Do you overestimate your own abilities? I do

Do you ever overestimate your own ability to do something? This thought comes to me from a wonderful conservation district manager in Washington State.

Sometimes I run into people who exhibit so much hubris – so convinced that they are right so everyone else is wrong – that it’s almost impossible to have a conversation. Conversely, sometimes I engage with people who are so reflective and humble that they look in the mirror and wonder if they are competent enough to be doing this important work.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

If you have ever overestimated your own competence for a particular task or situation, there’s a name for that: the Dunning–Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="https://www.verywellmind.com/an-overview-of-the-dunning-kruger-effect-4160740" target="_blank">The Dunning-Kruger Effect</a></span>

Here’s a four-minute video to help illustrate the paradoxical nature of the Dunning-Kruger effect:

Here’s another quote with a slightly different twist about Dunning-Kruger:

The Dunning-Kruger effect effect occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/dunning-kruger-effect/" target="_blank">Why can we not perceive our own abilities?</a></span>

Have you ever fallen into this trap? I have

It can be incredibly embarrassing when your own incompetence is pointed out to you. I’ve learned that I can never learn all I need to know to succeed in every situation. I can pick up the knowledge and do a credible job, but that is different than having deep expertise and wisdom about a particular situation.

I find that it can happen when I look at people doing their jobs, and most especially, highly competent people. Those folks make it look easy, so I assume that it must be easy…and if it is easy, then clearly I could do it, too, and maybe even better!

For example, sometimes I look at other executive directors and think: I could do that, and maybe better! From the outside looking in, it all looks pretty easy.

But the truth is that it isn’t easy. Managing a conservation district and leading an organization is one of the most difficult jobs in our entire conservation district community. I know this because I have spent much of my conservation career doing it. The demands on people in this kind of position are extremely challenging. With sufficient knowledge and experience and grace, the job can look pretty easy to others.

If you look at someone else’s job and think you could do it better, beware! You may have stepped into the Dunning-Kruger effect trap!

It’s not your IQ, it’s your I Will

Accompanying this concept is a phrase I’ve come to love: It’s not your IQ that matters, it’s your I Will. It doesn’t matter how much you know, how smart you are, or how great your ideas are. What matters is what you are able to actually accomplish.

Years ago – and many years before it became a real thing – I had an idea about passing an electric current through window glass as a way to change the opacity of the glass. I was thinking of glass-covered buildings in climates that varied from hot to cold and with seasonal variations in cloud cover. Being able to reduce light and heat coming into buildings would have a significant effect on people and energy. And when conditions change, turning the dial to allow more light in would be just as beneficial.

That was a million-dollar idea. And there it sat in my mind. I mused on it from time to time but never did anything with it. About ten years later, I read an article about a new patent to do exactly what I had dreamed up. Without the financial resources or the scientific background or the commitment to convert a great idea into reality, that idea had little value. I had the IQ. I didn’t have the resources or the will to get it done.

It’s easy to brainstorm new ideas. As a community, we all like to solve problems. It’s in our conservation district DNA. Coming up with solutions is the easy part. Implementing solutions is hard. That’s the work going on now with the Joint Committee on Elections. Ideas are easy. Solutions we can actually carry forward that will fulfill the needs of many different people? That’s hard.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

Let’s factor in one more “law” about human behavior: Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. What is it?

Law of triviality is C. Northcote Parkinson’s 1957 argument that people within an organization commonly or typically give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_triviality" target="_blank">Wikipedia: Law of triviality</a></span>

This concept is also called bikeshedding as explained in the Wikipedia article.

Below is a two-minute YouTube video about Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Here’s the takeaway if you don’t want to watch it: “The Law of Triviality is an observation about the human tendency to devote a great deal of time to unimportant details where crucial matters go unattended.”

We are biased and it affects our decision making

I find this kind of thing to be fascinating and I’ve put some of these principles into practice. With prior boards, I’ve restructured agendas so that the most important items are dealt with first, while people are fresh and their minds are not diverted by minute details that don’t need to be decided at the governance level.

When I’ve had boards that felt they had to stick their fingers all the way through the pie to the bottom crust (i.e., they wanted to be involved in every decision), I very purposefully gave them something they could say no to. Some folks seem to need to feel like they have a voice in everything, so in that setting, I present options, with at least one option so unlikely that those board members will object to it. This can help them feel heard and influential in the final decision. It seems silly but it actually works. I share one caution with you if you choose to do this: don’t do it too often, and make sure you can live with the outlandish choice because sometimes they’ll pick that one!

We all have cognitive biases

Most of all, though, it’s important to recognize that each of us has cognitive biases.

A cognitive bias is a flaw in your reasoning that leads you to misinterpret information from the world around you and to come to an inaccurate conclusion. Because you are flooded with information from millions of sources throughout the day, your brain develops ranking systems to decide which information deserves your attention and which information is important enough to store in memory. It also creates shortcuts meant to cut down on the time it takes for you to process information. The problem is that the shortcuts and ranking systems aren’t always perfectly objective because their architecture is uniquely adapted to your life experiences.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/cognitive-bias" target="_blank">Is Cognitive Bias Affecting Your Decisions?</a></span>

Hubris and the Dunning-Kruger effect? That is a cognitive bias.

Focusing on the unimportant details because you feel you understand them better and can influence the decision (aka Parkinson’s Law of Triviality)? That is also a cognitive bias.

Discussions this year will be affected by cognitive biases

As the Joint Committee on Elections looks at various ways to address specific needs around conservation district elections, biases will run rampant. Every one of us in that conversation – whether part of the committee or as part of our community – already has opinions about what should or should not be done. What is an opinion? It’s another form of bias or pre-judgment about an issue. The Dunning-Kruger effect comes into play because many of us believe that we already know everything we need to know about elections, so the opinion/belief that we have already formed is the only valid position. If we roll in Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, i.e., the tendency of folks to invest the most time and energy in the least important details, then you can imagine the challenges we face in trying to find solutions by September that work for our community and for other stakeholders.

Similarly, we’ll directly encounter our own biases as the Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion works on developing recommendations to bring to the Association’s members by September. As we’ve heard in prior workshops and discussions, many people have firmly planted ideas about the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have also seen Parkinson’s Law of Triviality emerge as some folks start spinning what-if scenarios.

Biases are with us. To avoid letting them influence our thinking, we need to become more aware of them.

How to avoid cognitive bias in decision making

This last section should be an entire article all by itself!

In a Forbes article titled “Overcome Biases And Blind Spots In Decision Making,” the author suggests these steps for more rational and objective decision making:

  1. Increase self-awareness.
  2. Identify who and what makes you uncomfortable.
  3. Educate yourself on the many different cognitive biases.

In the article “Avoiding Psychological Bias in Decision Making: How to Make Objective Decisions” on MindTools, the author dives a little more deeply into several cognitive biases.

In the Healthline article titled “Is Cognitive Bias Affecting Your Decisions?” the author takes a deeper dive into cognitive biases.

Am I biased?

Tom Salzer
Tom Salzer

Am I biased? When I look objectively at myself in the mirror and think about what I know and don’t know, I recognize that yes, I am biased. However, in the heat of the moment in an intense conversation when my lizard brain takes over my rational mind, I may not recognize it (although afterwards, I may realize that I was too confident, too certain, or too focused on a particular outcome to be truly taking in what others are expressing and incorporating those thoughts into my own thinking).

So yes, I am biased. I am biased in ways I have not yet uncovered. This I know and it is unsettling. But as a conscious, thinking human, I can choose to look at my own biases and choose to respond differently than prompted by my previous programming. Herein lies hope for us as we tackle important topics like elections and equity. We can choose to set aside what we think we know and instead listen and learn so that our choices are less influenced by our own biases.

The intelligence of our community gives me hope. I know we can do this. We have the IQ and I believe we have the I Will. We are bringing resources and people together in ways we haven’t tried before. With stalwart hearts and inquiring minds, I know we can get to places we have never before been able to reach.

I have faith that our community will choose to embrace meaningful, doable changes that ultimately make us better able to deliver conservation and to better serve people.

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director