The Dunning-Kruger effect and its relevance to project management
I’ll start with a story that may sound familiar to some of you.
A project team member – let’s call him Ernest – appears to be a major asset to the team. He is enthusiastic, volunteers to do stuff others don’t want to do and is always (seemingly) on the ball. The problem is most of his work is shoddy, riddled with errors and has to be redone. Worse, this is starting to have a negative knock-on effect on other deliverables. Other team members are having to clean up the mess and are beginning to resent it. Yet Ernest is blissfully unaware of the repercussions of his earnest efforts. By his estimation, he’s doing a fine job and, quite naturally, expects to be rewarded for it.
It is clear the project manager has to do something about Ernest. Trouble is she can’t. She has no say in the composition of his team, and the functional manager to whom Ernest reports reckons that Ernie is the best thing that happened to the company in a long time. Our PM’s in a pickle; one which I reckon isn’t an uncommon one.
There are two factors at work here:
- Ernest thinks he’s (way) more competent than he actually is.
- He isn’t aware of his shortcomings.
This story is an illustration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, so named after the authors of this paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999. In the paper the authors demonstrated, through a series of experiments, that less skilled individuals tend to:
- Overestimate their competence.
- Fail to recognise the extent of their lack of skills.
The paper suggests that improving the skills of such individuals not only increases their competence, but also helps them recognise and acknowledge their prior lack of skills – i.e. it improves their ability for self-assessment.
I should mention that not all authors agree with Dunning and Kruger. However, in a recent paper, Dunning and others appear to address many criticisms that were levelled at the original work. So the current academic consensus seems to be that the Dunning-Kruger effect is real.
So, going back to my original story, what can the project manager do about Ernest? Remember, Ernie can’t be relieved of his project duties because he has his manager’s backing.
The PM has a few options which I outline below:
- Provide Ernest with honest feedback. This has to be done with care as Ernest reckons he’s doing a great job. The PM should also be sure to provide Ernest with positive feedback where possible – compliment him on his enthusiasm, readiness to take on tasks etc.
- Channel Ernest’s positive qualities to good use. One way our PM could do this is to position less critical tasks as important, and suggest (or gently insist!) that Ernest take responsibility for them. This needs to be done carefully, as the PM needs to ensure that Ernest remains motivated.
- Suggest concrete actions that might help Ernest improve the quality of his work. This option is usually considered to be a non-starter given that there’s no time (or budget) for training in the middle of a project. However, there are a few other ways to achieve this: informal coaching, mentoring for example. These, however, are difficult to put into action because it is difficult to find time to coach or mentor while a project’s in progress. Besides, Ernest has to be willing to acknowledge and accept his shortcomings.
At all times, the PM has to be cognisant of the effect of the effect her actions (or inaction, for that matter!) on team morale. Plummeting morale is the last thing she needs in the middle of a project.
I’m sure most project managers would have had first-hand experience of dealing with individuals like Ernest. If so, they’ll know that fixing the problem is hard, especially if the project manager has no authority over team composition. Although I’ve suggested some strategies to deal with such individuals, I acknowledge that the solutions can be difficult, time consuming and expensive to implement; especially in stressed-out project environments.
As Dunning points out in this article, we’re strangers to ourselves. So we’re all potential victims of this effect (yes, I realise that includes me too!). Having said that, I leave you now to ponder this question: how do you rate your competence as a project manager?