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THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT ON BUSINESS DECISIONS: WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW (OR THINK YOU ACTUALLY KNOW) WILL HURT YOU

 

An issue I often encounter with prospective business clients is that they have made a decision/choice, which appeared to be insignificant from their perspective at the time, but it actually was not.   Instead, this decision or action is the catalyst that led to significant legal issues, loss of business revenue, and disputes with other parties.   What started out from their perspective as a minor matter evolved into their business facing significant financial losses, litigation, legal fees and costs, and even the potential closure of their business.

When I inquire of these individuals concerning the linchpin decision/choice that led to this outcome, they have a difficult time explaining their decision or understanding why it led to the legal issues that occurred.  When faced with the decision/choice, they have often said to themselves words to the effect of “no, I’ve got this . . .” or state “really, how difficult can this be.”   Oftentimes, they have taken self-help steps to answer their question (or confirm their decision), but they actually have located incomplete or incorrect information.   Consequently, problems develop.

“How does a company, its leadership, and ownership not see these landmines and issues before they occur?” has often been a question I have asked.   While researching another issue, I came across a research study that may explain this mental roadblock.   It is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is named after two psychologists who chose to examine why individuals make obviously bad decisions believing they are correct.   Their initial question originated as a result of a news article of a local man who decided to rob a bank.   Having learned that lemon juice can be used as an invisible ink, the robber smeared his face with the substance believing that it would make his facial features unrecognizable or invisible.   Because of this assumption, he made no effort to disguise his face beyond the lemon juice and was quickly caught by law enforcement.   The robber expressed sincere surprise and a complete lack of understanding as to why his plan did not work.

Dunning-Kruger decided to research why individuals make obviously bad decisions, but are completely unaware that they are doing so.   They concluded that individuals who are unskilled, not fully educated, or ignorant of certain matters often suffer from an illusion of superiority believing that their abilities are much greater than in reality.  In basic terms, a little bit of knowledge can be bad because individuals have the tendency (with a little bit of information) to extrapolate that they have more knowledge than they actually possess and, as a result, make bad decisions of which they are completely unaware with disastrous results.

Dunning-Kruger proposed that, for a certain skill or knowledge set, “incompetent” people will:

  1. Fail to recognize their own lack of knowledge or skill;
  2. Fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy;
  3. Fail to recognize the genuine knowledge or skill in others;
  4. Only recognize and acknowledge their own lack of knowledge or skill when educated otherwise.

This is often the perspective that business leadership and ownership will display.   Business leaders, corporate owners and entrepreneurs have a sense of independence, which sometimes serves them well.   However, this independent streak can lead to an overconfidence in areas where they lack the appropriate skills or knowledge to make an informed decision.   This overconfidence leads to decisions and directions that should have never been taken.

In addition, this overconfidence and lack of complete or accurate information results in their failure to take the advice of others, such as legal counsel, who would be able to properly inform them of their situation and provide advice to avoid the problem.  Instead, the “I’ve got this” or “why should we pay for an attorney for advice when we already know our answer” attitude occurs.    Unfortunately, these businesses only realize their own lack of knowledge after the fact, when a problem has occurred, damage is already done, and they are embroiled in serious legal issues.

In order to prevent the Dunning-Krueger Effect from taking hold of a company’s decision process, businesspeople need to have a team of trusted individuals in place in order to keep them properly educated and informed.   Finding these key individuals, whose only purpose is to help you succeed, are essential for the long-term success of a business.   From my observations and experience, I would recommend four key individuals to become part of the success of your business.   They are:

  1. A Business Attorney or Law Firm
  2. A Business Accountant
  3. A Financial Planner with Business Clients
  4. An Experienced Mentor or Business Coach

Locating and utilizing these individuals who are able to provide answers, advice, and assistance with knowledge, practical experience, and different perspectives will help avoid bad decisions caused by lack of knowledge and overconfidence.    These are also individuals whose purpose is to help a business succeed and have no ulterior motives to the contrary.

Those who own and lead businesses need to accept that they do not know everything.   A quote by philosopher Bertrand Russell highlights this approach.  “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”  Every successful business owner/leader acknowledges that they are not omniscient and that they need to utilize the wisdom of others to supply critical knowledge and advice.   Understanding the areas where a business owner or leader has a genuine lack of knowledge or skill and has in place those who can provide this knowledge and skill with which they lack, can lead to a more successful and sustainable business.

©2016 Matthew W. Harrison and Harrison Law, PLLC All Rights Reserved

This website has been prepared by Harrison Law, PLLC for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.