Friday, May 20, 2011

Lie to Me

In the previous post, I posed a hypothetical situation in which a post-doc, Jim, suffers from overconfidence in his abilities, and despite Jim's obvious deficiencies, the lab director thinks he's a valuable contributor to the research project you lead. 

If you've read previous posts, you will recognize that Jim (and possibly the lab director) suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. People with this condition are unskilled and incapable of accurately assessing their abilities as well as those of others. The reason is that the skills required to be competent are often the same skills required to evaluate that competence.  They tend to greatly overinflate their performances relative to those of others.  The more ignorant they are, the greater their confidence in themselves.

In the hypothetical situation described above, the project leader is caught between a rock (Jim) and a hard place (lab director).  You have laid out Jim's deficiencies, backed up with ample data, for both Jim and the director...only to have both of them ignore your logical argument and restate their illogical position about Jim's competence.  Their reaction is due to their overall inability to make logical judgments and to recognize that they have this problem.....a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. The more logic you throw at them, the more firmly they adhere to their mistaken opinion and confidence in that decision.

Most of us in science are pretty logical people; so when confronted with such illogical behavior, we go a little nuts.  We simply cannot understand how someone can totally ignore the evidence in front of them.  We make the mistake of thinking that if we just produce enough evidence or a clear-enough argument, that we'll prevail.  However, that is not going to happen with people like this. Think about religious zealots or climate deniers....nothing you say is going to change their minds.  You have to approach such people with a clear understanding of their psychology, not based on your preconceived notions that everyone is as logical as you are.

What does work?  Research has shown that training, for example in social reasoning, helps improve Dunning-Kruger folks' cognitive abilities.  How does that help you, as a project leader? You're not a psychologist; nor do you have time to be training someone who should already have skills in logic.  Quite a conundrum. I don't think there is a really good solution to this situation.

If I had control over this person's position, i.e., was Jim's supervisor, I would place him on probation and clearly outline what outcomes are expected for all tasks, set deadlines for those outcomes, and spell out the consequences of failure. The plan would be detailed in such a way as to leave no wiggle-room for Jim to blame external factors, if he fails.  Both of us must sign this performance plan, acknowledging our understanding of what's expected and the consequences.  If he protests, I would reply that since he is so confident in his abilities, he should have no problem meeting these basic expectations (which I have set up for all others on the team).  If Jim manages to improve and meets his responsibilities, then things will have been improved for the team, and everyone wins.  If Jim fails, then I have documentation to take steps to dismiss him; but I won't feel badly because I've been totally fair and upfront with him.

However, in the hypothetical situation posed, I would not have control over Jim's position, and I also have to deal with the director who suffers from the same cognitive deficit as Jim. In this situation, I would want to get Jim off my team so that his performance no longer harmed me or others.  Here is one possible tactic:  I would suggest to Jim that he should have his own project to run and that he should run the idea by the director.  I would support Jim's proposal when the director asks my opinion.  Convincing the director should not be difficult, given his lack of logic skills and being Jim's biggest fan.

The key will be to have Jim report directly to the director rather than to me.  If the director tries to make me oversee Jim's project, I have two possible responses: 1) I cannot be in charge of Jim's performance unless I'm made his official supervisor (in which case, I can put the previous plan in motion), 2) I state that I have my hands full leading my own project and cannot be expected to handle a second project, and/or 3) I remind him that making me responsible for Jim's project defeats the purpose of giving Jim his own project.  Hopefully, this would not be too much logic for the director to handle.

Assuming I can pull this off, I will no longer have Jim on my team.  Even if this means more work for the team...well, we already were having to redo his work. And the director will eventually see for himself Jim's incompetency. If not, then I might want to start looking for another job--because the director is probably not judging my performance well either.

Some might feel that the above plan is unfair or underhanded.  Actually, this problem with Jim is due entirely to Jim's incompetence and to the director's failure to deal with it.  The two people responsible for the problems the research project is experiencing (mistakes, slow progress, low morale) should have to deal with them, not me and not the other productive team members. The latter situation is what is unfair.  My plan takes the false beliefs of Jim and the director and forces the two of them to deal with the consequences.

So to summarize how to deal with someone suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect:

1. Don't make the mistake of assuming they think like you do. Trying to use logic doesn't work because they do not think logically.
2. Focus on their overinflated beliefs and take advantage of them in formulating your strategy.
3. Don't cover for them when their incompetency causes problems.
4. Find a way to make them responsible for the consequences of their incompetency.

Image Credit: Jon Wilkins 2011; Creative Commons;

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