Low Competence/ High Confidence: There’s a Name for That

In our implementation of confidence-based learning we classify each test taker into one of four categories of confidence accuracy:

Green  — this is the goal state. The employee is both knowledgeable and confident.

Yellow – the employee is knowledgeable, but is not confident in his/her knowledge

Orange – the employee is neither knowledgeable nor confident. It this is a post-training exam this is a problem, but for, say, a pre-test or a diagnostic test, it is not unreasonable. The employee does not know the subject matter and knows that he/she doesn’t know it.

Red — these employees are the most problematic; they are highly confident but not very knowledgeable or effective at their job.

Did you know that there is a psychological term for the people who fall into the Red category? It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a form of cognitive bias. The term was coined in 1999 by two Cornell psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger.

In their original paper:


they argue that people in the “red category” suffer from a dual problem: They are (1) not competent and (2) lack the meta-cognitive skills to recognize their own incompetence.

In one study they gave Cornell undergraduates a 20 item test of grammar. The students then estimated how their ability to “identify grammatically correct standard English” compared with others. The lowest scoring students seriously overestimated their own abilities. Students who scored at the 10th percentile rated their abilities at the 67th percentile.

This is a problem with students of course, but even a much bigger problem when employees exhibit this behavior. These employees can do serious business damage if not managed properly. Now for some, it is merely a matter of bringing them to competency. Then, combined with their self-confidence, they can be stellar performers. But others are in need of a quick management intervention, at best, and perhaps, reassignment or dismissal in the extreme.


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