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Mind the gap: Are you really as good as you think you are?

The research revealed the existence of a cognitive bias of illusory superiority, where people judge themselves as better than others in all manner of areas, e.g. leadership, skills, performance. Sequel studies tested and validated the hypothesis “that people, at all performance levels, are equally poor at estimating their relative performance”.
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Are you as good as you think you are? Just how accurate is our ability to self-evaluate? Research published in 1999 resulted in the eponymous phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Contributor Ally Yates, Author of Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’. The research revealed the existence of a cognitive bias of illusory superiority, where people judge themselves as better than others in all manner of areas, e.g. leadership, skills, performance. Sequel studies tested and validated the hypothesis “that people, at all performance levels, are equally poor at estimating their relative performance”.

The reasons for this are many and varied. For example: we all have pockets of vulnerability but many people fail to admit to them; People with moderate levels of expertise are less likely to approach a task with high levels of confidence because they are painfully aware that there is much they still don’t know; Experts, on the other hand, can often assume that everyone shares a similar level of understanding.

This inaccuracy in self-perception is one of a number of convincing rationales for removing self-assessments from 360’ feedback surveys. Instead of focussing on any gaps between self and others ratings, explaining away the differences, the individual can focus on the messages about how to improve and tomorrow’s actions.

The satirical book: ‘The Peter Principle’, was the creative the genius of Laurence J. Peter. Masquerading his work as a serious body of research, Peter states that people in organisations rise to their level of incompetence.  Imagine Peter, performing well in his current role. So well in fact that he’s rewarded with a promotion. This pattern continues until he’s promoted out of his depth. At this point he gets stuck on that level of the hierarchy. The business, rather than remove him, works around him.

Although Peter is a work of fiction, the business world is ripe with examples of where literature is life. The work on the ‘Confidence Gap’ – demonstrating that men are more self-assured than women – would suggest that lads are more vulnerable to the Peter Principle than lasses, with the men over-estimating both their abilities and performance.

Tom Schuller’s more recent work is a mirror image of Peter. In his book, amusingly titled: “The Paula Principle”, he shows how women today work below their competence levels. This is particularly noteworthy given how the fairer sex outperform boys at school and beyond. More women graduate from university – and with better degrees. Once in work, women take more advantage of learning opportunities, adding new skills to their CV at a faster rate. There are more women in adult education. And yet, career paths for women tend to be flatter and there are fewer women at top levels in organisations, with an astounding 98 years expected for the executive pay gap to disappear.

Schuller explains that there are five main reasons why working women tend to stay at a level below their full competence, only one of which is the lack of self-confidence. The other four are: Discrimination; Structural (absence of childcare/eldercare); Lack of senior network connections; and Positive choice, meaning that Paula knows she can do the next job but is content where she is.

Of course, nothing is as simple as sweeping generalisations that assert men do X and women do Y. Many women possess self-confidence and exercise positive choice. Just as there are men who are less self-assured and who choose not to climb the greasy pole. What’s important is that we learn the relevance of these studies for ourselves and for the people we manage.

Regardless of gender, the opportunity is there for each of us to bridge the gap between our unreliable self-assessment and any external measure of our performance, no matter how slight or gaping the gap may be. Here’s how:

Ask for feedback regularly: Regular input on your performance helps you to more accurately calibrate how you’re doing. Far from being a sign of weakness, research from the Neuroleadership Institute reveals that those who actively seek feedback are typically high performers. What’s more, it’s helpful if the feedback you receive is oriented towards what you need to do differently or better, rather than a post-mortem on historic actions. Ask people questions like: “What one thing should I do much more of?”, “What do I need to start doing to increase my effectiveness?”, “What should I dial down?”

Deliberately ask for feedback from people where you have more challenging relationships. It’s too easy and too comfortable to defer to longstanding colleagues and work chums when seeking input on your performance. The chances are that you’ll learn less, as these trusted confidantes may be reluctant to reveal their true feelings for fear of hurting you. Or maybe they’re happy to collude with you. Instead, select one or two people where the relationship hasn’t been all plain sailing. You may find you reap the additional benefits of an improved relationship as you continue your feedback dialogue with them.

Listen to the feedback. We have two ears and one mouth. We’re designed to receive information more than we are to transmit it. If you ask for feedback, create the space to listen, hear, and absorb the information. Resist the temptation to discount or refute the gift you’ve been given. And don’t waste time justifying your position. It’s insulting to the person you’ve requested feedback from and you appear insincere.

Be open about your gaps and ask for help to keep you honest. Revealing your shortcomings can be very productive in working relationships. Saying: “This is an area I’m working on and I’d value your help” is a straightforward way to access the expertise of others and to demonstrate how committed you are to your development.

Measure and recognise improvement. Having set yourself some development goals, use the feedback you receive to help you track your progress. Celebrate your successes. And when you achieve your goals, ask: ‘What next?” After all, none of us is the finished product.

Keep learning. Recently, I heard a CEO say to a group of staff: “If you haven’t learned anything new in the last two weeks, you should be worried.” His expectation is that everyone in his business continues to learn. We are all work-in-progress. Look for how you can learn from the day-to-day. For example, who’s a star performer? What is it that s/he does? Where are the new opportunities for you to learn? Where are new relationships to be developed? Reflect on what you’ve done and ask yourself: “How could I have done this even better?” or “With the benefit of hindsight, what would I change?”. Search out the set-piece learning events too – online, in the classroom, seminars, conferences – and be sure to share your learning with your colleagues and discuss where and how it can benefit your business. Finally, read. We have so much information available to us via web pages and the printed word that there’s ample opportunity for anytime, anyplace learning. Take the opportunity now to be an even better you, closing the gap between what you think of your performance and the reality.


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