by Leslie Malek
Any organization can stumble over the “Smarty-Pants” phenomenon. You may have witnessed this in your pregnancy help organization. Your team gathers to brainstorm. One confident person has a lot to say, speaks forcefully, sounds convincing, and everyone else defers to her passionate solution. This is the solution that will “save the day” – in theory.
In practice, it may be no solution at all. Smarty Pants has lots of ideas but quite possibly doesn’t actually know as much as she thinks she does. The real solutions that the less confident team members offered, or kept to themselves, fell under the imposing weight of Smarty Pants. Confident of intuition but without cause, Smarty Pants doesn’t know that she doesn’t know. A number of studies have explored the smarty-pants effect on groups and found over and over that people defer to information that comes from a confident person but in fact, there is an inverse relationship between confidence and knowledge.
“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 Cornell University documents this phenomenon. The authors suggest that overconfident people often lack social and intellectual skill and thereby not only tend to erroneous conclusions and unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.
More simply put, a lack of knowledge tends to lead a person to greater confidence than is warranted. The over-confidence that Smarty Pants projects leads people to believe that she is actually more knowledgeable than Smarty Pants really is.
At Harvard University, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons carried out a number of experiments on this topic. In one experiment known as The Invisible Gorilla (now a classic in psychology), two groups, one wearing black and the other wearing white, pass two basketballs around. The viewers are asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed, something that is easy to do. Interestingly, half the viewers completely miss that a gorilla walks through the action and thumps its chest. Even more interesting, according to Simons, is the deep-rooted belief held by most people that they would notice something as out of place as a gorilla at basketball practice. In a survey commissioned by Chabris and Simons, more than 75 percent of a representative sample of American adults “agreed that they would notice such unexpected events, even when they are focused on something else.” Two things stand out from this experiment: people miss a lot of what goes on around them and they often have no idea that they are missing so much. They don't know that they don't know.
Another experiment by Chabris and Simon involved groups of people working together to solve a math problem. Instead of deferring to the person with the greatest math knowledge, the group deferred to the most confident person, regardless of that person’s knowledge. In 94 percent of the cases, each group’s final answer was the first answer suggested, regardless whether it was right or wrong, and it was the most confident person present who offered this answer.
Teams make the most progress when they are able to distinguish between confidence and knowledge. Effective team leaders make sure that everyone has input. The leader does help the group recognize the relationship between opinions and the actual knowledge and experience behind that information and does not just allow the most confident person to sway the result. Great team leaders also know that they do not know everything: that is why great leaders surround themselves with skilled and knowledgeable team members who do know a lot about their area of expertise. The leader and team members must explore what the individuals of the group actually know -- before coming to a conclusion.
A team that defers to confidence instead of knowledge and experience can make some astoundingly bad decisions.
The take away? Pay attention to the opinions of the most self-effacing, best listeners, and weigh the real expertise and knowledge of the most confident members on your team.