The Incompetence Paradox

Have you ever had the experience where someone around you is clearly incompetent but appears totally oblivious to their deficiencies?

Perhaps it’s a work colleague who consistently makes mistakes on tasks but refuses to change their behavior. Or perhaps it’s a restaurant server who makes mistakes on your order but refuses to acknowledge any error. Not only are these people seemingly incompetent, but they’re also incompetent at recognizing their incompetence.

Why people fail to recognize their incompetence

In a 2003 study titled, ‘Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence,’ researchers from Cornell University and the University of Illinois found that “people fail to recognize their own incompetence because that incompetence carries with it a double curse.”

According to the psychologists, “the skills needed to produce correct responses are virtually identical to those needed to evaluate the accuracy of one’s responses… Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong.”

Could the incompetence curse extend to businesses and brands?

By extension, it would make sense that businesses and brands, like the people who manage them, may also experience the incompetence curse; with the most incompetent businesses and brands lacking the skills necessary to even recognize their incompetence.

Lehman Brothers? George Bush? General Motors? To quote from the study, “everyone knows people who just seem to accept their deficiencies… Perhaps these individuals ‘accept’ their deficiencies because they're unaware they have them.”

Tuning in Poland

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend some time in Poland while conducting qualitative research for a global technology manufacturer. Although I can’t share any of the insights we gained from the study, I would like to share an observation we made while wandering the streets of Krakow.

Krakow is considered to be the ‘cultural capital’ of Poland, with throngs of University students and young adults providing a poignant juxtaposition to the ancient architecture of the city. According to
government statistics, 35.9% of the Polish population is under the age of 24; that sunny weekend in Krakow, it seemed as if all 35.9% had descended on to the city streets.
An observation in A-minor
In many western societies the act of whistling is something you'd often associate with older generations, so you can imagine my surprise when I heard a teenager whistling a Kanye West song on the streets of Krakow. It seemed odd, very odd. Why would a teenager whistle a song instead of just listening to it?

That’s when it hit me; none of the people I saw on the streets were listening to music. Those little white earphones which have become so ubiquitous on the streets of Vancouver, London or New York, were noticeably absent. Instead of being wrapped in a cocoon of sound, people were whistling, talking and engaging with the outside world.
So what does this mean?
To be honest, I have no idea. The absence of iPods could have been a function of anything (from observational bias to economic crises). But what I found fascinating was how the absence seemed to improve the social environment. Where the people of Vancouver often choose to tune each other out, the people of Krakow were tuning each other in.