Don’t ask employees to know what they don’t know
  • leadership
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Don’t ask employees to know what they don’t know

In a perfect world, all your employees would be self-aware enough to know what they don’t know, and what they’re not good enough at. They would tell you what training and development opportunities they need, and all you would have to do is provide them.

But as you may have noticed if you’ve looked around lately, the world we live in is far from perfect.

And employees, like other people, DON’T know what they don’t know, and tend to grossly underrate their skill and knowledge deficits — or, if you will, grossly overrate their abilities. That’s according to a growing body of psychological research that was kicked off a few years ago by experts at Cornell University.

Blinded by the … lack of smarts?
The research led to the formulation of what’s become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, so christened after David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the original researchers. This effect, a deep psychological bias, blinds relatively unskilled or (dare we say it?) unintelligent people to their lack of skills or smarts. In essence, they’re too incompetent to recognize their incompetence. As a result, they tend to think they’re much better at something — like logic, grammatical ability, sense of humor, or even games like chess — than they really are.

And the worse people are, the more their self-assessment diverges from reality. Dunning and Kruger found that people who scored at 12% on scales measuring such abilities as the above — meaning that 88% of those tested did better than they — self-evaluated at the 62% level! The same effect, to a lesser degree, was found with the better-performing experimental subjects.

Don’t ask me!
Now, I’m not trying to suggest that you have a bunch of stupid, illogical employees. What I AM trying to suggest is that if you merely ask people what kind of learning opportunities they need, they many not come up with the right list. Why? Because they can’t. Human beings find it inherently hard to get a sense of what we don’t know, or can’t do very well.

This psychological fact bears considerable implications for anyone involved in creating and assigning training and development activities. It means that you need to look at the potential trainees and form your own assessment of their skills and deficits, assisted no doubt by evaluations from their line managers.

Certainly, you don’t want to appear dictatorial, or close off input from people about the training they’d like to have. Learning opportunities shouldn’t be made to feel like tyranny. But the research strongly indicates that better results are obtained when those in charge of training individualize it to take account of observed deficits and shortcomings in the potential trainees.

1 Comment

  • Nice article Dave, especially for HR people who are responsible to recruit a right talent for the right job.

    Its always better to analyse performance while working so that the manager who is responsible can suggest HR or management what sort of training should be provided to each individual to see the actual progress.

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