Hacking an incompetent colleague
who thinks he’s brilliant.

"The Dunning-Kruger effect"

Often they aren’t aware they suffer from it, read guidelines on how to deal with the Dunning-Krugger effect


Article writer photo

By Emmanuel Perez, aka the Talent Surgeon.

The Talent Surgeon is a contributor ghostwriter for People Place, among other well-known HR digital magazines. The Talent Surgeon gets diagnostics directly related to our day-to-day lives and he surely delivers the right antidote right in time over and over.


Why this subject.

A while ago (not being precise on purpose in order to protect the identity)  I found myself in the situation of having to deal with a “popular” colleague who kept promising to plant our flag on the moon but fail already at the rocket-launch face. A “socialis papilionem” individual… the HR business partners loved her/his personality, the Hiring Managers would accept the invitation to mingle with her/him after work, and the team members… well let’s say “they couldn’t wait for the rocket to take off”… I am sure you catch my drift…

Several complaints were raised about her/him, so I needed to find the “error code” in the rocket program (I needed to find a solution) before she/he was asked to go. Also, such potential could not be wasted!

So with this article, I want to share with you what I learned back then before I took the necessary steps to address the issue.

what is the “Dunning-Kruger effect” and
how to spot it?


According to Psychology Today definition: “the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills”.  This short video will explain it simply but comprehensively:



People who fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect often also lack the ability to see their own errors, or be able to fix them.
It makes sense then why most of us during our lifetime have come across a university student, work colleague, friend, partner, or family member that claims to be very good at something with no previous preparation or effort before tackling something important or before an important goal in their life, yet they will fail and keep failing over and over in the very same or similar situation, still jet refuses to recognize their previous failers or been wrong in their judgment.

Other times people suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect are easier to spot, even at a dinner table or a brief social gathering. Generally, the signs are very evident and someone begins spouting off on a topic at length, boldly proclaiming that he is correct and that everyone else’s opinion is uninformed, stupid, and just plain wrong. It’s mostly plainly evident to everyone in the room that this person has no idea what he/she is talking about, yet he/she prattles on, blithely oblivious to his own ignorance.

Finding safety guidelines to address the issue.

In my quest for the “lost Ark of the Covenant” containing the steps and guidelines, I found myself like Indiana Jones, jumping through booby-traps  that gave me the following:

Managers can help by giving directions and clear feedback; although for dealing with Dunning-Kruger effect sufferers is advisable to work on the assertiveness skills to learn to communicate errors without hurting, and give “praise” with extra care, for an employee who already has an exaggerated image of his own performance, “praise” can confirm his idea that everything he/she does is excellent.

According to specialists on this topic “The ideal thing is to connect the positive comments with other things that, from the organization’s point of view, you need to try to change”. I personally think that most managers who carry out yearly performance reviews would not need “elite consulting” to work that out by themselves, but hey! we sure appreciate highlighting it on this topic, right?

Recommendations also include “evaluating that person strictly objectively and based purely on data”. Come on! –(I shout inside my head, followed by: -I am desperate out here! share something new, would you?
At this point, I couldn’t for more that I wanted to stop reading for a second and asked myself:  -(are any of the management professionals out there ever done a performance review without solid data in hand?)  I mean…would you, should you, could you?

Finally, after an overdose of caffeine, hoovering a bag of mini muffins, and having a sleepy leg from holding my dog on my lap in an awkward position, I hit pay dirt!  So stay with me just one minute more…


The steps!


How to start.

First key thing is to identify the likely cause of an underperformer’s lack of self-awareness, once you have identified the cause or narrowed it down, these five approaches will help you correct the “error code” or at least find out whether that’s even possible for a non-psychology professional.




Be kind.

It’s very easy to trigger defensiveness when troubleshooting the Dunning Kruger Effect, which is why it’s so important to start from a place of warmth and kindness. The person is probably doing their best, even if they don’t recognize where or why they’re falling short. In addition to being upfront about where the employee has to improve, help them see how they’ll benefit from making those improvements.


Assess whether they’ll accept help.

Being open to learning, as well as to constructive criticism and feedback are good signs to start with. Ask relevant questions on the help topic and qualify the level of cooperation to correct things.
Maybe they’ll find it easier to work together with someone specific who could help them to improve or who they respect or admire.



Show what a great performance looks like.

If you are having difficulties having the person see where they’re falling short, provide them with a challenge that will clearly expose their specific weak areas. E.g. if the team member thinks he/she is awesome at putting together business presentations, but he/she fails to notice that presentations are dull leaving everyone uninspired. Ask the team member to work on a presentation that will lead to a brainstorming session. The lack of motivation and ideas generated will give them enough reason to assess where they go it wrong.


Provide employees with resources, support, and specific training.

When it comes to employees, even if they think they do not need it, you can still require that they take training. At times when it comes to the Dunning Krugger effect the most straightforward solutions is removing the incompetence that seats in their way by simply showing them how it must be done. Even if the general opinion is that they know all what is necessary to know, even a training update to get everyone up-to-speed and learn further on the subject can jump-start them to the path of more realistic self-evaluations.


Start slow.

As the saying goes “no hurry, no pause” don’t try to fix every shortcoming at once. Help the employee level up in one area, and then step back to identify if he/she recognizes his incompetence in other areas. Providing them with support as they pinpoint one area that needs improvement is like teaching them how to learn. Instead of arming them with a hell of a lot of information, and follow orders and direction, they learn how to help themselves.


Keep an eye on Senior Members.

As serious as it is, is even more common for people in senior positions to fall under the Dunning Kruger Effect, because they get a lot less feedback than lower-level employees. From their higher ranks, they may overestimate their competence in more than one area and make poor decisions that will impact on the business and in people’s mental well-being at work. Executive Suite and People Leading Management or other decision-makers should pay attention to this; possibly by hiring an outside expert who can be present as an observer to make an impartial decision about whether this is happening.


Schedule continuous feedback sessions.

The good thing about feedback sessions becoming a commonplace is that people learn to expect constructive criticism, and along those lines helps to limit how defensive they get. With 360-degree feedback, the employee receives feedback from managers, peers, and subordinates, and they also review themselves. When it happens that several people offer the same feedback and point out an area of weakness, the employee has no other choice than accept the evidence that there’s room for improvement.


Final thoughts on the topic.

While most of what is written about the Dunning Kruger Effect points towards an individual’s incompetence and lack of recognizing that incompetence, the reality we truly face is that the person is simply unaware of their abilities and limitations. When we stop to think firstly like that, we can definitely try to educate them to do better instead of reprimanding them for underperforming.

When we face a situation of having a colleague or employee who isn’t able to see their mistakes and areas of weakness, we must start by giving them the tools and training that will lead them to appraise themselves more accurately. Calling them aside with an official verbal warning for under-performing perhaps is just not enough. Perhaps approaching the employee from the side with kindness and constructively guiding them to see the reality of their abilities, you will also help them develop skills they need, feel good about going to the office, and creates engagement.

All this said, remember, this is just my two cents on the topic after having spent hours reading about it. All content here is for informational purposes only and does not replace the professional judgment of a mental health provider. Please consult your corporate licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues. And please do not try this at home without relevant supervision!


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