Why smart people still do stupid things

Why is it that smart people still do stupid things? One of the reasons is a little known thinking fallacy, which is called the Dunning–Kruger effect. This is ‘a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.’

What it means is that if we are completely ignorant and unskilled in a certain area, we often overestimate how well we will perform in this area. An example is cutting vegetables: if you watch a Master Chef on television cutting carrots, this looks easy. Only when they tell you that it requires a full year of Master Chef training to learn how to properly cut vegetables, you start to realize there is much more to cutting vegetables than meets the eye. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.

Needless to say that the Dunning-Kruger effect can wreak havoc on your best laid plans. Fortunately, people who are aware of this effect can anticipate and plan accordingly. Here are three ideas which you can implement to mitigate this dangerous thinking bias and move you and your team to High Performance:

Whenever a team quickly reaches consensus to take a certain decision, postpone making the decision until the next meeting. As Albert Sloan, the iconic former Chairman of GM, once said: ‘The fact that we reach consensus quickly clearly means that we have not given the issue enough thought.’

Form a Mastermind group: this is a group of 4 to 6 individuals with varied backgrounds, which convenes on a regular basis (for instance every two weeks) with the explicit purpose to help the individual group members by giving them new ideas and new perspectives to solve their issues and challenges.

Regularly conduct Pre-Mortem exercises with external content experts on your most critical projects. In a Pre-Mortem exercise you imagine your project to have failed miserably and by focusing on ‘why’ the group quickly identifies the main project risks and obstacles.

If you encounter the Dunning-Kruger effect in others, keep in mind the words of Mark Twain: ‘Never argue with ignorant people. They will bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.’

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