The Dunning-Kruger Effect in Feedback

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“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

That quote, often attributed to writer Charles Bukowski, touches on a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. The bias presents itself when:

  1. Those with the least experience or expertise tend to be the most overconfident
  2. Those who know more and have far more expertise are modest and sometimes incredibly underconfident.

The effect is often visualized like this:

Dunning-Kruger Effect shows Confidence on one axis and Competence on the other. From left to right: Peak of Mount Stupid, Valley of Despair, Slope of Enlightenment, Plateau of Sustainability.

As Dunning & Kruger wrote in their classic 1999 paper, not only do those who know the least seem to have the most confidence, they use that confidence to make bad decisions and “…their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” In other words, we can be so ignorant that we can’t recognize our ignorance.

Feedback and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

In a colorful cartoon-style painting, many people sit watching a man in the center screaming.

Your mind may now be filled with examples of how this plays out in the workplace — from overconfident extroverts who make it to the top of the corporate ladder to humble experts whose important ideas can’t gain traction. As you can imagine, this bias can impact the feedback relationship in many ways, including:

  1. Overconfident people who provide feedback on topics they know little about
  2. Underconfident people who don’t provide feedback on topics they know much about

At the organizational level, a flavor of this bias may also play itself out, whereby overconfident leaders of a successful company may fail to read the market feedback signals — and thus have their business disrupted by a new entrant.

Improving as Feedback Givers and Receivers

Understanding this bias and recognizing and exploring how it impacts ourselves, not only others, can improve workplace feedback communication.

As we covered in the constructive feedback course, it’s important not to “talk just to talk” when others ask for feedback. In my experience, this happens for various reasons, including anxiety of the feedback giver, the feedback givers want to be helpful, and, yes, a Dunning-Kruger phenomenon whereby the feedback giver, rather than express their limitations, steps into their overconfidence and speaks from there.

This bias can also impact feedback-seeking behavior because if you already think you are an expert in some area, you likely won’t approach others for feedback.

The bias can also play out for underconfident feedback receivers who, despite being strong in one area, may be filled with so much self-doubt that they adopt unhelpful feedback.

Before entering into a planned feedback meeting on a particular topic (and during your feedback processing phase), it can be helpful to take a few moments to think about where you might be on the Dunning-Kruger diagram. Pausing in this way can bring awareness to where you might be over or under-confident, which can greatly impact how you give and receive feedback.


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