The Michael Scott Syndrome

The incompetent rarely know it. Dunning and Kruger have the evidence.

This morning I was having coffee with a number of coffee cronies and one asked me about the kid from Texas who was handcuffed for taking a clock he made to school, and got rewarded with a trip to the White House to meet with Obama. This 14-year-old freshman is partial to tinkering, technology and NASA T-shirts and wants to go to MIT.  But he’s also a Muslim Black American. The handcuffing and three days of being suspended from school are a classic case in unreasoned prejudice and pernicious stereotyping: of teacher and police cluelessness.

My coffee colleague wanted to know why he was invited to the White House. I opined that it was a nice example of a “come to Jesus party.” “Whaddya mean?” he asked. I asked whether he’d ever lived or worked outside Minnesota or in the Deep South and seen overt bigotry at work. “No, I get that,” he responded, “but why invite him to the White House?”

I shut down, recognizing he plainly didn’t “get that.” And that he needed to live in the culture to ever “get it.” Knowing him, I suspected he wouldn’t get if he were to live in the Texas culture. But I couldn’t figure out a way to explain that would not be offensive, earn his rejection, and keep him from ever “getting it.” Understanding that cultures differ significantly from state to state is obviously beyond his ken. Since I’ve gotten nowhere going through that conversation on numerous times with many people, I just moved on. He was culturally clueless and hopeless. And the experience reinforced my understanding that you really have to live in a different culture to understand it if you’re ever to get some issues. (I went to college in the South and my best young friend grew up there, regularly informing me that the culture still hasn’t changed significantly. There are legal changes in the Deep South, but few “perceptual” changes.)

The Michael Scott Syndrome at work
Michael Scott, the clueless office incompetent, played by Steve Carell in “The Office,” is not unique. We meet people like this in the coffee shop, at school, church and neighborhood. No question but that all of us are incompetent in some areas, but it is especially frustrating when we have to work with people who are incompetent in their job and it impacts our work.

Two psychologists, David Dunnning and Justin Kruger have worked on cluelessness, finding among other things that incompetence is bliss, as well as numerous highly relevant business insights.

One piece of research followed through on two predictions:

1.       Incompetent people dramatically overestimate their ability.

2.       Incompetent people are not good at recognizing incompetence—their own or anyone else’s.

In a summary of their research, Dunning and Kruger show that overall incompetence is even worse than it appears. There seems to be a holy trinity of cluelessness: the incompetent don’t perform up to speed; don’t recognize their lack of competence; and don’t even recognize the competence of other people.

What’s truly frustrating about these conclusions often shows up in business. People don’t understand they’re performing poorly, don’t understand why they can’t succeed, and don’t recognize the value of great performance in others.

Amusingly Dunning and Kruger added these concluding words to their study: “To the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.”

If you have clueless or incompetent colleagues greatly hindering your performance, you might send a copy of “Incompetent and Unaware.” But I suggest you do it anonymously.

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