It is difficult – research shows nearly impossible – for any of us to accurately answer the question of “What makes us successful?”
At the intersection of cognitive biases (especially attribution bias) and the Dunning-Kruger effect lies this (to my knowledge unnamed) phenomenon that keeps all of us from understanding how our contributions might have resulted in a successful outcome. Cognitive biases cause us to take far too much credit for successes, and incorrectly attribute the reasons for our success. The Dunning-Kruger effect causes us overrate our abilities to achieve similar success in the future. All of these work against us in trying to determine what allowed us to be successful.
Incorrectly attributing the causes for our success can be a huge problem. Imagine that you decide that the reason your company achieved a particular successful outcome is because of your sales ability as a senior executive. You might be inclined to believe, based on your personal analysis that your sales ability and sales execution will result in similar future successes. There are two potential problems here. The first is that we incorrectly attributed the reason for success when the real reason was due to, for instance, the efficacy of our product. The second is that we overrated our contribution and abilities when the real credit should go somewhere else. Clearly both can lead to future disasters down the road.
You may be thinking that many people are successful time and time again by taking similar actions and by employing similar behaviors. That is absolutely true. The issue is not whether we can repeat our past successes – it’s that we can’t accurately identify (for ourselves) which actions or behaviors led to those successes.
Research suggests that we are much more likely, if we apply disciplined process, to learn from failures as compared to successes. Even greater learning can be gleaned from comparing our successes and failures. Furthermore, involving others helps us triangulate and either validate or invalidate our beliefs as to the causes of both successes and failures. The key here is disciplined process coupled with introspection and outsider perspective to guard against cognitive bias and eliminate the Dunning-Kruger effect.
1) We are ill equipped to identify the causes of success without outside help.
2) We are better equipped to identify the causes of failure.
3) We are best equipped to compare successes and failures and draw conclusions.
4) It is always best to involve multiple people in the identification of either success or failure.