When You Don’t Know Enough to Realise How Little You Know

by | Jun 16, 2021 | On Point

Leadership programmes should be encouraged by employers and stakeholders if they want to ensure that their senior team has the competence and capability to deliver on strategic objectives. In order to do this they need to possess core leadership competencies to grow and empower others.

One of the problems we have is getting the buy-in from the leaders or managers for such programmes. All too often they do not recognise the need for training and are confident that they are already effective leaders. Whilst some may judge their capability reasonably well, many have difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence. This can then lead to inflated self-assessments and confidence as they do not recognise their own ineptitude. In the field of psychology, this is referred to as a cognitive bias of illusory superiority or the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is very similar to what is termed the overconfidence effect, although I make subtle distinctions between the two.

The Dunning-Kruger effect relates more to one’s belief in their own ability, the illusion being that one who has a relatively low ability will believe their ability to be much higher than it is. Overconfidence effect, on the other hand, is another known cognitive bias in which an individual’s subjective confidence, in his or her judgements, is reliably greater than the objective accuracy of those judgements especially when confidence is high. Numerous studies have shown that people at all performance levels are equally poor at estimating their relative performance. Dunning-Kruger found that those who have a naturally high ability may underestimate their relative competence; presuming that because tasks are easy for them they are also easy for everyone else. This typically results in them feeling less confident in their own capability relative to others.

Cognitive biases like Dunning-Kruger effect and Overconfidence effect explain how some leaders and managers may not recognise their need for a development programme at all; believing they are already competent. This can have a negative impact on the training course because senior managers and leaders may fail to see why they would benefit from it and therefore not be as engaged.

So, how can we anticipate and minimise cognitive bias to encourage appropriate engagement with leadership training programmes?

The ‘Conscious Competence,’ or four stage learning model, provides a useful model for learning as it relates to the psychological stages involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.

The four stages are:

1. Unconscious Incompetence

2. Conscious Incompetence

3. Conscious Competence

4. Unconscious Competence


Assessing leaders, prior to a development programme, highlights where unconscious incompetence or misplaced confidence exists. This can reduce the illusory superior bias effect and encourage stronger commitment to training. However, assessments consisting of basic multiple-choice (MC) questions are insufficient in determining these differences. This requires a much more complex multiple-response question methodology that challenges thinking and measures situational decision making, as well as confidence in those decisions.

Cognisco’s scenario based approach to leadership development, measures understanding, likely behaviour and confidence in given situations and distinguishes the stages as ‘outcome categories’, based on the correlation between knowledge application and confidence, with the ‘consciously competent’ or ‘confidently knowledgeable’ as the ideal, as shown below:

The graphic shows how the combination of understanding and confidence determines the outcome category as a focus for development. Ideally, leaders assessed on a given competency would produce a dark green outcome category (Confidently Knowledgeable). Conversely, someone with misunderstanding, who was highly confident in his or her answers at the time, will produce a red outcome category indicating this Topic to be a priority development.

Traditional assessment processes fail to uncover what an individual actually understands, in relation to application of knowledge in practice, in given contexts that can identify likely behaviour. By linking behaviour, attitude and knowledge together through a scenario based, situational judgement multi- response assessment we can not only pinpoint what an individual does or does not understand but measure their confidence within that situation. For example, high confidence but low understanding flag that an individual believes they will make the right decision when in fact they won’t.

The data provides a concise training needs analysis at individual, team and organisational levels. This enables more accurate planning and justification for more targeted leadership training and development. The feedback report provides a platform or framework for coaching, particularly when an individual proves highly knowledgeable but under confident. In depth feedback also empowers individuals to acknowledge where they can self-develop. The graphic below shows an example of an extract from an individual report which highlights specific development priorities based on their understanding score, confidence and outcome category.

This type of report provides managers and leaders with a clearer idea as to whether their decisions in given situations are the most effective in achieving the desired outcomes. It identifies also where training can be targeted where most needed.

Pre-assessment of leadership competencies, prior to a development programme, can provide valuable insights for trainers to inform them of the most appropriate areas to focus on during the programme. More importantly, this type of assessment provides the individual with the opportunity to assess themselves in given situations and challenge their decisions. This process not only encourages them to think more broadly, but results can help to highlight where development is needed. This can help reduce the Dunning-Kruger effect by showing where high confidence in one’s own performance may not be in-line with their actual performance. Equally, this approach can highlight to individuals any areas where training is not indeed necessary.

Leadership programmes can be much more impactful when the trainers can appreciate where to focus the training so that each individual can reap the benefits. Furthermore, when the attendees appreciate specifically why they actually need to be there.

Amanda Green is Joint Chief Executive Officer of Cognisco Ltd, a technology innovation partner of Kourdi Associates. Together with Cognisco we have developed a series of 100 Leadership Scenario Assessments – practical, real-world leadership scenarios delivered online, assessing an individual’s competence (what they would do in a given situation) as well as their confidence in their chosen approach.

Kourdi Associates​ ​work with current and potential leaders to develop their mindset, skills and effectiveness. Jeremy Kourdi is formerly Senior Vice President with The Economist, he has worked with London Business School and Duke Corporate Education as well as market-leading businesses worldwide, and he is the author of 27 books translated into 17 languages, including​ ​The Truth About Talent​ ​and​ ​Coaching Essentials​. ​His business​ ​Kourdi Associates​ ​provides coaches, expert content and consultants that help leaders successfully navigate a changing world.

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