Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Unskilled and unaware; why self-assessment is fundamentally flawed (part one)

In October, I travelled to Boston, to present a paper to the AIA HR Large Firm Roundtable. I decided to make the case against the use of self-assessment, as a reliable means of capturing management metrics for staff performance.

Over the years, many AEC firms have confidently stated to me, 'We don't need independent skills testing, we already know how good our users are'. When one enquires further, what they actually mean, is that they sent out a user survey, asking staff to rate themselves (usually out of 5) on a range of different skills topics, including AutoCAD, Revit, InDesign, et al. What they end up with is a spreadsheet (why is it always a spreadsheet??) with a bunch of names down one side, a list of skills categories across the top - and a sheet filled with 3's and 4's. Why 3's and 4's, I hear you ask? Simply because people don't want to risk the personal penalties that might go along with admitting they're a 1 or a 2. And conversely, they don't want to stick their head above the parapet by admitting to a 5 (even if they are a 5) because this can cause all sorts of new issues (more work, more people pestering them for answers to the same questions, you get the picture). So it's 3's and 4's all the way. Congratulations XYZ Architects, you have your completed spreadsheet, so you are now totally self-aware, as an organization. (Not). And the real rub here is that, more often than not, people have no clue how good they are, relative to the rest of the team, or wider industry!

So I decided to put this argument to bed, once and for all. Here's my evidence..

Let me begin with a story. Earlier this year, NY Times Online posted a series of articles by filmmaker Errrol Morris. He tells the tale of Bank robbery suspect McArthur Wheeler, who was recognized by informants who tipped detectives to his whereabouts after his picture was telecast one Wednesday night, during the Pittsburgh Crime Stoppers segment of the 11 o’clock news. At 12:10 am, less than an hour after the broadcast, he was arrested. Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight. What made the case peculiar is that he made no visible attempt at disguise. The surveillance tapes were key to his arrest. There he is with a gun, standing in front of a teller demanding money. Yet, when arrested, Wheeler was completely disbelieving. “But I wore the juice,” he said. Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras.

Pittsburgh police detectives who had been involved in Wheeler’s arrest explained that Wheeler had not gone into “this thing” blindly but had performed a variety of tests prior to the robbery. Although Wheeler reported the lemon juice was burning his face and his eyes, and he was having trouble (seeing) and had to squint, he had tested the theory, and it seemed to work. He had snapped a Polaroid picture of himself and wasn’t anywhere to be found in the image. There are three possibilities:

(a) the film was bad;
(b) Wheeler hadn’t adjusted the camera correctly; or
(c) Wheeler had pointed the camera away from his face at the critical moment when he snapped the photo

Pittsburgh Police concluded that, 'If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity.'

Now, this sorry tale might have been just another footnote in history, were it not for the fact that it came to the attention of David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology. After reading this story in 1996, Dunning wondered whether it was possible to measure one’s self-assessed level of competence against something a little more objective – say, actual competence.

Over the next 3 years, Dunning (assisted by colleague Justin Kruger) undertook a major academic study and, in 1999, published the paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments”.

Dunning’s epiphany was; “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden; not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine. In essence, our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence”.

Dunning & Kruger also quote the “above-average effect”, or the tendency of the average person to believe he or she is above average, a result that defies the logic of statistics. Participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests grossly overestimated their performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.

Conversely, Because top performers find the tests they confront to be easy, they mistakenly assume that their peers find the tests to be equally easy. As such, their own performances seem unexceptional. In studies, the top 25% tended to think that their skills lay in the 70th–75th percentile, although their performances fell roughly in the 87th percentile.

Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.

As a follow up study, “Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent”, was published in 2006. (David Dunning, Justin Kruger, Joyce Ehrlingera, Kerri Johnson, Matthew Banner).

In part two, I'll take a look at the 4 stages of competence - and how the combined illusions of memory, confidence and knowledge can impact on a firms' knowledge management strategy.


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