At some point in my career I became painfully aware of a phenomenon called the Dunning–Kruger Effect. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger coined the phrase in their 1999 paper, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Essentially, they posit, sufferers are ignorant of their own ignorance. Now, who hasn’t worked with someone like this?
You know the type. When they walk down the hall, colleagues run the other way; they burn through staff at rapid pace; they’re quick to throw anyone under the bus — and they do it all with great gusto. Maybe it’s just my luck, though I’ve had several managers like this throughout my career. After a while I began theorizing why, and this was my hypothesis: Some people find themselves in leadership positions because of particular skills, not necessarily because they are fit to lead.
An example might be the artist who ascends to the position of executive director because of their creative savvy, while lacking budgetary or philanthropic competencies. Or the development staffer who raises a ton of money and climbs to #1, without understanding the nuances of human resources.
Leadership is a sticking point for me (see here), and that Dunning-Kruger Effect is all over nonprofits, often in top positions. And while I’ve experienced my share of those who act heinously because of it, I’ve also seen people who admit they don’t know what they don’t know, and learn from it. I LOVE working with people like that, and I bet in turn they find me to be a pretty happy colleague.
Many days, I realize there’s a lot I don’t know, especially the older I get. On most of those days, I pridefully learn something new. I don’t have nearly all the answers, and it would be dangerous not only to presume I do, but to act on it. [Note: Here’s a handy visualization of this reality]
I don’t work for a Dunning-Kruger sufferer now, and I hope never to again. I know they’re out there, though, so if you come across one, feel free to print out this post and leave it on their desk — it’s likely they have a lot of work enemies, so they probably won’t know it was you anyway.