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Employee Assessment: is ignorance bliss?

May 15, 2012

I’ll start this post off with a riddle: What do Dr. Evil, Maxwell Smart, Lieutenant Frank Drebin, and Ron Burgundy all have in common?  Yes they’re fictional.  What else?  Yes they have a job.  Getting warmer.  They’re all perceived as wholly incompetent by their peers.  A+ for you.  These individuals, seriously lacking any method of realistic self-appraisal, operate in a world largely unaware of their surroundings, even when feedback is available.  It’s so dreadful and ridiculous at times; it makes you yearn for someone to bring them back to earth, like Simon Cowell.

Did you hear the glass shatter as you just realized the truth?  These individuals don’t exist solely in movie land.  American Idol was one of the first to prove that these people really do exist.  It is probably no surprise that the second highest overall viewership of Idol (next to the final performances) comes during the try-outs, especially the very first round of cuts.  We watch as these atrocious performers belt their hearts out in front of an audience of millions, get rejected, and still come back for next season’s tryouts.  You can’t help but think they truly do believe they are actually good singers.  I’ve heard it likened to a car crash, absolutely horrible to watch, but you just can’t turn away.

It’s pretty possible.  Quoting Charles Darwin, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  This quote was cited as being one of the foundations for research conducted by Justin Kruger and David Dunning; research so influential they coined this form of illusory superiority the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.”  It states that “individuals lacking in a given skill will tend to overestimate their own level of said skill” and overall, fail to recognize how extremely inadequate they are.  Simply put, you don’t know what you don’t know.  Think of it like finding a new and shorter route to work in the morning.  Ignorance was bliss until you found a better way.  Feedback is the key to ending illusory superiority.  So why do some of these people still not get it?

When it comes down to discussing competencies, I frequently get strange looks when I state that emotional intelligence is essential to success in a wide variety of positions.  Granted, it may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but let me assure you, this ability to process feedback effectively is paramount, especially if you expect your hires to develop into power-players.  What do you get when you couple the Dunning-Kruger effect with a lack of emotional intelligence?  Turn back to American Idol and envision them one cubicle over.

Is it possible for an individual to do well in a position with zero emotional intelligence?  Absolutely.  If they are a high performer, you don’t expect or need that person to change, and have individuals willing to compensate for any of their shortcomings, by all means I say hire them.  Superstars do exist, but it is a bit of a fairy tale to assume that every individual who walks through your door won’t need to be developed at some point in their career.  No selection system can truly incorporate every skill, ability, or piece of knowledge into the hiring process either.  However, by hiring for emotional intelligence and implementing a solid feedback system, you know any gaps can be filled and your workforce will become stronger from within.

Curious about how to interview a candidate and find out if they have emotional intelligence? Check out our Interview Essentials eBook!

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Adam Hilliard