Helping Employees See Incompetence

Why is it that people possessing low competence in any set of skills often do not recognize their incompetence and assess themselves as having a much higher level of competence than they actually possess? I was hired to help a supervisor enhance his skills.  In my initial interview and in watching his performance on site I noted that he did not possess even the most fundamental of skill in planning, relating to employees, problem solving, conflict resolution or assessing performance. This is why his response to a self assessment of capabilities surprised me. How was I to help him recognize his need when he possessed such an inflated perspective of his capability?
Tom is an office manager in a small professional business (less than 50 employees). He is a confident and pleasant person but after encountering repeated conflicts with the owner of the business and other employees he was directed to seek out coaching on his leadership and management skills. In our conversations about what he was facing and what he had done to address his challenges it was quickly apparent that while he was a competent employee with experience at supervising others he had not developed several critical supervisory skills.

I supposed that Tom’s difficulty in defining what skills he was missing resulted from his lack of exposure to larger organizational dynamics and the relatively flat and fluctuating organizational design in the business he presently worked. Pam, the owner of this business was entrepreneurial and sales focused. Pam could add new business to the work load of her team at a rate that consistently outstripped their ability to keep up. Structure and policies felt more constrictive than helpful to Pam hence she had delegated the operational structure to Tom and Tom had done a sufficient job putting the basic structures in place based on the model of Gerber’s E-Myth. However, while the structures existed on paper they were not followed in behavior.

Pam’s employees were well cared for and had an intuitive understanding that they had to meet high expectations of performance, appearance and loyalty. Because of Pam’s care for them (they had great benefits in profit sharing, healthcare, retirement, professional training) the employees loved Pam but also dreaded her entrepreneurial vision that felt more like sudden and undulating upheavals of normalcy that would emerge and subside with both the frequency and unpredictability of a southern California earth quake. Pam had bought the business right out of college from a retiring professional that had given Pam her first internship. He saw Pam’s potential and worked out a fabulous retirement for himself in the sale of the business on the sure bet on Pam’s abilities. Tom was floundering in (1) his inability to successfully engage and negotiate conflict between employees and (2) an inability to apply policy consistently in performance and assessment of performance. His assessment of his peers abilities was surprisingly inaccurate to what I observed when I was on site.

Tom described himself as vice president material – the assessment floored me, I was stunned. How could a person who barely met the qualifications of a supervisor feel he could function at a corporate level in the C-suite? This was more than a lack of exposure to larger organizations this was a significant lapse of self awareness. Tom felt slighted by Pam’s failure to recognize his true talent and felt that Pam had torpedoed his career potential by removing some of his supervisory responsibilities from him. Tom was assigned to design processes, check them to regulatory requirements and maintain the documentation of all operational and human resources procedures. However, Tom was removed from direct supervision of the other employees. When personnel issues arose Pam stepped into the gap often reminding Tom that he needed to work on his people skills. At this point in the conversation I knew that Tom needed some fierce feedback.

What explains this gap in self assessment? Justin Kruger and David Dunning’s study on self awareness posits that individuals who utilize incompetent methods to achieve success or fulfillment diminishes their ability accurately assess their own abilities or to realize their own self deception. As a result Kruger and Dunning made four predictions:

Prediction 1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria.

Prediction 2. Incompetent individuals will suffer from deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it—be it their own or anyone else’s.

Prediction 3. Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of social comparison information. In particular, because of their difficulty recognizing competence in others, incompetent individuals will be unable to use information about the choices and performances of others to form more accurate impressions of their own ability.

Prediction 4. The incompetent can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that they have performed poorly.  (Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessment” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1999, Vol. 77, No. 6), 1122.)

I could see all four problems in Tom’s situation. Not only did he fail to recognize his incompetence, he could not see competence in those he was supposed to be supervising. As a result he cut off their suggestions for improving performance or morale and reverted to an enforcement of rules that often had no direct bearing on the situation in which he sought to apply them.

The most hopeful insight Kruger and Dunning provided in their study was that the incompetent can be trained to be more competent thus enhancing the metacognitive skills needed to gain a more accurate assessment of their own and others performance. I began to work with Tom by providing the exercises he needed to gain supervisory skill and a more accurate picture of his own inadequate performance.

What recommendation do I have for employers? Pre-promotion training must be a critical component to talent development to avoid both overinflated self assessment and exceptionally poor assessment of the performance of others. Expose potential supervisors, managers, or executives to the challenges, skills and knowledge base they will need in succeeding at a functional role. Provide training in skills and test knowledge prior to promoting people to new responsibilities. If this is not done a very real risk of exists of driving true talent out of the company because supervisory or management talent cannot see their own incompetence nor recognize competence in others. Even more alarming is that a lack in metacognitive skill means they will not learn from experience. Experience will only reinforce their inflated self-assessment thus compounding the problem for employers.

What if Tom already exists in your company? Engage him/her in the training, testing and coaching needed to enhance their metacognitive skills i.e., the ability to reflect on thinking as thinking and to determine one’s relative level of competence or incompetence in any given domain of knowledge. The predictable result of not intervening in the incompetence of supervisors, managers or executives is passive contribution to continued poor judgment and all its legal, interpersonal, financial and customer impacts. Why does it seem your employees are not learning from experience? They may not possess the cognitive tools, yet, to recognize that there are lessons there to learn.

Aspects of Leadership Development

How do leaders develop? Since research has completely discredited the idea that leaders are born (or become leaders by some innate characteristic or right) and that class room input is not that useful since most of the content delivered in classrooms rarely makes it into practice then how is it that leaders emerge from among us?
I observe that in the best case we recognize leaders through the convergence of three factors that ebb and flow like a tide sometimes raising in synergistic force that propels a person to a unique influence in the lives of others and that sometimes ebbs causing influence to recede and a time of exposure and reflection emerge when new insights are germinated and given a chance to alter the landscape of the personal experience and insight. As I see it character, acquired skill and circumstance (what some call opportunity) converge and dissipate constantly in life providing the situation in which influence, recognition and results align to render the recognition that one is a leader.

Convergence is the best case because I have to admit that plenty of historical examples exist of leaders who emerge simply because those around them abdicated their personal responsibility to these three factors – as Lipman-Blumen observes, toxic leaders are made by their followers in just the same way good leaders are recognized and empowered by their followers.

Of the three factors I see character as the most significant. It is certainly the one thing over which the potential leader has the greatest control. How one chooses to invest their time, energies, emotion and mental capabilities determines whether a potential leader will (1) recognize the opportunity to lead; (2) have the insight, knowledge and tenacity needed to engage the task; and (3) possess the capability of winning the right to gain other’s attention and trust. By character I mean those virtues that are recognized as beneficial for the social good. Lists of virtues are as abundant as the writers who think about them.

For brevity I prefer to use the four cardinal virtues of Greek thinking because they serve so well as expansive categories:

• temperance: σωφροσύνη (sōphrosynē) – self-discipline, strength of will or strength of mind

• prudence: φρόνησις (phronēsis) – discretion, good sense, forethought or acumen

• fortitude: ανδρεία (andreia) – courage, staying power, grit, resilience

• justice: δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē) – evenhandedness, impartiality

A person of character demonstrates the temperance needed to be prepared, the prudence needed to read the situation and others with relative accuracy, the fortitude needed to step up to meet challenge or change with courage and the justice needed to provide a common hope which is the foundation for action in the vision of a mutually beneficial and preferred future. Reliance on virtues suggests that leadership possesses a strong moral center from which ethical decisions are made and choices are evaluated.

Acquired skill is a function of learning. Learning is sometimes described as experience and it makes sense to assume that someone who has engaged a task, situation, life or people for a longer period of time should also have acquired unique insights that provide wisdom for navigating challenging and unknown situations in life.

However not everyone with time served in life possesses experience or learning. It is quite possible to flow through life without any of the critical reflection, synthesis or curiosity needed to catalog insights or information into retrievable and applicable knowledge or wisdom. Without critical reflection that tests one’s assumptions or observations insights either degenerate to hasty generalizations or evaporate for lack of effort to retain their significance. Those recognized as having made a difference in the lives of others and their organizations seem to be people who make a habit of the rigor of learning from all their experiences – good or ill. They possess a curiosity that seeks to understand so they investigate and they test their insights in real life. They become more proficient, more insightful, and more capable by continual reflection and practice.

Circumstance is a word that holds a greater sense of recurring potential than does the word opportunity for me. Perhaps that is because when people talk about opportunity relative to leadership they seem to talk more about privilege than recognition of chance occasion to risk stepping out in practice of what one has learned. For example when one ascribes their lack of accomplishment relative to another as a problem stemming from their never being granted an opportunity it is often followed by an embittered commentary on how the other was granted every chance to succeed. I have no doubt that privilege (opportunity stemming from affinity to someone in power) occurs regularly. However I find that leaders can see far more opportunities arise because the situation or circumstance in front of them provides the arena they need to put their acquired skills, abilities and insights to work among those who want help in making sense of what they face. The need to put skill, ability and insight to work does seem to open new doors of opportunity. It appears that Jesus’ statement that those who are faithful in little are indeed given much.

How is it that emerging leaders recognize these opportunities? Often they don’t at least not in the way that is later described when those around them write reflectively about what occurred. I find that leaders step up to what we call opportunity in hindsight because their sense of justice, temperance, prudence or fortitude was summoned to action because they saw a chance to make a difference by applying what they had learned through life. This is what I call the convergence of character, skill and circumstance.

This pattern of convergence seems to hold true in my experience which is of course still being tested in life. The pattern causes me to reflect on my own habits, perspectives and attitudes. It causes me to ask myself to what degree I pursue contribution to others as well as success (my own sense of accomplishment). It summons me to ask the degree to which I exercise my own virtues, learning and vision. It also allows me to determine what opportunities I will invest myself in and which ones I will turn down. Virtue leads me to seek a return on my time and energy not just for my own inurnment but also for the benefit of those I serve as a leader.

Gender and Ability

I am still amazed at the frequency of times I encounter managers and leaders who discount the talent, skills and abilities around them because the human packaging happens to be the wrong gender.  This gender bias is often masked in poor performance marks that have more to do with conflicting gender stereo types than actual performance. 
One female executive described a poor performance review that tagged her for demonstrating an  undercurrent of insubordination.  When she asked for information on what characteristics seemed insubordinate she was told that she often was too direct, too objective and just did not meet the demands of executive level work.  Her unit was out performing those of her peers and the same qualities in her male counter parts were considered the formula for success.

Studies consistently indicate that the gender gap is not defacto a talent or ability gap.  It does appear to be a socialization gap in both some males (who assume women are less capable of sustaining performance in high pressure or highly competitive environments) and in women who fear that their more public or powerful characteristics (direct communication, flexibility to new approaches, directive and commanding management style, orientation towards the general benefit or tendency to take direct action to get things done is either too “girly” or inappropriate female behavior in the work place.  The irony (and tragedy) of the no win assessment is painful.

In my observation company’s that minimize gender bias are better run (fewer employee claims, lower turn over and better financial strength), seem to have better competitive and cash positions and have a culture of innovation and collaboration.  Mind this is only anecdotal, but as an outsider who spends time in numerous different companies and industries it seems to be a non-exclusive pattern (meaning that not all highly competitives and positive companies are run by or have significant number of women in key leadership roles).

So, I contemplate ways to help organizations break out of the pink curtain and discover the full depth of talent and ability that exists in their own ranks, and to invest in that future purposefully.