• Lindsay

Unskilled and Unaware: The double-burden

How are you performing in your role?

Are you more, equal to, or less skilled than your peers?

Would your direct leader agree with your assessment?

Do your tracked results support your self-perception?


Regardless of personality, most of us tend toward an optimistic self-view. This is especially true when reflecting on important aspects of our identity – our profession, our relationships, or our health.


Dunning and Kruger identified the double burden of being “unskilled and unaware” in 1999, describing the tendency of lower-skilled individuals to overestimate their abilities, while higher-skilled individuals tended toward more accurate self-assessments of skill.


These patterns have since been observed consistently in the workplace, in education, and in health. And, since none of us is an expert in everything, we are all vulnerable to being unskilled and unaware.


To be accurate in your self-assessment, you need:

  1. A deep knowledge of what you’re assessing (you must know “what good looks like”)

  2. A large set of personal examples to reflect on as “evidence” (the more, and the more diverse, the better)

  3. An analytical mindset (for balanced, objective assessment of the evidence)


Higher-skilled people are nearly always equipped with the first two: they are well-educated/trained, and they have depth and breadth of experience, providing them with lots of diverse examples of how they perform the skills in question. The availability of balanced evidence, complemented by a thorough understanding of “what good looks like” predisposes them to an analytical approach to self-assessment (they go through the various examples, weighing and comparing each to generate a score). In other words, they use more criteria to self-assess.


Lower-skilled individuals are restricted by the first two: they might have less education/training, often have limited experience, and are challenged to describe “what good looks like” in detail. In other words, they use fewer criteria to self-assess; and their more general understanding impairs their accuracy.


This reality introduces a set of parallel dilemmas for the organization:

  1. The majority of an organization has room for improvement

  2. This same majority thinks they’re doing better than they are

  3. Most self-report performance feedback is going to be flawed due to #2

  4. Since most think they’re doing better than they are, feedback challenging #3 is often resisted

What’s an organization to do?

  • Some ignore the inaccuracies of self-assessment, providing a “voice” to employees (regardless of whether their inputs are actually used)

  • Some opt to forego direct employee feedback altogether, deeming self-report data untrustworthy and worthless

  • Some place the burden of accurate, unbiased assessment on first-line managers

  • Some focus on metrics-based assessment, driving performance by the numbers

  • Some are striving to find a balance by leveraging self-assessment while acknowledging its limitations


While there is no single “right” way to go about it, industry trends suggest self-assessments are here to stay.


The good news, is that the burden of being “unskilled and unaware”, and its ensuing challenges, CAN be overcome. We’ll talk about how in our next two blog posts.




**This post is part of a 3-part series discussing the utility, limitations, and potential of self-assessment as a valid tool for keeping a pulse on performance.