Coach’s Corner Blog

Where Everyone Is Above Average

May 1, 2018 by 2 Comments

People meeting

One of my favorite shows used to be the radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. The show centered on a fictional Minnesota town called Lake Wobegon. The motto of the town was “where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

That was said tongue-in-cheek, but did you realize that studies have indicated that 80% of drivers believe that they are above average in terms of their driving skills?

How could a vast majority of drivers think they are above average?

The Dunning–Kruger Effect

It all has to do with something called the Dunning–Kruger effect, which goes something like this:

  • People of low ability have a cognitive bias that their skills are greater than they are because they lack the self-awareness to objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence. They do not know what high or exceptional performance really looks like. They overestimate themselves (think drivers).
  • Highly competent people may erroneously assume that tasks that are easy for them are easy for others to perform and therefore may not recognize the level of their abilities. They underestimate themselves.
  • Dunning and Kruger stated the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.

The good news is that highly competent people, when faced with constructive feedback, will usually seek ways to improve right away because they have an understanding of what that higher level of ability may look like.

Those who lack self-awareness and who mask their incompetence will find themselves stuck unless they can get candid, constructive feedback and show a willingness for continuous learning that can lead to continuous improvement. You don’t know what you don’t know until you ask.

The bad news is that constructive feedback is difficult to get in an effective form and we have a reluctance, a defensiveness about accepting feedback that is negative or challenging. So getting on the right track to improve is not always so easy.

Radical Transparency

Ray Dialo is the head of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world, and one of the world’s richest men.

Early in his career, he made a bad financial bet on the market and wiped out his company. He regrouped and has made Bridgewater a huge success. He claims to do this by relentlessly analyzing what works for getting the best results and reducing that to algorithms that guide not on just investment decisions, but how people interact – the sum of learned behaviors.

This requires an environment that depends on what he calls Radical Transparency, so the best ideas will consistently win out and everyone can operate in a true idea meritocracy. For more on this please go to the 2017 Ted Talk, How to Build a Company Where the Best Ideas Win by Ray Dialo.

Although I have written about Radical Candor before, that is one-on-one dialogue. Radical Transparency at Bridgewater Associates requires – demands – that everyone be brutally honest and constructive in their feedback and observations about everything, all the time.

They use technology to test ideas and opinions real time using the algorithms they develop. All meetings are recorded so the feedback is available for everyone to see.

The reason I bring up Bridgewater is to show the productive extremes of using feedback to maximum effect. Many people do not survive in the Radical Transparency environment, but those that flourish have systematically showed how great, real time feedback can lead to success.

Most places do not encourage such dialogue, but if you want to avoid lacking the self-awareness to objectively evaluate your own competence or incompetence, you must learn to solicit feedback regularly from those whose expertise or perspective you value. It may be painful sometimes, but it is the only path to continuous improvement.

Who knows, you may develop your own algorithm someday.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I “read a room” well in meetings so that I may understand who may disagree with me or not be sold on my ideas or solutions?
  • Am I willing to solicit further input about my ideas, style or approach to be sure I know how I can improve on the current idea?
  • Do I gain insight into how to make even better suggestions in the future based on what I learned?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.


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    Mike May 2, 2018, 7:48 pm

    Good article! I learn something from you each time.
    I hope this finds you well and I look forward to next time our paths cross.
    God bless.


    John Orr May 7, 2018, 7:16 pm

    Willy- great piece. I’m thrilled to see you using and applying the Dunning-Kruger effect. I think it explains a lot and can help all of us remain a bit more humble about our abilities if we recognize our own cognitive bias. Nicely done.


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