By Mark Murphy
Dan is a senior financial analyst and, in his mind, he’s the best one on the team. But according to his boss, while it’s true that Dan’s financial skills are very good, his emotional intelligence is virtually nonexistent. And Dan’s coworkers would describe him as smart but also narcissistic, abrasive and tone-deaf.
Dan could really benefit from constructive feedback to get his people skills closer to the level of his financial skills. If only Dan had better people skills, his career trajectory and compensation would be much better than they are today. But thus far, Dan’s been impervious to feedback. When his boss recently gave him some constructive criticism about increasing his emotional intelligence, Dan responded:
Oh, puh-leeze! How do you even measure emotional intelligence? What nonsense; you can’t rate my emotional intelligence low because I didn’t smile enough in the staff meeting. And even if it was a real concept, and I did rate low, it’s not relevant to being a great financial analyst. I’m not a social worker, I deal with numbers and data.
If Dan were a perfectly rational and unemotional robot, he’d hear the feedback and alter his behavior. But Dan’s got two problems (beyond his lack of people skills) that are impinging his ability to hear and accept his boss’ criticism.
First, Dan’s suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. As I previously wrote on Forbes, coined by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent at something are both unable to recognize their own incompetence and likely to feel confident that they actually are competent.
And second, Dan is employing a type of defensiveness that Professor Dunning and his colleagues call expedient escape. I recently spoke with Professor Dunning, who now teaches at the University of Michigan, and he told me that many people find the most expedient avenue they can to reject the feedback.
They might question the accuracy of the feedback (e.g. “you can’t rate my emotional intelligence low because I didn’t smile enough in the staff meeting”) or they might challenge the relevance of the feedback (e.g. “emotional intelligence is not relevant to being a great financial analyst”). Either way, as Professor Dunning told me, you’re telling people things that may cause them to question what they believe and there’s a good chance they won’t take it very well.
Let’s take the study in which David Dunning and his colleagues discovered that MBA students greatly overestimate their emotional intelligence. First they were asked to rate how they thought they compared to American adults in general, and then they took an actual test of emotional intelligence.
When Dunning’s team looked at the worst performers, they found that students whose actual tests showed them at the 10th percentile (i.e. they only scored higher than 10% of American adults) had actually thought that their emotional intelligence was going to be around the 72nd percentile. In classic Dunning-Kruger fashion, the worst performers thought they were great and overestimated their emotional intelligence by 62 percentile points!
When these Dunning-Kruger sufferers were then given feedback about their poor results on the emotional intelligence test, they saw the test as less accurate and relevant than those who scored well on the test. They didn’t like the results of the test, so their expedient escape reaction was that the test must be inaccurate and/or irrelevant.
At some level, many leaders know that their employees will resist hearing tough feedback. According to the 166,000 leaders who’ve taken the online test “What’s Your Leadership Style?” around 70% of leaders try to make constructive criticism easier to hear by using compliment sandwiches (a nice compliment, followed by a bit of criticism, followed by another nice compliment). For example, we could say “Dan, your technical skills are really terrific, probably the best on the team, but I’d like you to be more open and sensitive to your colleagues’ feedback when we’re in meetings, because I want everyone to appreciate your technical skills.”
Unfortunately, this technique often backfires horribly for a number of reasons, including that by trying to soften the criticism we often leave wide-open avenues for the employee to escape (i.e. expedient escape). By using the compliment sandwich, we make it incredibly easy for Dan to devalue the importance and relevance of emotional intelligence. In essence, we offered him a ready-made path for expedient escape.
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As I’ve written elsewhere, you need to close off some of those expedient escape routes. For example, before you launch into a big speech about everything the employee needs to improve, try engaging them with questions. Before we start giving constructive criticism, we could ask Dan “what skills does it take to be a top financial analyst here?” or “if we look at the financial analysts who enjoy the greatest success at this firm, what kinds of technical and people skills do they have?”
Once we’ve gotten Dan thinking about the various attributes required for success (including emotional intelligence), then we could ask him something like “if you discovered that your performance on one of those attributes was lacking, what are some steps you might take to correct that?”
When you’re trying to get someone to alter their behavior, one of your biggest jobs is ensuring that there aren’t expedient escape routes. When we deliver a criticism-laced tirade to an unwilling employee, we’re just begging them to resist, devalue or otherwise reject our feedback. Remember that lots of people have no idea that their performance is subpar (aka the Dunning-Kruger effect). So when we share that reality, be mindful of their natural inclination to resist.
Mark Murphy is the author of Truth At Work: The Science Of Delivering Tough Messages, Hiring For Attitude and Hundred Percenters.