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  • Tamar Balkin

Do Leaders Have A Tendency To Overestimate Their Expertise?

“Superficial Don't be superficial Superficial Don't be superficial with me Superficial Don't be superficial Superficial Don't be superficial with me”

Don't Be Superficial by Ryan McKean (click here for the song)


“Superficial knowledge is potentially more dangerous than ignorance. It gives a false sense of security encouraging an ignorant man to persevere in his efforts that can result in huge damage.”

Eraldo Banovac

The abundance of easily accessible information on complex leadership and organisational behaviour is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it is excellent that concepts that organisational psychologists have been studying for decades are finally being discussed in the public arena. Society as a whole has never had a deeper appreciation of the importance of work in our lives. However, a superficial understanding of a complex phenomenon is at best useless, and at worst dangerous. When "popular terms" are misunderstood, misused or implemented with a paternalistic approach, the negative consequences are far reaching. Regular readers would know that being an ethical leader involves admitting the limitations of your expertise. (click here for my blog on ethics).

Why do novices behave as experts?

In addition to being 'too busy' to enable detailed learning of new concepts, there are a number of cognitive factors that may get in the way. The Dunning Kruger Effect, is a cognitive bias or tendency to believe that one is more capable or smarter than one actually is. Kruger and Dunning interpreted this overconfidence as a metacognitive deficiency, such that poor performers are not only incompetent in the task, but they are unable to identify their own errors. In a sense their 'expertise' is maintained by unknown unknowns. The Einstellung (set) effect occurs when the first idea that comes to mind it prevents a better solution being found. Interestingly this occurs when facing a novel problem and or when working within one's field of expertise. Researchers have found that once people have found a solution, even when generating a new one, they continue to look at the features of the problem related to the solution they had already thought of. This direction of attention may contribute to a wide range of biases both in everyday and expert thought – from confirmation bias in hypothesis testing, or the tendency to ignore results that do not fit ones favoured theories. Regular readers would be aware that in the face of complexity there is the temptation to look for the silver bullet. (Click here for my blog). In addition there is limited understanding and application of evidence based practice. (click here for my blog on evidence based practice)

So what can be done?

To gain an understanding of a complex concept, and then translating it into action, is not simple and needs to be tailored to the organisation. Answering the following questions can guide you:

  • What is the purpose of introducing this new concept?

  • What issues are facing the organisation?

  • What is the most pressing?

  • What are the many ways in which it can be addressed?

  • Have you mediated the impact of the Einstellung (set) effect and the Dunning Kruger Effect before generating options?

  • Do you actually understand the concepts/models in depth?

  • Which are evidence based and measurable?

  • Which are practical, realistic and fit your budget?

  • What can you genuinely influence?

  • Will your best option actually achieve your goal?

Consider what type of professionals can help you answer these questions. If relevant take the time to check their actual expertise on a relevant national register. In Australia there are national professional organisations established to protect the public, maintain public confidence, by setting and upholding professional standards.

Final thoughts


“You can put lipstick on a hog and call it Monique, but it is still a pig”

Ann Richards


Researchers have found that it is possible learn to accept that one’s knowledge and cognitive ability is limited and imperfect. People with high, Intellectual Humility are constantly seeking the truth, pursuing knowledge, have a desire to learn, be curious, and inquisitive. In social interactions, they don’t show off, boast or exhibit pretentious behaviour and they are polite, unselfish, and honest. Leaders with high intellectual humility are aware of, open about their professional limitations. Hiding and ignoring short comings is counterproductive, admitting to them, learning and making appropriate changes can be exponentially beneficial.

---------- Please click here if you would like to read my past blogs.


Prof Frederik Anseel (Thursday, July 7, 202 A Bright Future for Industrial & Organizational Psychology? Challenges and Opportunities in a post-Covid19 world. APS 14th Industrial and Organisational Psychology Conference IOP at the forefront: Leading transformative and global change Bilalić, M., McLeod, P. and Gobet, F. (2008). Why good thoughts block better ones: The mechanism of the pernicious Einstellung (set) effect. Cognition, 108(3), pp.652–661. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2008.05.005. Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning-Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance. In J. M. Olson, & M. P. Zanna (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 44, pp. 247-296). Cambridge, MA: Academic Press. Mazor, M., Fleming, S.M. The Dunning-Kruger effect revisited. Nat Hum Behav 5, 677–678 (2021). Du, J. and Cai, Y. (2020) Owning One’s Intellectual Limitations: A Review of Intellectual Humility. Psychology, 11, 1009-1020. doi: 10.4236/psych.2020.117066.


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