What can prisoners teach us about performance ratings? And how can we better measure performance and support development as leaders? Check out the research and some ideas that will help improve the way you lead.
Welcome to episode 17 of the Leadership Today podcast - let’s dive straight in.
There’s a great piece of research out of England that involved people who had been jailed on violence and robbery offences rating themselves on a range of traits. Initially they were asked to rate themselves against the ‘average prisoner’. As we see in many studies of this sort, the prisoners rated themselves more positively than their peers - they saw themselves, for example, as more kind, dependable, honest and law abiding than the average prisoner. They were then asked to rate themselves on the same traits when compared to the average member of the public - and it’s here that the results become even more interesting. The prisoners saw themselves as more moral than the average person. They also saw themselves as more kind, more self-controlled, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy and even more honest than the average person in the community. The only trait they didn’t rate themselves so high on was how law abiding they were, which makes sense given they were imprisoned for breaking the law. However, even then they rated themselves as on par with the average person on the street.
This over-rating isn’t just limited to prisoners - people in a work setting are also notoriously poor at rating their own performance. Of the hundreds of people I’ve surveyed in my own research, the same pattern comes up again and again - 85% of people think their performance is above average, with 15% of people seeing themselves as just average. Not a single person I’ve surveyed has ever rated their performance as below average.
This creates a range of challenges for leaders. If the vast majority of people over-rate their performance when compared to others, how do we manage their performance? Do you want to be the leader that runs around shattering these self-delusions that are so common? Probably not.
Let’s take another angle. I want you to think back over your own career, and identify some points when would you have rated yourself most positively. For me, I have been most positive about my own performance when I wasn’t being stretched or challenged. I felt confident and on top of things. I felt like I was really delivering for the business. Interestingly, that probably also lines up with the times when I wasn’t as engaged in my work - now it’s not like I didn’t like my work, but it was just easy. I felt like I was contributing and doing my part, but didn’t need to try too hard. In contrast, as I think about the times when I stretched and challenged myself, my views on my performance dropped. It was in those moments that I doubted whether I could deliver what was being asked of me - did I have what it would take to perform? It was in these moments that I needed support and encouragement, because development feels hard. Having a leader that challenges you, but also supports and encourages you, is a great way to take your performance to the next level.
But it’s not just individuals that have trouble accurately rating their own performance. Other research shows that leaders aren’t that great at rating people on performance either. Researchers found two factors led supervisors to rate individuals more positively - one factor was if they thought the person was similar to them, and the second factor was when they liked them. So as a leader I’m likely to rate you more positively if you are like me, and if I like you. And there’s an associated risk of under rating people that we feel aren’t like us, or that we don’t like.
Here are some ideas to help with these challenges around providing feedback on performance:
Get out of the habit of rating your own and others’ performance relative to others - instead focus on the requirements of the job, the objectives and the progress the individual is making. This will help maintain that challenge to keep progressing and improving, rather than getting caught up in comparisons.
As a leader, make sure you are combining challenge with support - work with your team to set challenging goals that keep people moving forward in their performance. But also recognise that when people are learning something new or challenging, their confidence is likely to drop. It’s in those moments that they need extra support and encouragement.
Invite and provide feedback - having a culture where feedback is encouraged will help people to more accurately evaluate and refine their performance.
Thanks for listening and for supporting the podcast. It has been great to hear how the content has been helpful.If you do want to keep in contact, go to the connect page at our website, leadership.today. There you can join our email list, and connect via LinkedIn and Facebook. I look forward to speaking with you next week.
Sedikides C, Meek R, Alicke MD, and Taylor S (2014). Behind bars but above the bar: Prisoners consider themselves more prosocial than non-prisoners. The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society
Sandy J. Wayne and Robert C. Liden (1995) Effects of Impression Management on Performance Ratings: A Longitudinal Study. The Academy of Management Journal Vol. 38, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 232-260