The Dunning-Kruger Effect on Productivity

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There is a well-known principle in the field of psychology called the Dunning Kruger effect. This effect can be broken down into two different ideas:

  1. Those with low cognitive ability, tend to think that they are more capable than they are in reality.
  2. Those with a high cognitive ability tend to think that others are more capable than they maybe are. Thereby elevating everyone to their level.

Both of these outcomes have a direct impact on productivity. In the first case, people are unlikely to want training or additional help, because they think they already know how to do the task at hand with maximum proficiency. This, of course, is unlikely to be the case. On the other hand, those who fall into the second group assume that everybody knows what they know and have the same skills. This means, if they are in management, or other supervisory functions, they are unlikely to suggest that their team members are given additional training or tools.


This will have a knock-on effect when it comes to processes and procedures. Those in Group 1 are unlikely to push for changes in processes and procedures whilst those in Group 2 are just as likely to assume that everybody else knows how to make the process or procedure more effective and therefore maintains the status quo and, in effect, doing nothing.

The first step to countering this dual set of bias, is to recognise that it happens. Once this understanding is in place, steps can be taken to mitigate its effect. It is not necessary to accurately determine who fits into which of the different groups. A successful mitigation strategy will work with anybody in either group and with those people who do not fall into a group. It is those people who understand their own cognitive ability who fall into a different group, which we shall call Group 3


Once recognition has occurred, a strategy can be put into place, it is relatively straightforward to improve productivity. This is because, all the groundworker has already been done.

The real question left by this, is how does one develop an effective strategy? That is actually slightly more difficult than identifying the problem. A degree of introspection is required in the strategy team. From there, they must understand that they are working for all three groups and this will require soliciting input from every group. The simplest way of getting this input is to ensure that all three groups are included in the strategy team.


The resulting strategy must account for people over estimating their abilities and over estimating the abilities of others. This implies that the resulting processes and procedures must be backed up with the correct tools, mandatory training, management support, a supportive environment and, last but not least, a willingness, to change. When all of these factors are in place, the workforce will be able to significantly improve productivity.


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