I joined the Foreign Service a few months out of college, with tremendous confidence in my leadership qualities and language skills. When I came back to Washington a few years later, I winced every time I remembered the ways my confidence had been misplaced.
My mistakes taught me a lot. One thing they did not teach me was to trust myself.
Somewhere between healthy self-confidence and hubris lies the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is the cognitive bias that keeps people from accurately gauging their own levels of knowledge and skill. It explains how people with lower levels of skill or knowledge are most likely to over-estimate themselves while people with higher levels of skill and ability over-estimate the skills and abilities of others.
As a manager, there are many times when I wonder how I’m supposed to inspire confidence in others when I’m not sure I should trust my own instincts.
Here are some of the things I trust more than I trust my instincts:
Past Experience (my own and others’): I particularly like to ask myself whether things turned out as intended and why.
Feedback: I love 360 assessments because they let me compare my self-assessment with the opinions of others. This doesn’t work as well if you only ask for input from people who seem to like you or people at a single level of the organization. If my perceptions don’t correspond with the feedback others have provided, it’s a sign that I may not be seeing clearly in a particular area.
The instructions: If I am about to deny someone leave or approve a major purchase of something my office rarely buys, I want to make sure I know what the rules really say and who is in charge of interpreting them.
My goal when I was 21 was to project confidence so that people would see me as a leader. What I projected instead was indifference to my actual role and place within my organization. Twenty-six years later, I try to ground myself thoroughly in my role and place. My goal is to model competence in such a way that it encourages competence in others and promotes mutual trust.
Kate Yemelyanov is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.