The Dunning-Kruger Effect and The Impostor Syndrome

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and  The Impostor Syndrome

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” This is a phrase from the character Touchstone, from playwright Willian Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” and it represents very well two concepts of psychology which we can find, of course, in the corporate world: the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and Impostor Syndrome.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a concept derived from the study “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments“, published in 1999, by two Cornell University professors and psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, which says that people with lower levels of competence in a given segment overestimate their perception of competence without realizing it.

Self-confidence is certainly important, but it is equally important for us to develop self-criticism. When we have a high self-confidence, with a low self-criticism, we can find the Dunning-Kruger effect manifesting itself, and the biggest risk, in Organizations, seems to me linked to two moments:

  • Hiring Processes: Here, someone who feels competent, without being competent, can, by overconfidence, deceive the people involved, and end up being hired in a position for which he or she is not properly competent. I have participated in hundreds of hiring processes throughout my career (and I am fortunate to have got it right in most of the cases), but I recognize that at the beginning of my journey I made a wrong hiring, which I now repute to the Dunning-Kruger effect manifested in the candidate.
  • Management and Leadership: Whether the management or leadership of a project or an area, the person who takes on this role without proper competence can cause a damage within the Organization. Unfortunately, we often see this in Organizations, and the motives are the most varied, but the Dunning-Kruger effect is, certainly, one of them.

To prevent these potential problems from occurring, it will always be worth, among other tools, the good “eye” and keen intuition of the Organization’s managers and leaders, consistent hiring processes, and effective employee evaluation.

The Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome is, somehow, the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and means that the person, though competent, does not see himself as such. This concept came from the 1978 study “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Interven“, by two Georgia State University psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. The original term, as seen in the title, was “Impostor Phenomenon,” and the study was about women at work who, despite recognizing successful results, did not feel competent to the same extent. Later, the concept was extended to men and women, indistinctly, as it was found that men can also suffer from this distorted view of themselves.

In organizations, this syndrome manifests itself in those visibly competent professionals who are reluctant to take on new challenges. It could be those people who we look and think, “Wow, what a wasted talent!” Once again, the role of management and leadership is important in motivating these people to take on new challenges, and giving them the proper support so that they can perform new roles.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and  The Impostor Syndrome - chart

Being aware that these behavioral phenomena exist is the first step in recognizing and identifying them, protecting them from their effects, and, at the same time, having the insight that this does not only happen to others but can occur to ourselves.