Sunday, January 1, 2012

When Ignorance Begets Confidence

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on....................."

2012 - another year, new beginnings.

If you ask any group of automobile owners to rate their driving skills, 80% will say:  "Above average."  We tend to have an exaggerated idea of our own skills levels, believing - erroneously - that we know more than we do; that we are better at something than we likely are.


"The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes.  The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority.

Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others".  In both cases, the perception is wrong and that clouds our ability to both perform and to improve. 
The worse we are at any specific skill set, the harder it is for us to evaluate our own competency at it.  By definition, 80% of the automobile drivers cannot be above average, but it is common for us to mistakenly see ourselves as more competent than we are (or for the few mega-competent, to see ourselves as less competent).  This isn't to say we are all incompetent and lack skill sets; rather it recognizes that we tend to often believe we are - particularly in relationship to other people - more adept and skillful than is the case.  
Doubtless this is true in the arts management profession (assuming for the moment it is a profession - but that's a topic for another blog) and we see ourselves as more skillful than we actually might be in a host of areas - from research and marketing, to advocacy and policy formulation, from program design and implementation to financial management, from interpersonal relationships to the essential skills of communication in all its forms - including listening and understanding.  In truth, the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests we are not nearly as good as what we do as we perceive ourselves to be.  And this false over-confidence likely impacts the level of our performance and the outcomes we achieve.  
Moreover, the "effect" may apply not only to us as individual managers, but it may apply to the whole of the nonprofit arts sector.  
Perhaps the New Year is a good time to think about these kinds of things.  How then does one deal with this "effect"?  
I would think the first step would be to take a long hard look at ourselves - both as individual managers and a 'sector".  Can we recognize and identify where we are subject to thinking we are more competent than we really are?  Can we admit it?  It is only surface mis-perception of our skill levels, or does it run deep into systemic self-deception?  Is it more applicable to certain strata of our leadership or is it widely pervasive?  Are certain areas of our management protocols such as to make us more susceptible to the "effect" than we might be in other areas?   
If we can dig deep enough within the dynamics of our organizational management framework, then the next step would be to consider how we might improve the skill sets where we are most vulnerable to self-exaggeration in terms of our competency.  And that, of course, leads to consideration of what kind of job we are doing in terms of providing all of our managers sophisticated and meaningful support in learning how to become a better manager and administrator (a subject of which I have previously indicated our field as seriously lacking).  In this sense, addressing the Dunning-Kruger effect, or any other identifiable phenomena that impacts our competitive capacity and ultimate success, is smart and intelligent professional development - not only deserving of attention, but demanding it.  IF we are indeed a profession - or want to become one - we need not only minimum standards of competency but both a higher bar and a comprehensive approach to developing our management skill sets to reach that higher bar.
Perhaps as you make important decisions in the beginning of the new year - decisions that will impact how well your organization fares this year - you might consider that you know less than you think - or in the case of you very rare highly skilled leaders - more than you think.  I suppose the danger is exactly what the Dunning-Kruger effect recognizes - the less skilled think they are more skilled; the highly skilled think they are less skilled.  Over confidence breeds poor decision making and less satisfactory results.  Under confidence likely produces much the same situation.  
Oh my.
Have a good week.
Don't Quit
Barry

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. While I see a lot of very good administrators/executive directors, I think almost everyone is expected to have far too many high level skills in too many different aspects of managing an arts organization. One reason is the size of many of our arts organizations, especially in the performing arts, where staffing levels are often too small for the range of expertise needed unless everything needed is combined in one or two people. Hiring part timers helps, but brings another set of issues.

    Interestingly some of us in NYC have been having quiet conversations for the past two years about how to develop our own standards about "best practices" but just can't find a realistic way to approach this. We are wary of the often encountered attitude that the business community knows how to manage so much better than we do, and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary so our reaction to that solution is well founded. But we recognize that we have allowed others to define the expectations for good management.

    We also feel that the idea of measuring every aspect of this sector is out of control. Creativity is also a part of good management, and measuring it is impossible.

    As a colleague said a few weeks ago, "we are being told what we need; we are not being asked what is useful to us." Much of the research stems from a desire to measure and compare. Understandable up to a point, but we are not making widgets. This is a hand made crafts sector, and "products", as well as what goes into making them, are different from one another in both obvious and subtle ways. Research can point out the obvious, but I think it will always miss the subtle.

    Sadly, I suspect the article also explains some of the absolutely nutty aspects of our political processes these days.

    It will, however, give me pause as I try to sort out the tasks, resources and choices for the upcoming year. Thanks.

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