Gen Y and Dunning-Kruger: They Don’t Know What they Don’t Know

If you aren’t yet familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect you’re missing out (and if you are, you’re bound to be pleased to be reminded of this old friend). It’s an idea that explains so very many aggravating things in the world of business, and perhaps the world in general.

In a nutshell, its says that the most incompetent are, through their very ignorance of what true mastery looks like, the most likely to be overconfident.

Or, as British philosopher Bertrand Russell put it: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Put forward by a couple of Cornell University psychology professors in 1999, the notion that the least-skilled grossly overestimate their own abilities helps explains why managers across the land spend so much time trying to explain less-than-stellar reviews to employees who probably deserve worse, and desperately nudging the best on their staff to take on more responsibilities and feel comfortable singing their own praises.

Young, Enthusiastic … and Clueless

The notion can also explain the belief among some precocious and self-assured young members of your organization that despite their limited time on the job (or any job), they are in fact ready to take on greater challenges. Figuring out how you can both explain their lack of skills and also let them down easily is the focus of a recent post on recruiting focused site ERE by David Lee, the founder of HumanNature@Work.

Faced with this situation, your first impulse is probably to patiently attempt to explain to your enthusiastic but misguided young employee that reaching a level of competence to merit a major promotion takes time. Commonsense though this might be, it’s just the wrong approach according to Lee:

“’It takes time’ and ‘be patient’ will douse the flame of enthusiasm and ambition, and leave you with a disheartened, disengaged employee. You will end up with an employee who believes:

• You don’t understand their ability.
• You don’t value their enthusiasm and ambition.
• Your organization doesn’t provide opportunities for advancement.
• Growing professionally will require looking for a new job.”

Show, Don’t Tell

So what does he recommend instead? Lee says the key is to “shift your millennial employee from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence,” and the best way to do this is by using that old maxim familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a writing class: Show, don’t tell. Simply lecturing your employee on their incompetence is de-motivating, but showing them specific evidence of their lack of preparation for the role they want should spur them to work harder to gain the skills they need. Lee writes:

“Don’t be vague when describing the areas you believe they need to develop. ‘I want to see you develop better conflict management skills’ might be fine as a start, but it must be followed up with specific situations you’ve witnessed where the Gen Y employee fell short. Then give specific descriptions of what you would like to see them do differently in that situation . . .

“When we give vague, nonspecific feedback, the receiver feels helpless because they don’t have the information they need to remedy the problem. When people feel helpless, it triggers primitive hard-wired responses — from anxiety all the way up to fear. At a primitive, hard-wired level, fear is linked closely with aggression (that’s why you don’t back an animal into a corner) . . . By being crystal-clear with your feedback, you help the listener feel a sense of control.”

Lee also urges managers to explicitly underline how much they value their employees’ enthusiasm, and to assure them that they are committed to helping them grow professionally. “By stating that you obviously have a responsibility to your employer to grow employees — and not prematurely promote — it helps frame your position as you being a responsible manager, rather than you simply withholding something they want because you’re unreasonable,” he says. Want more information? Check out the in-depth post which is worth a read in full.

Have you had to confront Gen Y employees who didn’t know how much they didn’t know? How did it go?

Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user Blyzz.

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for Inc.com, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist.