Since I started studying psychology at Butler University too many years ago to admit, I’ve always maintained that if I could understand how people tick, then I can understand virtually anything they create.
Several years ago I learned about a curious little paradox called the Imposter Syndrome: the feeling that one’s success and competence is due largely to luck, serendipity, good timing, or deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. The New York Times ran a story on it back in 2008.
I fully intended to write about how this syndrome manifests itself in an individual’s work and also wonder if whole organizations can suffer from it. The organizational angle was going to be a stretch, since my instincts told me that profitable companies don’t usually attribute their success to anything that doesn’t relate to the skill of their people and products. After all, I don’t think Apple would be very successful if Steve Jobs stated their ground-breaking “i(insert noun here)” product was really an overrated piece of junk that a bunch of posers in a lab stumbled upon one day.
“The Impostor Syndrome, in which competent people find it impossible to believe in their own competence, can be viewed as complementary to the Dunning–Kruger effect, in which incompetent people find it impossible to believe in their own incompetence… The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority.”
Now we’re getting somewhere.
My hearty (albeit unscientific) belief is that Dunning-Kruger holds sway in a significant number of organizations. Dunning-Kruger turns a formerly high-performing team into a gaggle of Michael Scott clones, unable to admit their shortcomings and convinced beyond doubt their kung-fu is strong. What’s worse, Dunning-Krugerites show a maddening inability to learn from, or even acknowledge the necessity of, feedback and training designed to make them better.
For me, the next time I think I’m too good to work on my leadership skills – or quick to dismiss criticism of a project or program – I need to remember how quickly my pride and willful ignorance can turn my office into…well, The Office.