Illusory superiority is a natural and pervasive human tendency that causes people to overestimate their achievements and capabilities, and to underestimate their negative qualities, in comparison to others.
Here are examples from studies of what's referred to as the "above average effect":
- In a 1977 study, 94% of professors rated themselves above average relative to their peers.
- 93% of U.S. drivers put themselves in the top 50% (above the median).
- 87% of MBA students at Stanford University rated their academic performance as above the median.
Are you unskilled and unaware?
In 1991, David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a fun-to-read paper titled "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments." The paper's premise is that humans have a propensity to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains.
The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the cognitive ability to realize it.
In layman's terms: If I can't recognize that I'm deficient in a work, social, relationship, or life skill (such as driving), then the only conclusion I can draw is that I must be performing well. Very well even.
Why we so desperately need performance feedback
The research says our brains are naturally biased towards thinking that we're in the above average category of performers.
So if there are six performance rating levels, most of us would put ourselves in one of the top two levels.
It's why so many people wince when they're given a performance rating that implies "meets expectations".
And why many managers avoid giving this rating so they steer clear of deflating and demotivating a decent but not outstanding employee.
How many of us don't have a clear sense of
where we stand?
And in the absence of candid performance feedback from our managers, peers, and external customers we're left to thinking, "no news must be good news".
But we all need to know where we stand. What's working? What could we do to be even more effective?
But let's be honest... performance conversations that provide full information are infrequent or absent altogether.
In fact, according to the 2013 Mercer Global Performance Management Survey only about six percent of managers are skilled at having candid performance conversations. What are the chances your boss is in the six percent?
You need more and better performance feedback
When thinking about
how successful you are in your job there are two things to consider:
- Results: What do you actually get done? At what level do you complete your job responsibilities and goals? Do you have the requisite job skills?
- Behaviors: How do you behave at work? Even when work results are great, bad apple behavior can be a career killer.
Here's how you can get more and better information about your performance:
1. Plot your performance
Start by using the Employee Performance Continuum 2-dimension performance model to rate your current performance and your potential.
Image source: Employee Performance Continuum courtesy of Employee Performance Solutions (EPS)
2. Ask others to rate your performance
Remember how bad we humans are at assessing ourselves? Now ask others to plot your performance on the continuum.
Start with those individuals who know your work best and those whose support you need (even if you don't like the person very much). Explain the Continuum and get their perspective.
What you need to know (and how to ask):
- Where on the Continuum do you see me now?
- Where do I have the potential to go?
- What's one action I can take to move in that direction?
- What's one way I could make myself even easier to work with? (You could be a pain in the neck to some people. Not knowing this means you can't change, and not changing may limit your career options).
Take a step in the right direction for better performance
Stop waiting for your manager to give you feedback on your performance, and go out and get it yourself.
Knowing that you don't know what you don't know is a step in the right direction.
If you're serious about your professional development, career trajectory, and livelihood you need to move beyond waiting for feedback, thinking no news is good news and assume there is information you should know but no one is telling you.
Your Turn: How do you get the feedback you need to get a clear perspective on your performance?