Stay Humble

December 16, 2015 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Teamwork 

We all suffer from a variety of cognitive biases, faulty assumptions that screw up our ability to make decent decisions. One of my favourites is the Dunning-Kruger effect, where those that are unskilled tend to overestimate their abilities. Apparently the study of this bias was inspired by a bank robber who smeared lemon juice on his face (you may have used lemon juice as invisible ink when you were a kid) to hide from surveillance cameras.

There is another side of this bias that is less commonly considered, but often manifests itself in teams. It seems while the unskilled tend to overestimate their own abilities, the highly skilled tend to underestimate the abilities of others.

About a decade ago, I gathered quite a bit of data about teams that I worked with: demographics, practices and performance. At one point I decided to see if there was any correlation between what we commonly call ‘best practices’ and performance. Sure enough, there was a clear correlation, even what appears to be a causal relationship between doing the right things and getting better results. No real surprise there.

While poking around, though, I decided to see if there was any relationship between demographics and performance.

While it wasn’t much surprise to see that when teams spend more time at work performance suffered, or that teams with fewer fresh recruits can get a bit stale, the data also revealed a slightly negative relationship between the number of professional designations on a team and performance.

Yes, the data suggests that stacking your team with PMP’s, MBA’s, or the like can actually make things worse.performance

I’ve used that graphic in a number of presentations over the years, at one point it was the only slide I used for a talk to a room full of MBA candidates. It was fascinating to see the looks on their faces, that “so what the hell am I doing this for” expression, as the information sank in.

Having worked with all the teams in this data set, I know from experience what is happening. In some instances, the Dunning-Kruger effect takes hold. People come into the room with more letters after their name, and they presume they have a better grasp of the situation than anyone else. They see themselves as having all the answers, or at least puff out their chests and act that way. The result is diminished performance, and the team doesn’t experience synergy.

Remember, I said ‘in some instances’. It doesn’t happen all the time.

I told that group of disillusioned MBA candidates that regardless of the amount of education you have or the number of letters on your business card, you should never lose your humility. Even if you happen to be the smartest person in the room, every other person has a unique perspective and a lifetime of experience and skills that are different than yours. Those distinctions should be embraced to increase the overall group’s capacity.

These days, I often find myself in a room clearly surrounded by people who are far more educated than I am. Just this weekend, for instance, we ran an intensive retreat for a room of Post-Doctoral Fellows. Having a lowly B.Sc., I find myself in awe of their depth of knowledge in their domains, their awareness and drive that belies the fact they are barely half my age. Fortunately, none of that negative manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect occurred. We all contributed to improve the overall experience of the group, as it should always be.

Stay humble. – JB


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