Research published in 1999 revealed the existence of what’s known as The Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a cognitive bias of illusory superiority, where people judge themselves as better than others in all manner of areas, e.g. leadership, skills, 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.
Laurence J. Peter’s satirical book, ‘The Peter Principle,’ 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.
Peter may be a work of fiction, but the business world is full of real-life examples.
The work on the ‘Confidence Gap’ - demonstrating that men are more self-assured than women - would suggest that men are more vulnerable than women to the Peter Principle - with the men over-estimating both their abilities and performance.
Tom Schuller’s more recent work, the amusingly titled “The Paula Principle”, shows how women today work below their competence levels. This is particularly noteworthy given how the fairer sex outperform boys at school and beyond. 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.
According to Schuller 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:
- Structural (absence of childcare/eldercare)
- Lack of senior network connections
- Positive choice, meaning that Paula knows she can do the next job but is content where she is
Of course, 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. Nothing is as simple as sweeping generalisations that assert men do X and women do Y.
However, 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.
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’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.
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 you're 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.
About Ally Yates
Ally Yates is author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’ and an expert on Behaviour Analysis and the interactions that define us. She combines a deep understanding of people and how to achieve results, based on her many years’ experience working with large corporate clients around the world.
Since 2000 Ally has been working as an independent consultant, facilitator, trainer and coach. She has collaborated with international business schools and has received national and international training awards.
Ally’s approach is grounded in a sound understanding of theory, trends and practice in learning and development, business development and leadership development. Clients value her insights, pragmatism and influence.
She is passionate about family, rugby union, travel and learning.