How can the Dunning-Kruger effect impact the workplace?

By Robert Half on 5 February 2019

Do you have a less qualified/experienced colleague who thinks they’re an expert at everything?

Believe it or not, this is in actual fact a documented experience called the Dunning-Kruger effect – where an individual may have a detachment between what they think they know, and what they in reality actually do know.

It can be extremely frustrating and challenging to work with these kinds of people, especially over collaboration projects. It can increase your stress levels, decrease your overall happiness at work and reduce productivity. This can impact your career success and leave you feeling like the only escape is to change jobs.

It’s not realistic to switch jobs every time you face a difficult colleague. You do spend a large proportion of your time at work though, so it’s crucial to try and get along with your co-workers, however difficult they may be.

The Dunning-Kruger effect and other difficult traits

In your work life, you may come across people who are challenging to work with. They can come in all different shapes and sizes, but here are some of the most common types that you should look out for:

1. The “expert” with Dunning-Kruger effect

Being completely incompetent at work whilst thinking you’re amazing is a well-known phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s where there is a disconnect between what you think you know and what you actually know. At work, someone suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect can think they’re doing a great job (and tell everyone so), whilst, in the background, colleagues like you are having to pick up the pieces and fix everything in their wake.

2. The negative co-worker

A negative co-worker is someone who just exudes negativity, continuously. You will often find them complaining about their job, their colleagues and their boss. They don’t believe in the company, its policies and tend to get annoyed with even the tiniest of things.

3. The office bully

If you regularly feel intimidated by a colleague and dread going to work because of them, then you may have an “office bully” in your midst. They may criticise you, shout at you in front of everyone and take credit for your work. They could try to undermine you or sabotage your projects. They may also gossip or tell lies about you to your colleagues. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone.

4. The lazy employee

When you are putting in 100% effort, it can be frustrating to see other workers doing very little. They might turn up late and leave early (contributing very little to their role or the team), play on their mobile phone all day, or are easily distracted from their job.

5. The dominant colleague

This is someone who loves the sound of their own voice. They tend to dominate conversations and whilst they might have some good ideas, they don’t give anyone else the opportunity to talk. When you’re trying to work, all you can probably hear is their voice above everyone else’s.

10 strategies for dealing with difficult people at work

No matter what kind of difficult person you’re dealing with, it’s important to address the situation. Nothing will improve if left to simmer and your morale is likely to suffer.

You can’t control how people act, but you can change the way you react to difficult people. Here are some strategies that you should follow:

1. Evaluate the situation

Before you do anything, take a step back, check it’s not you with the problem and that you’re not completely overreacting.

2. Get another perspective

Talk to your colleagues to get their view on the situation. They may have had the same experiences as you, know more about the situation, or be able to see things from a different angle.

3. Be mindful of people’s situations

Whilst difficult behaviour can be exasperating, not everyone is intentionally being difficult on purpose. There may be an underlying reason that you may not be aware of, such as a personal issue. Be mindful of that and give them time to work through their issues. Their behaviour may naturally improve over time.

4. Get to know them better

They may be the last person you want to be friends with, but by listening and getting to know them, you might start to understand the causes of their behaviour better. By making them feel that they can talk to you, you may be able to help and support them. Plus, if their behaviour doesn’t improve, you’ll be in a much better position to talk to them frankly about how their behaviour makes you feel.

5. Rise above it

Don’t just jump straight into battle with a colleague or match their own difficult behaviour with your own. Be the bigger person and simply ignore it. You can also try to make contact with them as minimal as possible.

6. Stay professional

Reacting badly to bad behaviour could end up making you look like the unprofessional one. Always remain professional and don’t do anything you may later regret as it could damage your own career.

7. Remain calm

It’s easy to snap in a difficult situation, but this is unlikely to get you the results you’re aiming for. Take a moment before answering any questions and if you need time to calm down, excuse yourself to go to the toilet where you can take a long, deep breath.

8. Set clear boundaries

Set clear boundaries around what you will and won’t tolerate. Ensure co-workers understand these too. For example, when someone wants to provide you with feedback, make it clear that you expect this to be carried out in a private meeting room, not in front of everyone in the office. Or, if your colleague likes to gossip, make it clear that you will not engage in these conversations with them.

9. Be upfront

Sometimes, people can be completely unaware that they are being difficult. If this is the case in your office, you may need to have an honest conversation with your co-worker about their difficult behaviours, such as their Dunning-Kruger effect. Be as constructive as possible with your feedback and don’t be confrontational.

10. Escalate the issue further

If you’ve tried all these strategies, with no success, it might be time to speak to your manager. They may be able to put steps in place to ease the issues and monitor the situation in the future.

Remember - only use this option as a last resort. Whether you’re facing the office bully or someone with the Dunning-Kruger effect, think very carefully about your next steps, to ensure you don’t damage your own reputation and you create more positive workplace relations in the future.

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