How to Manage Ignorance

Have you ever been in a discussion where you knew you were correct, but you also knew the other person also knew that they were right as well? I wish I could say this is a rare occurrence, but watching the news for 15 minutes proves many intelligent individuals are convinced they are correct when a large percentage of them are wrong.

Let’s call this a situation of “Incorrect Knowledge.”

Unfortunately, this is as true in business as it is in politics. There are many conference and board rooms across the globe where well-meaning participants (combatants?) are entrenching themselves, supporting a fundamentally incorrect position.  Of course, most situations are more complex than simple black and white, or right and wrong. These aren’t the situations we are discussing. 

Assuming positive motives, this dissociation from the truth certainly contributes to many sub-optimal leadership decisions. The truth is that what we know isn’t the leading cause of poor choices, nor is it what we don’t know that drives the bus over the cliff; it is what individuals and teams think they know, incorrectly, that causes the most egregious mistakes. 

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Charles Darwin

For those of us thrashing and slogging through the complex and ambiguous thorny undergrowth that is leading an organization across today’s hyper-competitive business landscape, this issue of “knowing incorrectly” can be the straw the breaks the balance sheets back.

Incorrect Knowledge in Action

Over the past 20 years or so, I have developed a fascination with the term employee engagement. Being an avid reader and preferring to read on topics that interest me, I have consumed many books on this and related topics. I learned what employee engagement is, how you grow it, and what kills it. Also, being a nerd from way back, I often read the cited scholarly articles and studies that informed the authors’ opinions. (After all, without scientific evidence, they are just opinions).

With that in mind, I relate a pair of virtually identical conversations I had on different coasts with senior executives from different firms. These executives worked in different industries, and these discussions occurred several years apart.

The topic was employee engagement.

These discussions were about how to identify employees that were “engaged.” Both of these executives felt the best way to identify engaged individuals was to take down the license plate numbers of the cars in the parking lot after 6 pm. Those are your engaged employees. The poor folks that left the office at 4 pm were disengaged and dispensable.

Surprisingly enough, the most shocking aspect of these conversations wasn’t that senior leaders said those words out loud, but that each knew they were 100% double-dutch undeniably correct.

Managing Ignorance

These types of situations will present themselves to us throughout our lifetime. They will happen at work, the grocery store, and the Thanksgiving table. There is no way to eliminate them, so if you think I will present that solution, I am sorry to disappoint.

However, I can share a method that I have used relatively effectively to help people I care about making progress on this issue. The solution is devastatingly simple.


Provide them with an article on the Dunning-Kruger Effect!

What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

We all have bias’. We can’t get away from them, and we can’t change the fact that unconscious bias is a part of our life experience and that each of us antes into the unconscious bias pot. 

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. Essentially, low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability leads them to overestimate their own capabilities.

Kendra Cherry

Ouch! Yes, what science says is that none are spared and suffer from the effects of both Unconscious Bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect.

As with most universal truths about the human race, the issue isn’t whether we suffer from the affliction of being human, but where on the continuum we reside currently and what our trajectory is.

We can do and must do, recognize our human-ness, and as the common cliche goes, act accordingly.

Civil Discourse

The challenge with discussions where both parties disagree and each knows that they are correct is to try and get each of the combatants to entertain the thought that they might not be right and willing to listen to the other person. 

“Low performers are unable to recognize the skill and competence levels of other people, which is part of the reason why they consistently view themselves as better, more capable, and more knowledgeable than others

Kendra Cherry

The simple act of being respectful to anothers’ experiences and acknowledging that they might know at least as much, if not much more, on the current topic is out of reach for some people. This leads to unresolvable issues.

There is “a best” answer for each discussion, and everyone has something to add to every argument.

Civil Discourse will bring all thoughts and opinions to light.

Why introducing the Dunning-Kruger Effect will Help 

I am sure that as you read the blurbs above, you experienced a slight pang of identification unease. I know that I did. Immediately after acknowledging the hole in my stomach, my next thought was that I certainly did not want to be lumped into the category of people that are too ignorant to recognize their own ignorance!

So I took the first step and adjusted my behavior. I started to listen more. 

When I shared a D-K article with my team, I also noticed that most of them also adjusted their behavior. The reason is pretty straightforward. Most people look forward to enjoying the admiration of their peers and will avoid behaviors that paint them in an unflattering hue. Leading a brief discussion after reading the article helped cement the understanding. (Note: I strongly recommend not taking this action with an individual. This learning discussion is best digested as part of a team).

Once individuals start to listen, for whatever reason, there is a chance to improve the effectiveness of the teams’ debates and cultivate a desire in the individual to learn and grow.

What can be better than that!

As Leaders, we are responsible for the care and nurturing of the individuals in our organizations. Helping increase the level of self-awareness of the team while instigating improved respect and quality of communication is a big win for all involved. 

And all for the cost of a bit of reading. 


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