For Vigorous Learning, Dare to Dialog

Dialog and the Dunning Kruger EffectSept. 8, 2010

Whether accepting a new view of ourselves “rewires” our brain is unknown, but a truly open exchange – dialog – can be traumatic. To engage in this we have to let down our psychological barriers and prepare our minds to see things we may have been unaware of.

Some inabilities to do this do arise from physical impairment. Medical a­gnososia refers to inability of patients to recognize their own impairment, as with some Alzheimer’s patients. But much unawareness is merely exasperating to others, who may be equally bricked in. We describe it as denial, tunnel vision, blind spotting, framing, in-the-box — and using more malicious terms. It’s impossible to know everything, so our zones of ignorance stretch to infinity. Awareness of that helps open minds for dialog.

Huge changes to deal with Compression could take a lot of dialog — mutual dispelling of “mutual unawareness.” But most of us have to work up to this. Sounds easier than it is.

Unawareness is part of life in workaday worlds, distorting communication. For instance, “silo-mentalities” warp the interpretation of non-silo messages. Value Stream Maps may increase common process awareness, but no two people see a Value Stream exactly the same way. In addition, sometimes we must make decisions before knowing all key facts. To screw up confidence we presume that guesstimates and assumptions were factual. Or accept as factual information from “trusted” sources (on the web or elsewhere), but blow off others. Or we don’t question old assumptions; may not even be aware that we’re making them.

A related effect called Dunning-Kruger is summarized by the title of a 1999 paper on it, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: how difficulties recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” What’s remarkable is that this paper was published. It was stale news over 40 years ago. A variation of it turned up in Doc Hall’s dissertation data. Only 3 of 69 engineers considered below average by their peers self-recognized that they were below average, a finding so trivial that it was academically un-publishable at the time. Nothing new to write about, and nobody wanted to talk about it.

They still don’t. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a self-paradox. We can’t talk about why we don’t want to talk about something without starting to talk about it. So we blunder on in endless cycles of self-deception, awkward silences, and mutual resentments. Heated conflicts grab attention. Facts don’t. Fingering a culprit, rightly or wrongly, perks ears.

To “manage by fact,” we have to repress emotions. If nobody feels personally threatened, real people do that today by concentrating on neutral processes rather than pointing fingers. But if “interests” are at stake, discussion becomes much less dispassionate. People suddenly assume different behaviors. We have a “wicked problem.” It’s time for dialog.

Progress dealing with Compression will be limited unless we learn how to dialog. To establish neutral ground, a critical mass of people must see sense that we are all in Compression together. Otherwise we cannot shed our psychological defenses and think through how to change our company into something totally different. This is beyond routine problem solving, To talk about what we fear to talk about, we need to master a few “rules of dialog” – emotional rules as well as intellectual ones:

  • Respect others. If you are not trying to knuckle them under – win a debate, or worse – others are more likely to learn to trust you – and you them.
  • Seek facts, not mere consensus of opinion. Ask everyone what do you see or what do you experience. Avoid idle opinion. Even data is only an indicator. Seek its sources, the methods of gathering it, and the assumptions used to develop it.
  • Question assumptions. Examine what assumptions you have made or accepted unawares.
  • Examine the perspectives of others. What facts do they add; what assumptions are they making? If they contrast with your assumptions, why?
  • Examine the causes of fear itself. Imaginary or based on fact?
  • Search outside well-known sources. What is really possible?

If we question old assumptions wisely, we will see what we never saw; pose better questions; then do what we never did, even when burdened with complexity to consider. For an organization to do this, it needs thoughtful exchanges of facts and ideas, not debate, deadlock, and alpha games. Learning to control our behavior for this is not trivial.

So try a little exercise. What evidence of “unawareness” do you see in your own behavior?  How can you emotionally “muscle up” to offset it?

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