Reading a highly irritated LinkedIn post by a well-known expert I was reminded of the Dunning-Kruger effect. When we have learnt something new, we sometimes mistake the extent of our newfound knowledge. Sometime this can be ascribed to unconscious incompetence. It is when we emerge from this unconscious incompetence that we tend to be humbled by our conscious incompetence, when like Tess of the D’Urbervilles we know just enough to know how little we know. At some point hopefully we reach conscious competence, and then we might even grow into unconscious competence, when our knowledge or insight is so integrated we take it for granted AND think everyone else knows what we do.

The Dunning-Kruger effect states the unconsciously incompetent tend to overvalue their expertise whereas the consciously competent tend to undervalue it. What an unfortunate state of affairs!

So being unconsciously incompetent is at best an irritation to the competent, and at worst a potential disaster. But so is the other extreme of the spectrum. Unconsciously competent folks often expect the same from others than from themselves, without realizing that it is impossible without the knowledge and years of experience they have.

So how do we deal with this in our teams?

  1. First of all, get to know one another. Good teams are built on good relationships. Get to know who you can learn from, and who you can potentially mentor. Some of the best teams in the world have a teacher-apprentice model. See whose apprentice you would like to become, and offer yourself as teacher. (Offer, not inflict!)
  2. Then, look at the value your team places on knowing the answer, on expertise. Is it easy to acknowledge that you don’t know something? Does the one who knows the most have the most power and always have the last say? Our society values knowing and expertise so much that one of the things that inhibit speaking up is the fear that people will think us ignorant. This causes teams to miss out on great contributions from more tentative team members. You may want to look at ways to facilitate conversations to even out the playing field. Or you may want to review your team alliance or agreement.
  3. Another great way to draw someone’s attention to the fact that they are either way ahead or overconfident about their assumptions is to ask well phrased questions. This is often easier with the unconsciously incompetent – simply ask a question that pushes the boundaries of their competence. Asking them to step you through their suggestion more often than not is enough.
  4. Make learning a priority. Explicitly create slack in your schedule so there is time to learn. Schedule regular knowledge share sessions. Treat disasters as experiments gone wrong and harvest the lessons in a way that doesn’t humiliate people. Encourage people to be perpetual students, keep up to date with what is happening in their industry, in the world. Reward curiosity and make experiments the norm.
  5. Last but not least, make sure that your team builds enough trust in one another that they can simply call one another out in a: “Hey, Servaas, you need to slow done, buddy! The rest of us are lost! Please go back a few steps and then explain more slowly how you get there, won’t you?”

What would be possible for your team if you speak openly, yet with compassion, about where everyone is in terms of competence?  In all the areas that you as a team has to have competence? Would you be willing to start with yourself?



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