The scene is a small meeting room in the offices of Big Corp Ltd. A manager and two of her team members are sitting around the table with notepads and laptops. On the projector screen is a Gantt chart.

The purpose of the meeting is to discuss a new project and, unknown to the others, to help their manager decide which of the two team members is going to head up the project based on her impressions during the meeting.

The first team member has been with the company for just over a year and is eager for a chance to prove himself. He can sense by the manager’s body language and the way she carefully listens to and notes responses that he is being evaluated and that there is an opportunity here. He is not going to let it slip away. Despite his nervous excitement he stays outwardly calm, positive and upbeat, responding to all questions about the project with a “we-can-do-it” optimism.

The second team member is on the far side of forty and a veteran of many such meetings. The lines on his brow are the result of guiding a number of similar projects through challenges and also seeing some projects fail despite his best efforts. He is worried about the ambitious schedule and says so. He also reminds his boss that the project will use new software and that there will be a learning curve. The vendors have also been evasive about total cost estimates, only quoting an hourly rate and assuring everyone that there will be no problems. That final bit in itself worries him.

While outwardly impassive, the manager is inwardly torn. The experienced team member has made some valid points but why does he always have to be so negative? The up-and-comer may lack experience but certainly he will make that up with enthusiasm. Besides, everyone deserves a first chance and maybe this is his time. She thanks everyone for their input and ends the meeting. On the way back to her office she makes up her mind.

Later that day the manager calls the newer team member into her office and tells him that the project is his. On the way back to his cubicle he is barely touching the floor. This is his big break. The project will be a piece of cake and he will be up for a bonus – maybe even a raise. The project is just like that case study he and his group worked on in college. How hard can it be?

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The next day when the new project and its leader are announced the experienced team member is dumbfounded at first. He had just assumed that the project would be his and had already started putting together some material and thinking about who to select as his project team members. His next emotion is resentment. Hadn’t his manager read his resume when she hired him?

Fast forward four months. The project is floundering, its once confident leader now grim-faced and haggard from the late night and weekend work. The original Gantt chart is out the window. Those dreams of a raise are long-gone replaced by a fear of pending unemployment. He is secretly updating his resume and contacting recruiters. The experienced team member that was passed over has seen all his fears about the schedule and budget come true. Adding insult to injury, he has been assigned to be the newbie project manager’s assistant to try to salvage the project somehow. He is secretly updating his resume and contacting recruiters. The manager wonders how things could have gone so wrong and now she has to explain to the board members why the project is over-budget and behind schedule – the same board members that questioned her choice of a rookie project manager. She is secretly updating her resume and contacting recruiters. The manager and her two team members have all fallen victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

What has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect is named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger, psychology researchers at Cornell University. In 1999, Dunning and Kruger published a report entitled "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" detailing the results of tests they had conducted on test subjects’ actual abilities and self-assessments on a variety of mental and physical skills. The test results revealed the following:

  • Incompetent people do not recognize their own incompetence

  • Incompetent people, not knowing what they are looking for, cannot recognize true competence in others

The studies revealed that the less competent someone is, the more confident they are in their abilities. This does not mean the incompetent are lying about their abilities. They sincerely believe they can do something. Conversely, competent people tend to underestimate or downplay their own abilities and overestimate the abilities of others. To the casual observer, the truly competent person appears less confident. This is not a new idea. It has been expressed by many great thinkers from Confucius to Bertrand Russell. Dunning and Kruger proved it scientifically. I remember having a good laugh with a co-worker over a newspaper article published when Dunning and Kruger’s work was made public. The article was entitled: “The supreme confidence of the totally incompetent”. We both had long lists of examples.

How could knowledge of the Dunning-Kruger effect have helped our three protagonists? The experienced, competent team member has to stop focussing solely on everything that could go wrong, even though that experience has been hard earned. He must try to envision the pluses along with the inevitable problems. The manager should learn not to mistake a cautious approach for a lack of confidence or even negativity. The manager should also learn to recognize a simple case of over-confidence. There is also hope for our unknowingly incompetent up-and-comer. Dunning and Kruger also found that with proper training, the formerly incompetent can learn to recognize and achieve true competence themselves.

One win-win scenario for our example could be for the manager to reward the ambitious new team member with a chance to handle the project while acknowledging the expertise of the more experienced team member by having him act as a mentor and/or co-manager of the project with his new team member from the outset.

There are takeaways here for hiring managers as well: don’t mistake caution combined with experience for negativity or lack of confidence, and beware of the supremely confident.