Tagged: Dunning-Kruger effect

Completely absurd reasons why bullies get ahead

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So you have a reputation of being a go-to person at work. One who gets things done and gets them done well. One who wants your organization to be great.

But suddenly you look around, and it’s the selfish, incompetent ones clawing their way to the top while you’re stuck reporting to them, making less money than them, and getting bullied by them.

So what’s the deal? How did this illogical power structure become so common?

  1. They’re great at maneuvering. They kiss up and kick down, so those who promote them either don’t see the damage they cause or don’t care about the damage they cause, but everyone else does.
  2. They’re entitled. When bullies simply take power and feel entitled to dictate, belittle, control, or manipulate targets by calling them “sensitive” or “emotional,” and others believe the dismissal of the targets rather than hold the bullies accountable, bullies get ahead. But it’s not just about believing bullies. It’s about seeing sensitivity as negative rather than human or that the bullies are insensitive, regardless of how their targets react.
  3. Incompetent people overrate themselves, and competent people underrate others. The phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to Wikipedia, “the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average…. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.” The result: the competent workers believe they’re average, while the incompetent workers believe they’re above average, and everyone believes both viewpoints, often positioning the incompetent workers at the top.
  4. Their bosses are the same way. Workplace cultures start at the top. If those at the top don’t tolerate bullying, it won’t happen. But when those at the top are bullies, they tend to hire other incompetent kiss ups who validate their own behaviors of getting by on ego rather than merit.

The good news: we don’t have to resign ourselves to the way so many workplaces run. We can educate others on these patterns so there’s a collective awareness of them and we begin to see them as negative and unacceptable.

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Why bullies get ahead at work

Mobbing at work

“Excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you,” says leadership speaker William Deresiewicz. Most of us who find ourselves bullied at work wonder how on earth the incompetent bullies get ahead while the competent and ethical targets stay at lower ranks with less pay and responsibility.

Here are two reasons why bullies get ahead at work:

  1. Our culture rewards narcissism and selfishness. We live in an oppressive culture where enough people believe those who think they’re more important and entitled than others — and allow toxic behavior. When a bully simply takes power and feels entitled to dictate, belittle, control, or manipulate the target by calling him or her “sensitive” or “emotional,” and we or leaders believe the dismissal of the target rather than hold the bully accountable, we help the bully get ahead.
  2. Incompetent people overrate themselves, and competent people overrate others. The phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to Wikipedia, “the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average…. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.”

How we can change the culture

We move the needle when we stop seeing the target as “sensitive” or “emotional” and instead recognize the real problem: the bully’s narcissistic behavior. We change the culture when we:

  • Stand up to belittling, controlling, and manipulative behaviors.
  • Stop giving people power who act entitled to it.
  • Foster a collaborative environment in which we respect all opinions.

How forces keep the best employees down

7K0A0129There are two effects that David Yamada, Suffolk Law professor and author of the Healthy Workplace Bill, describes in his “Minding the Workplace” blog. These two effects keep the best workers from climbing as high in the corporate ladder as their often less competent colleagues:

The hi-lo-combo

Advocate Torii Bottomley observed that often a subordinate with high competence and high ethics will report to a supervisor with low competence and low ethics. The subordinate may pose a threat to the often insecure supervisor. Professor Yamada goes on to say that the best people often do not rise to the top. He quotes an address on leadership to West Point cadets by William Deresiewicz, who says that “excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect

Professor Yamada points out through the Dunning-Kruger effect that incompetent people overrate themselves, and competent people overrate others. According to Wikipedia, “the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average…. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.”

The consequences

There are two main results from these two effects:

The hi-lo combo. Highly competent and ethical employees either shine, get bullied, and look for new jobs to escape the bullying or diminish their skill levels to not put bullseyes on their backs.

The Dunning-Kruger effect. The incompetent demand promotions, while the competent miss out on them and don’t see themselves as leaders.

Our impact

We don’t have to resign ourselves to these two effects. Throughout history, cultures change when people begin to question the status quo and bring unjust situations to light. Just as sexual harassment law didn’t get rid of sexual harassment but instead made it much less common by serving as a reminder of workplace expectations and changing work cultures, the Healthy Workplace Bill, when passed into law, will change how we view competence and accepted behavior in the workplace.

We’ve already seen the increased demand for these changes. With the furthest progress in the history of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill and a buzz in the State House about the bill thanks to your efforts, we’re well on our way to improving workplaces. We’re on the brink of something great and historical, and we need as many people as possible to continue to contact your legislators and urge them to pass the Healthy Workplace Bill to help stop workplace bullying in Massachusetts.