When the juice doesn’t work …

The danger of inflated self-assessment

I’ve previously mentioned humility in leadership and it’s a theme I would like to pick up on.

The following story comes from a paper by James Kruger and David Dunning (Psychology Today, 2009) who studied cognitive bias; the tendency to inflate our own assessments of our own abilities.

In 1995 a man named McArthur Wheeler robbed not one but two banks in Pittsburgh in broad daylight, in full view of the CCTV and without any attempt at disguise. He was, of course, apprehended very quickly and when arrested expressed astonishment he had been identified, saying to police officers “But I wore the juice”. Mr Wheeler had robbed those banks safe in the knowledge that if you rubbed lemon juice on your face then you are invisible to CCTV cameras. Of course you are…

While the story is both sad and funny in equal measure Kruger and Dunning saw it as a metaphor for the type of thinking that is shoddy, ill informed and open to bias.

There are many other studies of bias and distorted thinking and I often cite the study of Ole Svenson (1981) who identified that 80% of Swedish drivers rated their own driving ability as being in the top 30% of drivers. This type of result and evidence of cognitive bias is repeated in those other studies too.

So taking that in the context of leadership and management I’m left wondering how many leaders you come into contact who:

a) use ‘lemon juice’ –  relying on methods or approaches that you can see are not working for them?

b) over inflate their self assessment?

If you visit the Critical Thinking Foundation their bookstore has a Miniature Guide of Concepts and Tools which helps us develop  a “higher order of thinking”.  This means thinking that is free (as we can be) from bias, distortion and shoddy thinking.  Thinking that tests assumptions and encourages us to view our situation from multiple perspectives.

I hope I demonstrate this in my every day dealings but may now consider; what my particular brand of juice might be and is it working…?

Many thanks to Dr Nick Sutcliffe SFHEA of Leeds Beckett University for sharing the Kruger and Dunning paper.


3 Leadership Ideas:

  • How can you get a valid and bias free assessment of your own leadership/managerial capabilities?
  • When do you find time to reflect on your methods and evaluate how well they work?
  • How can you ensure management meetings etc think critically and are relatively free from bias and shoddy thinking?
Posted by John Drysdale
17th July 2015
John's Blog


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