It was an uncomfortable moment.

We had just finished reviewing his evaluation, and the look on his face bordered between incomprehension and disbelief. We’d had similar conversations during the past 12 months – enough to fill an entire green notebook with detailed notes – but his performance never improved. It was normal for me to spend an hour or two with him at the end of each day, explaining in great detail how to perform the most basic functions of his position. 

“I don’t understand,” he said, “why you would give me this rating. I’m a top 10% performer.” 

“We’ve had this discussion before.” I responded. “You’re not even performing in the top half of your peer group.”

“No. You don’t get it. I’m not just a top 10% performer here. I’m in the top 10% of the entire Army. How do you not see that?”

And there it was. No matter how many times we’d had the same conversation, it always seemed to come full circle to this moment. It wasn’t just that he was clueless about his own poor performance – a lot of people are – it was that he was supremely confident that his performance was better than everyone else around him. 

He suffered from the Dunning-Kruger effect.

What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect? 

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a phenomenon that describes how some people believe they’re much smarter, competent, or capable than they really are. In 1999, Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning and graduate student Justin Kruger, coined the term in their article, “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The article summarized the findings of their research, revealing that an alarming percentage of people who score in the lowest percentile of certain tests drastically overestimate their own performance. 

Translation: Lack of Self Awareness Abounds

In the military and government service, the Dunning-Kruger effect often translates to incompetent leaders incapable of recognizing their own incompetence. Simply put, they are convinced they excel when they don’t and lack any ability to accurately assess their own incompetence. In fact, they are often so sure of their own abilities that they exhibit narcissistic behavior, demonstrating a level of hubris that belies their own lack of ability. In their world, where a lack of self-awareness abounds, it’s incomprehensible that anyone would question their ability. 

Dunning-Kruger Is Everywhere

Everywhere you find people, you find the Dunning-Kruger effect. Unlike the Peter Principle – which focuses on people who are promoted to their level of incompetence – there are no limits to where you can find people suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect: the cringe-worthy writer trying to publish, the bad driver who yells at everyone else on the road, the childless couple who likes to give “expert” parenting advice, or the below average officer who thinks he’s a top 10% performer. Think about it long enough, and you’ll see Dunning-Kruger everywhere you look. Think about it too long, and you might even start looking in the mirror.

How to Combat the incompetence of the confident Idiot

The challenge with Dunning-Kruger was underscored by Dunning himself: “the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task.” Our first inclination is to confront them, but that only makes them defensive or strengthens their denial. For example, the more time I spent discussing performance issues with my subordinate, the more convinced he became that I was the one with the problem. Making a daily trek to my office to ask how to do his job wasn’t a sign of his incompetence, but mine. In his mind, I had failed as a leader to give him detailed instructions; he was just allowing me to correct my own oversight, my own incompetence.

At its core, the lack of insight that drives the Dunning-Kruger effect prevents those who suffer from it from seeing themselves – and their shortfalls – clearly. Because those attributes were underdeveloped in my subordinate, I needed to focus my efforts on building his self-awareness in a way that didn’t threaten his already-fragile ego. Instead, every after-hours session that touched on his failings drove him deeper into denial. I had a green notebook filled with notes. He had a handful of evaluations that said he was better than he was. We were at an impasse. 

The end of the road  

Ultimately, we parted ways. He accepted a new assignment at another installation in a job that would put him in a position of greatly increased responsibility and authority. I implored him to reconsider; he was not capable of performing at the level expected. Of course, he ignored me. Within a year, he was fired, but even that experience failed to spark any insight on his part. In the end, he was, as Dunning himself wrote, a “confident idiot.” So assured in his own infallibility that he was unable to read the writing on the walls around him.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.