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Why Training Your New Employees is Harder Than You Expect

Training New Employees

Scenario 1: A parcel delivery company seasonally brings on extra staff to handle heavy traffic. At the depot, parcels are scanned and sorted by hand, ready to be taken by delivery drivers. New staff in the depot are given a basic orientation and shown how to use their scanner. The supervisor who is training them emphasises repeatedly how easy the job is. At the end of his talk, he asks “Has everyone got that?” Everyone nods. They have just been told that it is easy, and have been given a half-hour talk. They know exactly what to do. But over the course of the shift, problems arise. Some parcels aren’t recognised by the scanner. Badly wrapped parcels fall apart. Some new staff decide on their own solutions, sending back parcels that won’t scan or putting half-wrapped parcels for delivery drivers to deal with. Complaints from customers increase, and the company loses business.


Training New Employees


Scenario 2: A software company needs to fill a post that involves some specific skills, so they advertise, saying that experience would be an asset but full training would be given. They shortlist, interview and appoint the best candidate, but a month later, their new employee is still struggling to learn the necessary skills.


What’s going on here? Was the interview process flawed? Did the trainers lack ability? Were the firm’s expectations too high? What went wrong?

Those issues could be explained by the Dunning-Kruger effect, so named for David Dunning and Justin Kruger, whose 1999 paper titled “Unskilled and unaware of it”  was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They reported that students who performed badly on a series of tests were more likely to believe that they were skilled and competent than their peers who performed better. Dunning and Kruger suggested that the same lack of cognitive ability that led to poor test scores also hampered the students’ ability to recognise their own shortcomings.

More recently, Brown cognitive psychologist Steven Sloman, co-authored a book called “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.” The book describes a series of experiments in which people were asked to assess how much they knew about the way various systems work — from toilets to single-payer health-care systems. People generally rated their knowledge of those systems as high — but then, when asked to explain in detail how those systems actually worked, most couldn’t.

It’s why everyone begins writing a novel, single people give relationship advice, shower crooners try-out for reality singing shows, and a businessman believes he’d make a teriffic president. How hard could any of these be, after all?

If you’ve ever dealt with a poor performer, and they’re not only clueless that their performance stinks but they’re confident that their performance is good, you’ve seen the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action.

Here it is as a graph (one that always make me laugh a little to myself) relating confidence and competence:

Dunning Kruger Chart

People generally recognize a total lack of expertise when they have no association to it (the far lower left). As Dunning and Kruger put it, “most people have no trouble identifying their inability to translate Slovenian proverbs, reconstruct a V-8 engine, or diagnose acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.” But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Those who have the slightest bit of experience tend to think they know it all (the first, and rather steep, peak). Then, as experience increases, people realize how little they actually do know – how modest their skills actually are. Perceptions reach a minimum (center of chart), then slant upward again. Of particular note: those at the level of genius appear to recognize their talent but still lack the level of confidence displayed by the ignorant novice.

Here’s my summary take on this cognitive bias: Without self-awareness, people with low-ability cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.

Or perhaps more directly: people who are the least competent at a task often rate their skills as exceptionally high because they are too ignorant to know what it would mean to have the skill.

And more applicably: Someone who is being trained to do something new will initially overestimate their own competence.

The Other Side

There is another side to the Dunning-Kruger effect. As people develop new skills, they are better able to estimate how much they know, compared to what they still have to learn. However, as skills become familiar, people tend to dismiss or minimise them as “easy” or “basic.”

You can observe both aspects of the Dunning-Kruger effect in people learning a second language. When they first join a class, they imagine that they’ll be chatting with the locals on their next foreign holiday. It’s only when they’ve mastered the basics that they realise how much they still need to learn. But then they give up on the classes because the teacher doesn’t seem to understand why they’re finding it so hard.

Training your new employee depends on a process of teaching and feedback. They are given instructions and guidance, whether that’s first-day orientation or explaining in detail whatever makes your business unique; during this process they are asked questions like “Do you understand?” or “Is that all OK with you?” Unfortunately, due to the Dunning-Kruger effect, if they don’t understand, they are more likely to think that they do. After all, they’ve just heard a long explanation, so surely, they reason, they now have all the information they need.

It’s important to realize that in most cases, if your new starter says “I understand,” when in reality they don’t, he or she isn’t lying. They’re not trying to fool you or cover up their own ignorance. (Of course, there will always be a few people who know they don’t understand, but can’t or won’t admit it, but your hiring process likely weeds them out before-hand) In most cases, when your new starter says “I understand,” they genuinely believe they do.

The Feedback Loop

A more effective technique is to employ another feedback loop, asking the person being trained to demonstrate the skills or competencies they’ve been taught. This might involve explaining a procedure, then asking them to show you how they would do it. Or it may be effective to do the job together or pair the person with an experienced mentor to clarify and reinforce the procedures.

This extra feedback is often missed because of the other side of the Dunning-Kruger effect. For the trainer, the lesson seems so basic and easily understandable that when they ask “Do you understand?” they are expecting the answer “Yes, I do.” What other answer could there be?

Instead, consider using this simple sentence: “I’m not expecting you to understand every aspect immediately.” When the trainee hears this, it interrupts the thought processes that characterises the Dunning-Kruger effect, replacing it with an “Apparantly there could be more to this task than I realized”-type of thought. And for the trainer, saying “I’m not expecting you to understand immediately” is a reminder that the trainee isn’t familiar with the concepts or competencies, and not to expect “Yes, I understand” as the obvious answer.

Have another suggestion for bridging the competence-confidence gap? Add your thoughts to the comments below.


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