The Dunning-Kruger Effect and You

I (virtually) presented at the Virtual Seattle VMUG UserCon a few weeks back. It was my ESXi Single Touch Ansible talk. It would appear that the videos are still available, but you may need to contact VMUG Seattle for access, if you did not attend the event.

As far as UserCons go, it was the usual conference fair; mostly “meh” but with occasional bright spots. I rarely go to vendor presentations anymore unless it’s a “big gun,” like VMware’s William Lam, or Frank Denneman.

The Community presentations usually have more to offer because the speakers are usually sharing how they solved a problem, which is usually my jam. There was one presentation on The Imposter Syndrome by Nathan Bennett – Cloud Architect, Sterling, which was nice to see because I think everyone in our line of work should know about it. I think it’s good for IT Managers to know about too. It’s a thing.

While I am at it, though, I have never really heard anyone in our line of work talk about the opposite of The Imposter Syndrome: The Dunning-Kruger Effect, and how it can have an effect on your IT life.

Let’s define both of these phenomenon so we know what we’re talking about here:

The Imposter Syndrome is a biased, psychological pattern of thinking that, compared to your peers, your accomplishments are undeserved and that your skills and talents are fraudulent. People suffering from this syndrome are constantly and erroneously afraid that their peers will discover they are a fraud, leading to heightened levels of anxiety and unfounded self-doubt. I have found that most individuals suffering from this are painfully aware that they suffer from it, which usually allows for them to deal with it better. This is not to be confused with people who actually are fraudulent. One qualifying standard of this syndrome is that the person in question is actually competent, but underestimates their talent and abilities, sometimes extremely so.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect, however, can be considered the opposite of The Imposter Syndrome, but it’s a bit more nuanced. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where a person is unable to assess their own skills in such a way that he or she mistakenly thinks that he or she is more competent than they really are. I am not a psychologist, but I suspect at least two individuals in my past have suffered from this. And in both cases, they went even further into this madness: Not only did they over-estimate their abilities; they felt like they were the only people who were competent, while their peers were incapable of ever becoming competent. This usually leads to an attitude where, essentially, they believe they have access to information and/or knowledge that their peers will never have. To this person, he or she is always and forever the smartest person in the room.

I told you it was nuanced . . .

Put simply, a person suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect will be both incompetent and think everyone else is an impostor. To add icing to this cake, in both of the suspected cases I saw, they were both very willing to verbally and repeatedly proclaim their superiority. So they were . . . what’s the phrase I am looking for? . . . Oh yeah . . . . total dicks.

What is additionally frustrating about this effect, is that due to the cognitive bias itself, it is extremely difficult to convince this person that they think this way. Luckily, this effect is rare in our line of work.

And one last point: This effect is supposed to be temporary, but I have seen people stay there for a lot longer than they should.

An Aside: Being Humble Goes a Long Way in Our Line of Work

On a related topic, no matter where you think you sit on the competence scale, I have noticed that the best IT people are immensely humble. You can spot this right off the bat because they will couch their language and/or are self-deprecating. They usually do this (1) to flag to others that they are OK with being wrong or not knowing the answer, or that they can admittedly be misinformed, or have information that is out of date, and/or (2) to indicate that they are also at the same time blatantly honest.

In Management, there is the concept of the “Compliment Sandwich”. When you have to give someone bad news, or negative feedback, you shove the negative inside two pieces of “compliment breads”:

“You have been super awesome as an employee here (compliment), Marcus, but we have to let you go (bad news). With your great stick-to-itiveness I am sure you will land on your feet. (compliment).”

In the world of Leadership and Management, this is now discouraged. It has become so commonplace that people see it as condescending.

But in the world of IT, I change this into “The Humble Sandwich” and it always works like a charm:

“The last I checked (humbly implies that my information may be out of date), you can assign a license to an ESXi host through Ansible (technical info), but I am open to being proven wrong there (humbly open to being corrected).”

Usually this gains the respect of your peers, because if you are right with the middle-of-the-sandwich-part then you have presented it in a way that isn’t dickish, but on the rare occasion you are wrong, then it’s OK.

Dealing with Dunning-Kruger – Bend Like a Reed and Play Dumb

There is no easy way of dealing with someone who suffers from this effect, usually. How do you explain to someone that their brain isn’t working right, if their brain isn’t working right? In the two cases I have seen, it’s easy to get into arguments with these people and there is no way to win. They are playing a whole different game. Remember that the superiority they show is their survival and compensatory mechanism: It’s how they hold down a job. Like Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

I have found that the main factor in successfully maneuvering this Effect is whether or not your boss has ever done what you did. If your superior moved up the ranks and has technical knowledge, then The Dunning-Kruger affected person will be in A LOT of trouble. Their incompetence will be rooted out toot sweet.

But with superiors who don’t have the same domain knowledge, that is an incompetent person’s dream come true, and it’s going to be a rough ride.

Good organizations usually weed these people out, or don’t hire them in the first place, but just in case you suspect you are in the company of someone who is like this, the solace you may be able to take is to realize that if you are surrounded by competent people, both in Management and in your peers, there is a wink and a nod awareness that you are the competent one and they are not.

Also, it isn’t about you. It’s hard to keep that in mind when they are acting all superior and what not.

The only thing I have seen really work is playing dumb. Don’t argue with them, make them show you: “Hey, remember how you said that there is a way to run the PowerCLI ESXi slipstreaming commands on Powershell Core on your Mac? I am going to setup a meeting and you can show me.”

OF COURSE you know that you can’t run the slipstreaming commands on your Mac’s PowerShell Core. That’s not the point. The point is to hope that way down deep, they will realize that you know what you are doing and they won’t act so superior around you.

That’s what eventually worked for me, anyway.

Oh yeah, and my binge drinking of course.

Hit me up on twitter @RussianLitGuy or email me at bryansullins@thinkingoutcloud.org. I would love to hear from you!

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