Self-confidence is a positive trait that employers often look for when interviewing potential candidates. Sometimes however, this self-confidence in a candidate’s own ability can be misplaced and create a false illusion of their own competence. This is a recognised psychological condition known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. As described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority results from an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external misperception in people of high ability; that is, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."
Exploring the Dunning-Kruger effect
By the time an employer reaches interview stage, unless they are using the services of an Executive Search consultancy like Newman Stewart, they will have already spent many hours trawling through CVs and drawing up a shortlist of the ‘best’ applicants. The Guardian states that surveys suggest as many as a quarter of job seekers deviate from the truth on their CV. The in-person interview should be an opportunity for the interviewer to unearth reality by delving deeper into a person’s background and personality to find the right skills, experience and fit for their business. If the Dunning-Kruger effect is another factor in play, how do employers identify a ‘delusional’ top performer from the real talent in order to make the best hire?
Before we look at ways to combat the Dunning-Kruger effect, let’s look at how widespread this behaviour is. Think about all the people you know who think they are the world’s best driver. Are they? Unlikely, unless you happen to know Lewis Hamilton. This over-confidence is prevalent in today’s society where ‘celebrity’ is now a career aspiration, and where teenagers can become millionaires without even leaving their bedroom.
Exposing the imposters
There are a few ways that employers can try and offset the Dunning-Kruger effect during interviews, to expose the imposters and find the real gems.
- Use an answer key
For example, if teamwork is a key strength for the role you’re looking to fill, ask about a time when the candidate worked as part of a team to achieve a successful outcome. The candidate responds by saying “Well, at my last job there was this incredibly successful project group containing key stakeholders from around the business and it went really well. There were all kinds of challenges, and everyone contributed a huge amount. It was a great team effort, very successful, and you couldn’t help but feel proud to be part of it.” How do you know if they are telling the truth?
You can see from this response that it includes a lot of words but says very little. An answer key provides guidelines on what you should expect in your answers. High performers will be able to provide details which low performers won’t, such as what specific challenges the task force faced and timescales involved.
- Watch their speech patterns
In the example above, there is no use of the first person pronoun to take any ownership for the project, and the references are very generic. A high performing candidate will talk in the past tense and give very specific details. For example:
A Low performer might say “First I did this, and then I did this…”
A high performer would say “I was responsible for setting up a customer satisfaction task force which increased NPS scores by 10% over a 6 month period.”
- Say Nothing
A great technique to get to the truth and to find out how your candidate reacts under pressure is to say nothing. In the example above, after the candidate says “It was always a great experience to be part of that team”, slowly and silently count to three in your head. If you get to three and the candidate still hasn’t responded, count to three again, whilst keeping a neutral expression. You will feel the urge to speak and fill the silence, but don’t. What you’re doing is encouraging the candidate, who will feel under pressure to speak as they are the ones in the hot seat, to continue. By continuing to speak, the candidate will be forced to expand, and will often struggle to add anything of value if they are exaggerating the truth.
The role of bad leadership
There may of course be other reasons for a candidate’s over blown beliefs in their ability, such as bad leadership or a culture of low performance in a previous role. In a survey carried out by Leadership IQ, more than 30,000 employees answered dozens of workplace questions, including “I know whether my performance is where it should be.” Worryingly only 29% of employees say they “always” know whether their performance is where it should be. Meanwhile, a huge 36% say they “Never” or “Rarely” know.
Many organisations are bad at communicating their expectations and an employee’s performance against them. The best way to ensure your organisation isn’t exacerbating the Dunning-Kruger effect is to be clear from the outset what you would expect of an employee, providing a clear brief for the responsibilities and competencies required.
An executive search firm can help you create an effective job description based on a specific brief and objectives, and vet and shortlist suitable candidates. Having looked at a lot of CVs and conducted hundreds of interviews, they are usually better placed to identify the high performing candidates very early on in the process, saving you a lot of time and avoiding costly hiring mistakes.