Overview: Is your boss an idiot?

If the answer is 'yes',your boss's incompetency may be due to the lack one important ability: metacognition.

"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." -- Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, Feb. 12, 2002

"One who knows and knows that he knows ... His horse of wisdom will reach the skies. / One who knows, but doesn't know that he knows ... He is fast asleep, so you should wake him up! / One who doesn't know, but knows that he doesn't know ... His limping mule will eventually get him home. / One who doesn't know and doesn't know that he doesn't know ... He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!" -- Ibn Yamin, a 13th-century Persian-Tajik poet

"It is one of the essential features of such incompetence that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is incompetent. To have such knowledge would already be to remedy a good portion of the offense." -- "Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence" by William Ian Miller, Thomas G. Long, professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School

Is your boss an idiot? Do you see her or him as incompetent, ineffectual, and inept? The real world equivalent of Dilbert's Pointy-Haired Boss? A positive force for not getting $#!+ done and undoing the $#!+ that was done?

LESSONS LEARNED: Trashing the boss online still a bad idea, but ...

Now, before we go any further, let's see what you think of your boss ... got to http://polratings.com/survey293/ and take the "Network World Backspin Management Idiocy Survey."

It's OK, we'll wait for you ...

Ah, you're back. So, while you might blame his or her lack of competency on his or her age, gender, ethnicity, alcohol consumption, or from being dropped on his or her head when they were a child, there's another factor that you might not be aware of ... your boss's incompetency may be due to the lack one important ability: metacognition.

Metacognition (also called "metamemory," "metacom-prehension," or "self-monitoring skills") is "the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error."

This definition comes from a fascinating paper from 1999 titled "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" by Justin Kruger and David Dunning of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (one of my family's favorite reads).

As a fine example of incompetency, the paper relates a story that defies belief: "In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o'clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. 'But I wore the juice,' he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one's face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras."

That is an outstanding example of a lack of metacognition. Wheeler obviously knew next to nothing about cameras, light, witnesses ... in fact, it's hard to figure out what Wheeler did know. Wheeler had acquired somewhere something he took as fact and his metacognitive deficiencies meant that he couldn't think beyond the minuscule amount he thought he knew.

The paper's abstract explains: "Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error."

The authors took their insights into incompetency and came up with a few predictions:

"Prediction 1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria."

In other words, the incompetent individual who knows some small amount of the subject matter (like Mr. Wheeler) may think they know a lot while the competent individual who knows roughly the same has the ability to see the scope of what they don't know (and so doesn't try to rob banks while covered in lemon juice).

This is one of the biggest problem with incompetents, particularly so when they are managers, because they will expect or offer for the impossible as they have no real conception of the true scope of the task. These are the people who over-promise and force themselves and or you to under-deliver or, worse still, fail to deliver.

"Prediction 2. Incompetent individuals will suffer from deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it -- be it their own or anyone else's."

Ah, competency blindness! Ever wonder why your boss hired that new guy when the new guy clearly can barely tie his shoe laces? Yep, your boss not only doesn't know what your boss doesn't know but also can't see what others don't know (that was how Wally got hired).

"Prediction 3. Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of social comparison information. In particular, because of their difficulty recognizing competence in others, incompetent individuals will be unable to use information about the choices and performances of others to form more accurate impressions of their own ability."

In other words, the incompetent aren't able to discover the limits of their competence from observing what others more competent than they do because they don't know enough to see what's being done. Ever try to explain a subtle piece of technology to someone who doesn't have enough knowledge to understand what is subtle about the tech? That was a lack of metacognitive skill you ran up against.

"Prediction 4. The incompetent can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that they have performed poorly."

To put that prediction another way, the more the know-nothings come to know about what they don't know allows them to see how limited their knowledge is. Which rather makes me wonder if, when you know all there is to know about a subject, do you come to realize you know nothing at all?

So, what can you do about your idiot boss? You can try to educate him rather than work "around" him but ... well, horses being led to water and not drinking comes to mind (I've always felt that to be a weak metaphor as a friend who is a large animal vet once told me, in his opinion, "all animals struggle to survive except for horses which are just looking for a place to die.")

Anyway, gird your loins (with cheap girders) because if your boss is a humorless, linguistically slovenly, illogical mess you may have an uphill struggle ahead of you.

And if you're the boss, consider very carefully about whether you know as much as you think you know because the more confident you are in your competency, you pointy-haired devil, the more of an idiot you're likely to be.

Gibbs knows nothing in Ventura, California. Illuminate him at gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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