Reflections on the Dunning-Kruger Effect

And Why This Should Matter to Any Veterinary Leader

According to Gowithfloat, the total amount of knowledge in the world doubles every twelve days. Doubles. When I read this, I was astounded, and I’m sure you are too. We live in an age of information where we can speedily obtain knowledge at the end of our fingertips, facilitated by the pervasive power of the Internet. Of course, the Internet is a groundbreaking innovation that has, to a large extent, democratised access to knowledge. 

However, I have to question the quality of the information we are accessing, and the value of our resultant ‘knowledge’. The reserves of Google alone are incomprehensibly vast, meaning that we have to filter through a swarm of (frankly, vapid) articles before we encounter anything of value. Ultimately, this means that most of the knowledge we obtain in everyday life is superficial.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is, in part, an overinflated sense of one’s own knowledge or capabilities. The term was coined by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in a 1999 paper. Testing participants on their sense of humour, grammar and logic, the psychologists discovered that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated themselves above average. In other words, there was a negative correlation between perceived and actual capabilities.

I believe such cognitive bias, the overestimation of one’s own skills, is prevalent in today’s age of information. Individuals gain superficial, instantaneous knowledge and believe they are experts in the subject. This can be seen in recent developments: many choose to ignore scientific evidence and believe that climate change is a hoax; the same can be said for those in Covid-19 denial; perhaps the largest (and worryingly, most powerful) proponents/exploiters of the Dunning-Kruger effect are some of the current crop of world leaders.

What does this have to do with veterinary leadership?

Awareness of the Dunning-Kruger effect is important for any veterinary leader, especially when recruiting and growing a team. Not only should you be seeking veterinarians who share similar overarching values, but those who are willing to learn from their mistakes, accept their own fallibility, and who do not have an ego. 

In the following, I take you through the four ways to identify a ‘Dunning-Kruger’ in your team, and how this could have a negative impact on your practice.

4 Signs of the ‘Dunning-Kruger’ Effect in Your Practice

1) They cannot take constructive criticism

You may have a sufferer of the ‘Dunning-Kruger’ effect on your hands if they volley your suggestions for development right back at you during the performance review. Indeed, their game is one of high-speed defence, and your constructive criticisms just don’t seem to follow through.

For example, you may notice that Helen lacks client communication skills. If these were improved, you know her Average Transaction Fee has the potential to increase. However, when you suggest she takes a CPD course in communication to improve her interaction with clients, she rejects the proposal, claiming that she is the best at building relationships on the team.

2) They are not a team player

A typical ‘Dunning-Kruger’ type may view themselves as superior to the rest of the veterinary team, which can stifle cohesion and lead to self-alienation. 

Those that feel they cannot learn from their peers (because they already know it all) are unlikely to interact with curiosity and openness. Instead, they approach interactions with judgement and blame. For example, say the pre-meds are not prepared for the vet’s operation. Instead of reacting with curiosity by asking the veterinary nurse, ‘what happened?’ they instantly resort to blame, ‘the nurse is incompetent, and now it’s their fault I’m delayed.’ Ultimately, such behaviour can infiltrate the whole team, resulting in a toxic blame culture that is far from psychologically safe.

3) They have an ego

Unfortunately, ego plagues many in the veterinary profession, and is synonymous with the Dunning-Kruger Effect because individuals are often unaware they have one at all. To feel significant is a key human need, but when this becomes an overwhelming priority, ego starts to develop.

Having an inflated ego on the team is potentially damaging because it often causes individuals to abandon their endeavours after making a mistake. Their ego is simply too fragile, and they lack the self-awareness to step outside of the problem and consider what they could do next time to improve. It is obvious how this can stilt growth and progression. 

If a surgeon inserts a stent incorrectly, and their ego stands in the way of them learning from their mistake, they are either destined to make the same mistake again or will vow never to perform this surgery in the future. Worse still, this cycle on repeat may cause them to bounce out of the profession altogether. Ultimately, this can mean your practice will not provide wide-ranging or quality care for your patients.

4) They do not pursue mastery

To become a master in a skill, you must practice, practice, practice. On the other hand, the classic ‘Dunning-Kruger’ only needs to perform one tooth extraction before they perceive themselves to be ‘the dental expert.’ (In fact, the more you learn in any field and have the more competent you become, the more you enter into a weirder still area of the effect where as you learn more, you begin to appreciate just how little you actually know! It’s all very confusing.)

This could lead to them flitting between various pursuits at the same time, and mastering none. They fail to see that true mastery requires dedication, time and hard work, because they overestimate their capability. Furthermore, because they have somewhat alienated themselves from the rest of the team, they are in danger of seeing themselves as the ‘finished product’ and thus unable to recognise others as ‘masters.’ If this is the case, the thought of learning mastery from others will be horrifying to them.

How Can I Ameliorate the Dunning-Kruger in my Team?

If you end up employing a ‘Dunning-Kruger’ or inherit one (and you will, because we are all members of the Dunning-Kruger Club to some extent of other) in a new leadership position, fear not. Identifying these four key traits is half the battle. As explained earlier, the behaviours of an individual can infiltrate the whole veterinary team like a contagion, leading to a potentially toxic practice culture. 

Therefore, as a leader, you should place emphasis on whole-team values, fostering openness and encouraging constant personal development. As a leader, the behaviour you display is the behaviour you say is ok. Set an example: defeat your own ego, demonstrate open communication with your team, and relate to your team with curiosity (not judgement). Using this ‘filter-down’ approach, the Dunning-Kruger’s will be weeded out or will alter their behaviour.

What if the ‘Dunning-Kruger’ is still causing grief in your team? Well, the problem may run deeper than overarching practice values. In this case, be sure to check out our other leadership blogs, covering a range of topics from adversarial cultures to growing resilience in a veterinary team.


New practice leader? You could also benefit from the VetX:Leaders programme, complete leadership training delivered to practice owners and team leaders internationally. Visit our Leaders page for more information.

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