May the Best Person Prevail

In an internet conversation I had with a public school educator this week, somebody raised the topic of the Dunning-Kruger effect. That’s a well-documented tendency (in dominant American culture) for the least skilled among us to overestimate their competence, while the highly skilled underestimate their competence. When you try to tell the incompetents that they are not da bomb, they will criticize your evidence, and go confidently on their way.

Not until they actually get some training in the area they think they already excel at do they realize their genius is lacking.

I interjected a comment into the conversation about the Hewlett Packard study.: A review of personnel records found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.

That study sparked a ton of other studies, some of which found Dunning-Kruger was at work on a gendered basis. Men do tend to overestimate their skills, women underestimate theirs. Put another way: Women were confident only if they are perfect or nearly perfect.

BUT that sparked more studies–people went back and asked the ladies, “Why not apply for a job that you could do with a little extra training?” the response from women was, essentially: Why waste my time and energy? In other words, they perceived the playing field as so grossly gender biased, that men who “think they have” 60 percent of the quals can get that job, while women who DO have all the skills will be passed over.

I see some heads nodding, but noses wrinkling as well. Not every male executive is a clueless affront to an army of perfectly qualified female subordinates, of course. Not every woman is a frustrated superstar CEO. But these findings suggest that as a culture, we have not promoted the best qualified people–we’ve promoted the most confident guys, and yes, the most confident white guys.

Those highly skilled women arrived to their decisions based on experience and observation. What we quickly labeled lack of confidence in them turned out to be lack of fairness in the work place. Men also perceived that lack of fairness, but the result in them–going for jobs they were barely half-qualified to do–was labeled confidence.

Where am I going with this?

To a positive place: Women are more effective legislators than men. Women are better doctors than men, on the whole. Women raise the collective IQ of a group more than men do. My theory is that gender has little to do with these findings–being an underdog has everything to do with why women have developed better listening skills, better social sensitivity, keener observation, more creative problem solving abilities.

The underdog always has broader knowledge than the overdogs. This encourages me. Why? Because we are a society with a lot of underdogs, and if my theory is correct, that means we have a ton of highly skilled leaders, problem solvers, thinkers, and creatives ready to go forth and make great changes… if we empower them to do so.

Am I full of baloney? Does your experience comport with the studies mentioned? Ever run across one of those Dunning-Kruger pseudo-experts? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Elias in Love.






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19 comments on “May the Best Person Prevail

  1. Yes!!

    Years ago, I was promoted over a male coworker. He had been in the position about a year longer than me. He was not amused when the year end promotion sheet came out and my name appeared,not his. He asked our boss why he didn’t get promoted. My boss’s response made me smile. He said that I had a better grasp on the tasks at hands, I worked with people, was a good listener and cared about my work.

    I have worked with a lot of men who felt entitled to promotions.
    Interesting, eh?

    • What’s interesting to me, Sue, is that we legislated gender-equality into the work place fifty-years ago, and apparently, those laws still haven’t resulted in a level playing field. HP “noticed” that it employed lots of competent women, but very few of them were in the executive ranks. Something was happening between entry level (plenty of women), middle management (not so many women), and upper management (virtually none).

      That something wasn’t a lack of confidence or skill in the women, it was HP consistently promoting one of those half-qualified guys.

      We now have data that says companies with diverse boards make bigger profits, but the larger the company–and oddly, the more tech–the fewer women or minorities show on their boards.

  2. You are not full of baloney! In the classical music world, there are many people who believe they are *all they think they are* until they hear someone else……and then they make all sorts of excuses. If you put in the practice time, have talent and a good attitude, you will be good. If you DON’T practice, let your talent take you as far as it will without the hard work and have an attitude of entitlement, you will not be.

    One of my sons is also a classical musician. We’ve have played this *game* since he was a little kid–would you rather have someone in your ensemble with lots of talent, no work ethic and a crappy attitude OR would you rather have someone with a modicum of talent, a hard worker and an easy personality? Everyone usually picks the “lots of talent” person to begin with and then they are compelled to work with them. They realize soon after working with a hard worker who doesn’t “Diva” is more productive and more pleasant!

    Real life in classical music is not like an episode of “Glee” or “Mozart in the Jungle” but many, even classical musicians, think if there isn’t a bit of drama going on, it’s not Art. Beg to differ here! And the hard workers with some talent can be just as good if not, eventually, better than those who Lord it over us or have Diva hissy fits….save the Drama for your Mama!

    I am a woman conductor…yeah, this whole blog post is my life and often it gets to me!

    • Management philosophy supports your take on hiring. Peter Shutz said, “Hire character, train skill.” Jim Collins put it another way:
      “In determining the right people, the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience.”

      Yes, you need to have the basic abilities–basic in a classical musician being “mid-level expert”–but particularly for ensemble work (and what isn’t), a hard worker motivated to skill-up to the level of his or her peers is the better bet.

      And let’s not get started on what happened to diversity in orchestras when they switched to blind auditions…

  3. Back in 2002 I started a new job in a care agency it was an agency supplying skilled care workers to local care homes and family homes and hospitals.I was a fully qualified registered manager and worked alongside the owner of the company.We employed a very strong team of men and women and over the next 2 years the company grew and grew and was well respected.But it did not go well when the owners husband joined the team he wanted the company to expand faster he questioned his team’s skills chose bully tactics to get them to to take on more hours and work themselves to a frazzled mess.Soon the company lost good staff including me I was not prepared to cut corners on the care packages we delivered to the vulnerable people.I was not surprised to hear later on that the company were in trouble with the inspector body.Not long after that the agency was gone.A man who thought he was greater and more skilled than some of the staff .In the end a great agency met its doom because of an illusion.

    • Brenda, I’m glad you got out rather than going down with the ship. One of the interesting aspects of Dunning-Kruger effect is that if you show somebody on the unskilled end of the continuum how low their scores are, how slowly they complete a task compared to everybody else, what lousy evaluations the patients gave them, they will rationalize, minimize, deny, and downplay the facts.

      And there is a gendered aspect to the whole thing. Men are more likely to over estimate their skills, women to under estimate their skills. I think–my humble–that’s because men aren’t held accountable generally, while women are held to high standards in the work place. A guy goofs off, he’ll get a talking to. A woman goofs off, she gets a reprimand in her file. So of course, women don’t cut themselves any slack, while men don’t get brought up short as much as they should.

      I’m overgeneralizing, but DK isn’t universal across all cultures. In Asia, the unskilled know they’re unskilled (to a greater degree than in American culture), and they regard it as an opportunity to learn and be of greater service to others.

      Interesting stuff.

    • And we tend to like confident people, or upper management tends to like them. And yet more studies (do we do nothing but conduct studies) show that extroverts are not as skilled at managing groups as introverts are. So that friendly, confident, outgoing guy is the wrong person to put in many leadership positions–if the objective is to complete a task.

  4. Oh how I wish I had known about that study a year ago! I worked for one of those 60% (if that) knowledge men for years! The worst part was that he STILL doesn’t know and won’t admit that he doesn’t know so very much about being a manager! My company paid for all the store managers to go through training given by a Malcolm Baldridge award winning company. Through the whole day of training (today, in fact) he didn’t take a single note except when the instructor said “write this down”. He didn’t think any of the knowledge imparted was important at all. Meanwhile, the people -mostly women – at the meeting who’ve worked with him over the years he’s been with the company have all agreed that he is the perfect model for the Don’t manage your people this way” award.

    That said, through y many years in the work force I’ve seen countless men apply for promotions even though everyone knew they didn’t have the skills. Many of them got the jobs. Upper management just assumed that women who didn’t apply did not want promotions because they didn’t take their careers seriously.

    • …. didn’t take their careers seriously.

      If my workplace routinely promoted the 60 percenters, lacked a diverse board, contributed to the gender pay gap, and did nothing to deal with the fact that women on average put in longer hours than men, then why would I assume I should spend my career there? That workplace doesn’t take my career seriously.

  5. I see that divide in my own children. Our daughter works very, very hard to compensate for real limitations. Our son doesn’t acknowledge he has any until he crashes and burns.

    I don’t see the glass ceiling going away. Five managers, all women, at my daughter’s place of employment went on maternity leave within a few months of each other. This is Canada. They have a federally mandated year’s leave. Either parent can take it so occasionally you do see a father use it. The remaining staff did back flips trying to cover the work load.

    I do wish that individuals could be empowered on their own merits, dreams, aspirations and skills instead of by demographics, algorithms and legislation. To misquote Robin Williams, “Justice. What a concept!”

    • I feel so fortunate that I could “lean out,” and be my own boss. After working for three different Fortune 100 companies, I could see the writing on the wall. Single parenting and that kind of employment meant the company’s stockholders were supposed to mean more to me than my daughter.

      I went noping on my way, and have never regretted the lack of a corner office. Not everybody has that option, and until recently, even for me it was a health-insurance free choice.

  6. When I was first applying for writing jobs, I interviewed with an employment agency. I had a B.A. in English from a highly-regarded university, four years’ experience on a student daily newspaper, four months’full-time temporary work as a newspaper reporter, and a slew of writing awards. They suggested I apply to advertising and PR agencies–as a secretary. Of course, they never would have suggested a man get his foot in the door by applying for a secretarial job. My answer: “I have no secretarial skills.” No surprise they never called me until I got a job on my own as an advertising copywriter–replacing THEIR DAUGHTER.

    • That story could probably be inscribed on the resume of every female over the age of forty. When I first got out of college and went be-bopping down to Washington, DC (because “anybody can get a job in DC”), a friend of the family who’d worked her way up in the Forest Service pulled me aside and told me, “NEVER let them know you can type. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER. If they know you can type, you’ll be stuck typing for the rest of your life.”

      That mindset–women type/file/data enter/admin–hasn’t really gone away. The odd thing is, secretaries used to all be men, just as teachers and doctors and lawyers used to all be men. When women enter a profession,the women gain some status, but the prestige and pay in the professional, generally, drops.

  7. This hit so very close to home. My adult daughter is (perhaps) in the process of looking for a new job. We have looked online together and found many interesting possibilities, but her pretty constant refrain is that she does not have all of the asked for requirements. I keep mentioning that the description is of an “ideal” candidate, who may not even exist.

    So far, that concern is overriding my suggestions.

    • Show her the link to the Hewlett Packard study above. If she’s honest in the interview about where she might need some training, she’ll probably land a job that’s worthy of her potential.

      HP only did the study because they KNEW they had qualified women on staff, and they knew those women weren’t even applying for senior management jobs. You have to wonder: Did they ALSO realize they’d created an environment where their candidate pool was largely composed of people who were NOT qualified for the promotions, and got them anyway? Where’s the study that explains THAT?

      • I did show her the link, and she commented that it made for very interesting reading!

        So thanks for starting a conversation!!

  8. Pingback: Profitable in Pink (and green and brown and blue) - Grace BurrowesGrace Burrowes

  9. Grace, I always enjoyed your works, now I know why. You madam are very insightful, not only do you see this world clearly, you can articulate your point very well. We get it.