Mount Stupid

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But it’s easy, right?

Update: You can find this topic covered in much greater detail in my Book.

Your team is getting it in the neck today. After months of technical exploration and prototypes, they have been unable to produce anything that looks like it will make the backend of the new product work in the way that it was imagined. The team are frustrated and are further convinced that without provisioning potentially millions of dollars in hardware and annotator time, they’re never going to be able to deliver anything of value. It’s just not plausible.

This isn’t sitting well with the VP Engineering and the Sales Director, who needs to shift units. In fact, they’re completely livid.

The Sales Director is first to interject. “You’re honestly telling us that after 3 months you have nothing that is going to get this thing built?” Your engineers aren’t particularly used to this kind of intense confrontation, especially from such senior people in the company. It makes them feel like they are pretty stupid.

“We tried. It’s just a really difficult problem.” Their nervousness makes them fail to say they’ve produced some very interesting prototypes and insights into tangential problems along the way.

“3 months and 6 people and we have nothing? That’s the problem with this team. I just don’t think you’re working hard enough, especially when compared to the sales team. They’re on it all of the time. When are you going to step up and take ownership?”

“I’m sorry; it just doesn’t seem possible,” replies your data scientist sheepishly, again failing to mention that they’ve produced a number of useful experiments that could make their way into the product.

Your VP Engineering is gripping her pen tighter, as one of her teams is making her look stupid in front of her peers. “You do realize that other companies are just solving this with machine learning now? It’s all off the shelf. Should take a couple of weeks tops. I’ve seen our competitors launch stuff really quickly this way. Why can’t you?”

“It’s not that straight forward; it’s really hard to get right.”
“I don’t believe you. Others are doing it. Did you not see their press release last week? I just don’t think you’re working hard enough. I reckon we should have just outsourced this problem. That would have got it done in half the time.”

Everyone is angry and at loggerheads. Senior management who are disappointed with performance and a team on the receiving end feeling utterly stupid yet unable to demonstrate they’ve done some worthwhile work. How did we get here?

I’ve been on both sides myself. It’s likely you will as well.

Two psychological concepts

The hypothetical situation described above frames two interesting concepts in psychology, which I often see played out in the workplace. To an extent, one could be seen as the inverse of the other.

  • Dunning-Kruger effect: A cognitive bias of illusory superiority in people of lower ability.
  • Impostor syndrome: A concept where high-achieving individuals are unable to internalize their achievements and fear being exposed as a fake or fraud.

We’ll have a look at both of these and identify situations where they can occur in the world of technology.

Dunning-Kruger effect

A 1999 study by David Dunning and Justin Kruger presented the results of experiments that proved that, in many social and intellectual domains, people tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities. Not only does this lead to poor decisions, it also means that people are unaware that they are making them! The paradox is that in those same areas, when the skills of the participants were improved, they were able to recognize the limitations of their abilities and therefore realize that particular decisions were bad.

What does this mean for us in engineering? Unfortunately, it means that there will be limitless situations where those that know the least about particular problems will feel the most bullish and comfortable with making a decision and will not realize that the decision is bad. This effect can be seen from both ends of the seniority scale.

  • Poor decisions by junior engineers: High-achieving and confident junior members of staff, notably those who have just graduated with excellent grades, may not have the experience to make considered decisions about doing engineering in production. Their overconfidence in being able to solve a problem may give a project a green light, only for it all to not work further down the line. Their limited experience of production systems combined with their confidence in their own abilities can result in them not seeing any warning signs in their initial beliefs.
  • Rash decisions by managerial staff: They will be too far from the technical details to intuitively know whether a project is achievable or completely intractable. If they are confident, as your senior managers usually are, then they may be unable to be convinced that there isn’t a simple solution that your team hasn’t yet found, despite being told otherwise. This can lead to bad decisions about starting or stopping projects, outsourcing work, or blaming poor performance for a particular outcome.

The most dangerous place in the Dunning-Kruger effect was plotted to humorous effect by the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic. The graph has been reproduced with permission.

It’s very easy to be on Mount Stupid, and the worst part about it is that you won’t know that you’re there. We can all experience it as it happens to all of us. Unfortunately, this can lead to a decision being made where nobody really knows anything at all as there is no counter-balance to an argument, or where the person with the most power, who happens to be on Mount Stupid, exercises their executive right, making everyone else feel dumb.

Impostor syndrome

It is possible that high achieving individuals who are very good may not give an outward appearance that is congruent with how good they actually are. This is called imposter syndrome and was published in a 1978 study. This internal contradiction about one’s ability can result in excellent individuals feeling like they are somehow a fraud; that they are faking it and will soon get found out. This leads to nervousness and lack of confidence.

Like the Dunning-Kruger effect, it can play out at differing seniority levels:

  • Overly shy junior engineers: High-achieving juniors may observe a lot of smart and senior folks around them and believe that they have absolutely no right to be there and that, in comparison, their ability is poor.
  • Overly cautious senior staff: They forget that many of the things that come totally naturally to them due to experience are through their hard work, not luck. This may turn them inward and make them cautious and risk-averse, as they know the devil is always in the details. It may prevent them from speaking out for risk of being “found out”.

Elements of impostor syndrome can be viewed as the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Whereas those on Mount Stupid may be overly confident and brash because of their lack of knowledge about their own inabilities, those who have impostor syndrome may be overly unconfident and shy because they believe their own success is due to something other than their intelligence and hard work. This gives the impression to others that they may not know what they are doing, creating a nasty clash with the outspoken and confident people on Mount Stupid.

Bridging the gap

So, as a manager, how can you help?

In short, you need to exercise your emotional intelligence to spot when people are displaying traits that fall in either camp, and then work with that behavior to help your staff overcome it.

Dealing with the Dunning-Kruger effect

For junior members of staff being potentially reckless due to not knowing the ramifications of what they are doing, you need to show sensitivity. We’ve all been there. You definitely don’t want to make anyone feel shot down by demonstrating your superior knowledge. Instead, you want to try and make junior staff come to the conclusion that they are being overconfident by themselves. Think of a coaching mentality here: how can you keep the thought bubble over their head while they tackle a problem? Can you pair program with them and subtly lead them to discover where the problem is much harder than they thought, or can you do the same on a whiteboard? Once they discover that a great number of technical problems are harder than they initially seem, they will have developed more mature techniques to analyze approaches and find the right balance of confidence and skepticism.

Senior staff who find themselves on Mount Stupid can often be difficult to deal with, because a senior person may be highly confident in a group; others present may by worried about arguing with them. Here you need to subject them to a similar process as that of junior staff, where they can arrive at the conclusion that something is harder than originally seemed by themselves. You need to pick your battles here: some personalities may be totally open for a reasoned debate or working it through together on a whiteboard, but others, depending on the situation, may benefit from discussion being taken offline, where some proper research can be done and results presented in a less confrontational format, such as an email or short document. Mount Stupid combined with ego can cause degenerate in-person conversation. Instead, present only the facts; resist the urge to tell someone that they are being dumb. Sometimes you have to submit and leave a meeting in a haze of anger in order to revisit the facts later.

Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Brilliant junior staff who experience impostor syndrome need to experience repeated success to overcome how they feel. One way of doing this is by pairing them with a senior member of staff who is a good mentor, and having them work through problems both abstractly, on paper and whiteboards, and concretely, implementing them together through pair programming. We often forget that in education we are receiving specific grades and scores for the quality of our work, and over time, self-confidence can be fostered by seeing repeated positive results. The workplace doesn’t offer frequent quantitative feedback like this, therefore regular interactions with more senior staff who can show the junior that they’re doing a great job. This is critical to build their confidence.

Senior staff experiencing impostor syndrome can forget just how much they know and can contribute. To reinforce their knowledge, pair them with junior staff. This actually benefits both parties, as shown in the previous paragraph. They will realize just how much they have to teach. For those that are reserved verbally, then as a manager, try to weave them into debates by asking their opinion directly. “How’s this problem playing out in your head right now? What are you thinking?” Make a concerted effort to bring their opinion into the room as often as possible. They will soon see that their knowledge is valued, hard-earned and useful.

In summary

The Dunning-Kruger effect and Impostor Syndrome play out in the workplace much more often than you think. Many people haven’t heard of either. It’s up to you to use your emotional intelligence to spot when your staff may be experiencing them, acknowledge that it is totally normal, and then try to employ some techniques to help them overcome them, without making anybody feel stupid or embarrassed.

Educating others about these concepts can also enable them to call you out when you’re being brash about a decision you know little about, or are being overly reserved when you actually have a lot to contribute.


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