Our aptitude for making assessments is faulty … here’s why

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Imagine a colleague comes up to you at the photocopier and they say ‘hey, you’re a good swimmer! A few of us are swimming the Channel, think you can do it?’ The English Channel is 21 miles, on a calm day with a neap tide. That distance is equivalent to a 6 -7 hour swim. But in 2010 Jackie Corbell ended up swimming the Channel for nearly 28 hours (that’s about 61 miles). The tide and other environmental factors prolonged swim-time so it was four times the amount she had anticipated. It’s remarkable that she carried on swimming. Most would have abandoned the challenge. Wouldn’t you?

When you are asked to complete a task at work do you consider potential challenges?What contingencies you’d plan? Or did you just dive in?

It’s human nature. We tend to be over-confident about what we can do. However, over-estimating our competency can be critical in business and cause problems in our careers.

An example of such misjudgement was recorded in 1900 with Dr. Isaac Cline, a meteorologist in Galvestone, Texas. He was a known expert in weather prediction. His colleagues in New York informed him that a hurricane was approaching and was asked by officials in Galvestone to make the decision about what they should do. He was confident that the hurricane wouldn’t hit the town and no evacuation plans were made. He lost his wife in the floods, along with 6000 of the town’s residents. 40 residents had sought shelter at Dr. Cline’s home as he was equally sure the structure was sound once the disaster struck. Unfortunately, less than half of those survived the hurricane. Galvestone prior to the hurricane was one of the busiest shipping ports in the US but it failed to recover the prosperity it once had post event.

In 1995 McArthur Wheeler was someone else who also grossly over-estimated ability. During a conversation with friends he became convinced lemon juice, used to write invisible messages on paper could provide a similar ‘cloak of invisibility’ from cameras. He decided to rob banks putting his discovery to use. Wheeler tested his idea by covering his face with lemon juice and took a polaroid. Because no picture was formed, he thought he had proven his theory and went on to rob two banks. Of course, he was caught. But he was in complete disbelief when police showed him the video of the robbery. He’d peered directly into the camera and smiled.

When 2 psychologists read of McArthur Wheeler they started research work on why such confidence in uncertainty might exist. It’s now known as the ‘Dunning and Kruger effect’. Dunning and Kruger had discovered from their experiments that many of us do fail to recognize our own lack of skill. There is a concern that the people who are less able to do a task are usually more likely to be very confident that they can do it. We seldom think through the consequences and what actually might be needed. To go back to the Channel example, if you could normally swim 21 miles but no further and you’ve not swum in the Channel before or known that you need to swim in a “S” or “Z” shape, or considered the potential paralysis brought on by the Lions mane jellyfish or the rare sighting of a Portuguese man o’ war, you could find yourself needing to swim 4 times longer or possibly lose your life. Full contemplation must be made.

Think back to the last self-assessment you’ve taken. How did you rate yourself? Did you succumb to the Dunning and Kruger effect?

Here’s how you can go about assessing your skill-set critically:

(1) Identify who you know has that skill and compare yourself based on that. So, for example if you say Warren Buffet is a 10/10 in leadership, where then are you?

With this method we can still fall foul of the Dunning-Kruger effect, as the effect also impedes our ability to assess skills in others. Use the other tips to triangulate a more realistic self-assessment. These techniques are courtesy of Douglas Hubbard in his book “How to measure anything”.

(2) Prove your selection. You can evidence the decision to score yourself by applying ‘pros and cons’. A pro is evidence that the rating selected is reasonable, for example I’m on track for 3 of the 5 timelines for this project, so I need to monitor my time management skills better. A con is an element that might make you feel over-confident, for example I develop multiple strategies weekly and can explain in detail what these are if I’m called upon. By selecting 2 pros and 2 cons, it’s most likely to give you a much truer response.

(3) Determine your range. Work out the lowest rating you might score for the skill and assign it a mark, and then work out your highest rating and mark that, for example you might say a 3 in leadership might be assessing risks and a 6 might be managing uncertainty. This would give you a much more realistic gauge of where you are.

There is an insistence in workplaces today that employees should either know or don’t know. It’s an unfortunate situation because it forces us to deny where most of us probably actually are, that we can know or learn how to.



About the contributing author


ashley-mcfarlandAshley McFarland is a Director of multiple SMEs, and a Psychology graduate with a Law degree. As a co-founder of AXC he’d like to see more people embrace leadership and learning as a continuous process.

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