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Jacky Sherman

The Consultant's Consultant

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As I Please: A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

Imposter syndrome rears its head ...


Posted by Jacky Sherman on 17/03/2021 @ 8:00AM

International Women’s day took me to a seminar about women in senior positions sharing their experiences. Inevitably when we got to the Q&A section the subject of the imposter syndrome reared its head ...

If you're adamant you're right, you're probably not as right as you could be!

If you're adamant you're right, you're probably not as right as you could be!

copyright: antonioguillem / 123rf

I haven't been to an event for senior women where this subject hasn't taken over the conversation. However, this time, someone raised a related phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kreuger effect. That took my thinking to the also related concept of Unconscious Incompetence that I use quite a lot in my coaching work.

What I found interesting with a very cursory search on the pages of Google was how these concepts are misinterpreted from the original research and that these misinterpretations are the ones that become the standard mantra on the subject. In this, they seem to be great examples of the very phenomena they are explaining: that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

"Let's look at each of these concepts and see what I can contribute to this subject!"

The Dunning-Kruger effect came from research on people's self-assessment of how well they felt they performed a task against how well they actually performed. The result showed that those with low ability overestimated how well they performed whilst those who performed best underestimated their ability.

Now, the actual results were more subtle than that. The high achievers did not think they did badly, but only that they were not in the highest achievers group. Equally, those with low ability felt that they did better than they actually did, but not as well as the highest achievers.

As it was by my source at the conference, this has wrongly been interpreted to mean those with low ability believed they were high achievers and that they arrogantly felt they had all the answers, whereas the high performers were pleasingly modest.

Why would this "Just world" viewpoint take hold? Maybe it makes us feel more comfortable. That know-it-all in the office isn't all that clever. And maybe we're better than we think we are in comparison (see how we used the model to bump up our own self-assessment?)

Another interpretation might be that the low achiever just lacks the knowledge to make a more accurate assessment of their abilities ... they just don't know what they don't know. Once they are exposed to the additional knowledge of what is possible, then they lower their score. A great example of this is the high flyer school leaver who enters University brimming with confidence in their knowledge and leaves three years later knowing there are more questions than answers.

This 'not knowing what you don't know' is often called Unconscious Incompetence, a concept attributed to Martin M Broad in 1969 when talking about the stages of learning:

  • First, the person needs to recognise that they don't know something. In other words, they are unconsciously incompetent because they are missing a piece of the puzzle, but don't realise it's missing.

  • The next stages is enlightenment, when they become consciously incompetent, in other words still can't do it, but know what knowledge/skills they need to add in.

  • Then conscious competence when they can apply it, but only if they focus.

  • The highly skilled expert is that person who reaches nirvana and can do it without thinking: the unconsciously competent.

I suspect from observation (I've not tested this) that one of the reasons the high performers undervalue their results is that they are so familiar with just performing this task that they don't think it 'counts' as high performance. Often summed up as, "Well, it's common sense, isn't it??"

I always think of the very brainy physics teacher I had at school who made the subject more of a mystery to us by forgetting to teach us the basics first (common sense to her). The following year, it took extra classes from a different, more basic science teacher to help the whole class catch up the year of complete bewilderment. A clever scientist (she had a first at university) vs a skilled teacher of teenage girls.

The third concept takes me back to the International Women's Day seminar and the subject of Imposter Syndrome. This syndrome is a reaction to being successful. The sufferer believes that their success is unwarranted due to luck or deception and lives in fear of being found out as incompetent. My observation that this seems perennial in the discussion of high performing women has some resonance with the literature.

"I worry a bit that it has become appropriated by women
as just a woman's problem!"

This may be because the original research conducted by Clance and Imes (1978) came from a study of high performing women. Clance has since undertaken more research and still maintains there is a gender difference, although others dispute this.

From my perspective, when the research results are this ambiguous, it would suggest there is a gender difference, but that both men and women report the syndrome. The research also suggests that issues around self-esteem born out of upbringing and social factors may be more important than biological gender. Nurture winning out over nature.

It may be that some degree of Imposter Syndrome is also a reaction to the Dunning-Kruger effect that high achievers tend to underestimate their own performance and the awareness that on some level they are still unconsciously incompetent in some areas, i.e. no-one person has all the answers.

"So, how might you use this awareness of this phenomenon
when working with your clients?"

As a consultant or trainer, your clients have come to you to know what they didn't know and see you as the expert in your specialism. How can you be sure you've got the fullest picture possible for your client and take you both into the realm of knowing what you don't know?

Here's a little test for you. If you're adamant you're right, you're probably not as right as you could be. If you doubt your knowledge, you're probably on the right track. Either way, it's worth applying a dose of humility, dig a bit deeper and look for others who contradict what you think and find out what they know that you don't know.

If you disagree with what I've written here, let me know, and maybe we'll both learn something.

Until next time ...



Would you like to know more?

If anything I've written in this blog post resonates with you and you'd like to discover more, it may be a great idea to give me a call on 07970 638857. Let's have an initial chat over a coffee and see how I can help you.

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