The Smartest Guy in the Room?

By Guy Higgins

I came across an article recently, What Know-it-alls Don’t Know, or the Illusion of Competence. The article captures the results of some psychological studies that yielded what the psychologists today call The Dunning-Kruger Effect. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the cognitive bias of inflating a self-assessment, also known as the “illusion of competence.” One of the things I found interesting is that the bias is most pronounced among those people who are, in reality, the least competent. For example, eighty percent of all drivers believe that they are better than average drivers – with those people with the worst driving records being the most certain of their superior skills. Even more remarkable is how highly college athletes rate their professional potential. Forty to sixty percent (at least some of whom – by definition – are below-average college players) of NCAA athletes (men and women – for all those ladies who were nodding about how vain the male athletes are) believe that they are at least “somewhat likely” to play professionally. The actual percentages hover around one percent.

The study also found that the most competent people frequently assessed themselves as closer to average – under estimating their abilities. The article said that this under estimation might be related to the ease with which the most competent people perform – “if I can do it, then most people should be able to do it.”

Last point from the article – the studies showed that the least competent people were also the ones most impervious to feedback, consistently failing to correct their over estimation of their own abilities while the most competent people were best at taking feedback and modifying their performance.

Those things got me to thinking. What happens when a person who is a poor performer, in reality, also happens to have a highly charismatic personality? What happens to the under estimation by high performers after they have established a long record of success?

If you read a good history of the English monarchy, you’ll come across kings who were terrible kings – they refused to listen to their advisors or to their nobles. They destroyed wealth and prosperity throughout the kingdom. A couple of them were even exceptionally charismatic – and they did more damage than those who were merely incompetent. More recently, Hitler and Mussolini were both very charismatic and both grossly over estimated their military capability, which led to national catastrophe. I think that the combination of charisma and the illusion of competence can be very dangerous to an organization. Fortunately for most organizations, these folks are identified early, based on actual achievements; hiring officials need to be cognizant of the possibility that the person under consideration is a charismatic under-performer.

I once worked with a person who, over beers one evening, observed that a certain senior officer suffered from “a burned out receive diode.” He was referring to this officer’s absolute belief in his own infallibility and resulting failure to listen to anything from his subordinates. I’ve seen several cases of this phenomenon – highly capable people who established a solid track record of success, but, who upon promotion to some level (that level is a variable and not some mystical point that is the same for everyone), began to over estimate their own capability. I often hear the phrase, “This person has risen beyond his capability to lead.” These people are, I think, very dangerous to an organization. No matter how smart a person is, two or three competent people are almost certainly smarter. The failure to listen to differing opinions and to rely entirely on your own thoughts and ideas is, I will bold assert, a fatal flaw.

As leaders, we need to understand that this illusion of competence exists and that something like it (a burned out receive diode) can develop even late in a career. We need to be careful about investing our own ideas with merit they may not deserve. We need to listen to diverse ideas – really listen. While one may be “the smartest guy in the room,” one is not smarter than the sum total of everyone else in the room – that’s why they are all there.




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