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Dunning Kruger Effect

Written by: Ralph Twombly
Published: Thu Sep 30 2021 18:40:57 GMT-0400 (Eastern Daylight Time)

“The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between the wind and the grass. The grass must bend when the wind blows across it.”


I need to thank an attorney named Seth, a participant in one of my workshops, for this one. This was a new concept for me, but you may recognize it. Hope Seth wasn’t referring to me when he mentioned it, but here is the definition: In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. It even has an interesting graph in relationship to Facebook. 

An easy way to identify these folks may be the ones who know everything about every subject, even when you know they don’t. Even worse, when challenged, they get more defiant and at some point, we all want to save them from themselves. Many of us can think of several of these people in our lives and my only message to all of you is that we really don’t have a good spot for these people in leadership. The challenge for them, and for us, is that they all eventually fall into the ash hole. 

Lazy Language – I am not sure who coined the terms that fall into this category but here is an honest opinion: lazy language will be the death of us all. Terms like “you always” or “you never” have gotten more spouses in trouble than excessive spending or bad beer drinking habits. Our shortened and dismissive view of large groupings of people are on full display when using terms such as “all women” or “all men” that couldn’t possibly encompass all human of one gender or the other. These terms show a blatant disregard for the women and men who are not present and don’t have any connection to the issue being discussed. We use terms like ‘millennials’ to classify and segregate a large and varied cross-section of people in situations where a little more thought and care with language might provide a better outcome. Of course, there are times when it is appropriate if we want to understand the aggregate behaviors of a certain demographic. Often, however, these terms are offensive and incorrect. May I suggest to please be observant when others do it and, if you have the opportunity, ask them if they have ever heard the term ‘lazy language’? Explain the term and the potential pitfalls of such generalization. This needs to be done one-on-one, please, and with any luck will lead to a productive conversation and new understanding. Scolding in public should be the title of another whole section on thoughtful communication, and I will save it for another time. Even terms like “kids today” or “older people” are offensive to those who fit into either category. We are all unique individuals with individual behaviors and experiences. Be a patient educator. It is a journey and, if you start today, you might avoid the ash hole or help someone else up out of the one they have fallen into. 

Comparisons - Another way you can fall into the ash hole is by comparisons. Whenever you start to make broad comparisons you can get into trouble. This is particularly true with comparisons about people. I hear Sometimes our opinions say, “Daughters are much easier to raise than sons”, which might be true for this individual, but you will also find someone else with the opposite opinion and experience. Being ex-military means that most of my adult life I have been compared to about three or four million other people who also served. I have heard statements like, “They had it easier in the Air Force,” or “Marines are all guys who think they are tough” which discounts their fundamental service to this country from any branch of the military. Some people might say, “It’s all in good fun” and but long ago I learned that when we compare people, they can feel hurt and diminished. We can all do better with a little thought and consideration. 

Opinions – It seems that a human past-time for most of my life has been the phenomenon of needing to offer an opinion. We encourage children to develop opinions, breed opinion-based debates, and we see it in our media at all levels. Listening while a discussion goes on occurs is important, but it is not critical to form an opinion about everything we hear. We all know people who form opinions with no idea about the topic. Those people lose their credibility almost instantly. I wish people would listen more and hold onto their initial thoughts before drawing a conclusion. We all eventually form opinions based on what we hear and experience. Voicing those opinions needs to be thoughtfully considered before we open our mouths. Sometimes our opinions are best kept to ourselves. Please don’t fall down the ash hole. (for more on the ash hole, see September’s newsletter) 

Ralph Twombly

Ralph Twombly

In the 20 years since starting Priority Learning, Ralph has facilitated countless learning experiences and has conducted training for thousands of managers and leaders. With over 30 years of leadership development and organizational development background and work, Ralph continues to build relationships with client companies all over the U.S.