achieving the result itself. Delivering praise on a result without understanding how it was achieved may very well communicate that you don’t care how it happened but they should keep doing it. This could encourage taking shortcuts, breaking protocols or worse. When leaders do this, they may be having influence, but it is just the wrong kind.

Over-relying on fear and intimidation—When it comes to increasing desired behavior, there are two strategies: Negative Reinforcement and Positive Reinforcement. With negative reinforcement, behavior is increased to escape or avoid something the performer does not want, typically called fear or intimidation management. While this may occasionally be a necessary strategy (e.g., to get the behavior going), the leadership error occurs when there is overreliance on this strategy. While this might produce a temporary increase in desired employee behavior, it also produces a whole host of undesired side effects including bare minimum performance, decreased teamwork, decreased moral, and distrust of management. With this error, leaders may get some immediate benefit, but in the long term, the organization will suffer.             

Only seeing the world from their point of view—Have you ever heard a leader say something like, “This is unacceptable. Don’t they know they could get hurt (or fired) for doing that? I can’t see any reason why someone would do that.” The inability to take on someone else’s perspective or put on someone else’s shoes (i.e., Moccasin Method) prevents leaders from truly seeing the organizational or environmental causes for employee behavior. It may also lead to ineffective feedback or positive reinforcement delivery. This error often results in blaming the performer instead of seeing the true causes of undesired behavior. The inability to see the world from others’ point of view will cause a groundhog effect in an organization, where the same behavioral issues keep surfacing, no matter how many people are fired. This does not help the company or the employee.

Leadership is a summation of complex skills which requires constant assessment, reflection, and refinement. Without this, leaders will have difficulty adapting their own behaviors to have better influence on others. This will result in less than optimal results. While ignorance may be bliss, learning to look for blind spots and focusing on removing errors in your own leadership will help you become a better, more effective leader.



Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.