Defeating The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Some time ago I wrote a post about some of the steps you could take to improve your career prospects, after making the conscious decision to take active control over your prospects and development. Following that was a piece about how you could systematically describe your dreams, wishes and values, and work on them in an active and conscious manner.

So, having decided to work on our career, and with a fresh batch of actionable goals, let’s talk about personal value.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect On Career

Previously I wrote about Impostor Syndrome, a phenomenon where people felt they were actually incompetent in their roles, despite assertions to the contrary. They believed that at any time they’d be discovered as fraudulent or incompetent, and would be released from their jobs. Ironically, this tends to happen to people who are actually competent because of something called the “Dunning-Kruger effect”.

It basically comes down to a simple assertion that people who are competent have sufficient knowledge that they doubt themselves, while those who feel themselves most competent are those who are completely unaware of what it takes to be competent. The more competent you are, the less you feel that way, and vice versa.

When you work on your career, this feeling can cause you to pass up jobs you feel unqualified to hold, purely based on your self-assessment of competence and value. The requirements of the job may seem daunting, or perhaps you feel as if the role has so much more depth to it than you could provide. This often will lead you to “undersell” yourself and either accept jobs that are less challenging than you could (and likely should) really handle, but also to accept less pay and negotiate from a weaker position than you are eligible to.

The Peter Principle Effect On Career

Conversely, the Peter Principle asserts that “cream rises to the top, until it sours”. In other words, those people who have performed well before are promoted, based on previous competence, until they are placed in a job role where they are not competent anymore. This can be aggravated if this person is expected to take on the role without adequate training. Someone who is unaware of their incompetence might find themselves suddenly challenged, after which they might seek to change jobs to a company that is more appreciative of them.

And so the person who is affected by the less desirable version of the Dunning-Kruger effect will apply to jobs comparable to their last job (despite having been found incompetent to fill it) and will likely be hired because of them now having experience at doing this exact job!

So a job role has a chance at being left on the table by a competent person under the exact same principle that makes a less competent person successfully apply to it!

Appreciating Your Value

If you’re reading this I am assuming that you fall under the first principle, and feel uncertain about applying to “the big jobs” because you feel you might not be competent at them. You may be looking around and find few jobs in your chosen field, but hesitate to branch outside of it.

First off, realize that those job vacancies shown on Linkedin and job sites are idealized representations of what the company is looking for. Of course they’d love to have people with master’s degrees, 10 years of experience at similar roles, speaking four languages and in possession of obscure certification, all before the age of 30. But that doesn’t mean they expect to find these people. Consider this a wish list, or if you will, a model for what you will grow into if you accept that job.

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The second thing to realize is that how you do your job, at what speed and competence, is common to you. You have the insight, knowledge, experience and talent to do those things at your level. Exposure lessens amazement, and as you do your job you see all the faults, all the parts where you have to compensate, all the shortcuts taken. Someone else does not. They see your work from the outside, as someone who doesn’t have your knowledge and experience. And to them, what you do might be magic.

As a good example of this, check videos on youtube about “amazing workers” or “workers on the next level” or “amazing cooks”. You will find videos of people doing astounding things, at great speed, with zero errors. That’s incredible right? To them, they’re just working. They have been doing that for a decade, starting out making many mistakes and learning the trade, and now they are masters at their jobs. They are not impressed by their own work, and the true masters see those videos and note for themselves where they went wrong, how they could do better.

You are much the same, even if you don’t realize it just yet.

The third thing I’d like to put out here for you is that you are not going out there to have your CV checked, go through some standardized test or interview and be rejected. That’s for common jobs. Once you choose a career path, once you aim for jobs that have meaning to you, your employer will hire you based on you as a person.

As job vacancies become available higher up in companies, education and certificates become less important than your character, experience and attitude. Because at those levels, everyone has jobs where there is no playbook and you have to figure many things out for themselves. And then it becomes less important what standardized equipment you come with, but that little something special that allows you to learn, adapt and bring value to the company.

You can be taught the latest Sales or Project Management methodology. You can learn about the company by following someone around. You can learn the processes by reading manuals or browsing the company intranet.

They can’t teach you curiosity. They can’t teach you integrity. They can’t teach you adaptibility. Those are things you bring with you, and those are the traits you will be hired on. Not only are those traits they hire on, but they set you apart from your competition, who might focus on cold, ubiquitous skills or who might not have your personality or experience.

Bringing It All Together

So when looking at all those principles, this means that my advice to you when looking for your next job will be as follows:

  • Base the value of your experience and skill on how your colleagues talk about it, not how you feel about it.
  • Apply for jobs whose requirements make you feel uncomfortable applying for.
  • Focus on those aspects of yourselves that cannot be taught, that come from experience or your specific way of life.

And if you are still doubting whether you should apply to this job, even though you think it looks interesting and you’d love to try it, consider what the worst thing is that can happen to you: you didn’t get the job. Now think of the worst that could be happening to that job: they didn’t get you.

Would you really wish for an interesting, challenging job with future opportunities to be snatched up by someone less competent and principled than you? Then consider that you are not applying for that job, but that job is applying for you. Ask questions, challenge statements, and make the recruiting manager work to get you into that role. You might be surprised how well that works.


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