Readers looking to improve their leadership and decision-making in under five minutes are in the right place.
But first, a famous quote from Mark Twain: “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” In other words, few situations are more dangerous than when people have mistaken confidence in what they presume to be a certainty, only to find that they were wrong the whole time.
Students who fail to do homework after trusting rumors that an incoming foot of snow will cancel school may wake up to uncovered grass, and investors certain a fallen stock will surely bounce back may find it never does. In those cases, it would’ve been far better for those people to admit their lack of knowledge and seek more information or other reliable opinions.
Leaders in any industry are at their best when they have humility and the ability to admit what they know and don’t know. However, anyone can fall prey to what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger from Cornell University discovered a cognitive bias where individuals who perform a task poorly tend to overestimate their abilities, while those with more skill at the same task underestimate their performance compared to others, assuming it’s just as easy for them. The Dunning-Kruger effect is tied to illusory superiority, where people tend to overestimate their abilities and performance in relation to others.
Dunning and Kruger found after conducting four studies of individuals tested for humor, grammar and logic that performers in the bottom 25% far overestimated their scores. Those with scores in the 12th percentile believed they outperformed 62% of participants.
The two concluded that “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 a 1999 journal article titled “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”
These findings bring insightful implications for anyone, regardless of age, occupation or leadership status. As emotional beings, it’s tough for people to objectively evaluate anything, much less their skills. It’s difficult to recognize weaknesses, shortcomings and blind spots, and it’s even harder to admit them — especially as a leader or an individual of influence.
Amid COVID-19, far too many people have speculated and prognosticated about things they know very little about with great confidence. This is a clear, practical example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Ordinary Americans — especially beautiful, well-paid people on TV sets — often far overestimate their knowledge of COVID-19 and its effects.
Meanwhile, the world’s top health experts and those on the frontlines of the fight against the virus admit they don’t know when a vaccine or treatment is coming, much less when life will be back to normal. Anthony Fauci, the world’s leading expert on infectious diseases, is willing to sell himself short by cautioning that he doesn’t know what’s next, even if his guess is likely better than anyone else’s.
"I am very careful, and hopefully humble in knowing that I don't know everything about this disease," Fauci told Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) in mid-May. That’s the key: Admitting, even as a recognized expert, that there are “known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns,” as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said in 2002.
As a leader or a decision-maker of any capacity, avoiding cognitive biases like the Dunning-Kruger effect is possible with practice. Before making decisions, first categorize “known knowns,” or certainties, like the decision timeline and available resources like human capital and money. Then, tackle “known unknowns,” or quantifiable factors that are uncertainties. Finally, factor in and plan for “unknown unknowns,” which often account for the toughest part of leadership.
For example, consider the biggest decisions NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must make in the coming months: if, when and how to have the NFL season. To make the best decision amid challenging circumstances, he should first figure out known knowns, like how much time remains until the start of the season, COVID-19 infection rates and trends, government guidelines for large gatherings in states with NFL teams and details like facilities where teams could hold preseason training camps.
Next, leaders like Goodell should attempt to figure out known unknowns, like the extent of the coronavirus spread in three months, the possibility of new waves of the virus, business disruptions to partners that make game days possible and how the economic slowdown could affect advertisers’ revenue. Brainstorming possibilities in the present makes solving future problems easier — all that’s left to do is plug in previously unknown variables and move forward.
Finally, it’s always crucial for leaders to make contingency plans for unknown unknowns. A nationwide coronavirus outbreak that would derail the economy and disrupt everyday life wasn’t possible or worth imagining a year ago, though organizations and individuals with savings and rainy-day funds are far better off than their less cautious counterparts.
To reference the earlier Twain quote, leaders shouldn’t worry about what they don’t know, as much of life and leadership involves dealing with unknowns. The biggest mistakes come when people assume they know what’s going on when they don’t or when they believe they’re skilled enough to handle tasks that they aren’t.
It’s time to discard the imaginary crystal ball. Leaders who don’t are only fooling — and hurting — themselves.
James Faris is a senior media arts and design major. Contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org.