The “Better than Average” Trap

The “Better than Average” Trap

There are two areas of understanding involved in our sense of self-awareness:

  • Who we believe that we are  our identity, including our values, fears, thoughts, feelings, behaviours, strengths and weaknesses, drivers and motivators.
  • How we fit into the world around us – based our beliefs about how the world works.

The problem is, we aren’t typically very good at making these assessments. Worse, as human beings, we have a tendency to overestimate ourselves, especially in relation to others.

For example, in one of a series of experiments by researchers at Cornell University, students were asked to predict how many flowers they would buy in an upcoming charity event, and how many the average student would buy. They then compared the predictions with actual behaviour. Consistently, the students greatly overestimated their own contributions, while making good guesses about what others would do.

This trait is known as illusory superiority, and it leads directly to problems like over-confidence, poor critical thinking, and a weakened ability to learn.

To compound the problem, even being given feedback on actual outcomes doesn’t lead us to make accurate adjustments. People have no resistance to adjusting down their estimates relating to others, but don’t similarly revise their perception of self, preferring to maintain their inflated self-image. The result is that, while we evaluate everyone else on observable behaviours, we cling to our original assessment of ourselves, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. For us, our knowledge of what we are “really like inside” is preferable emotionally, and therefore outweighs the external evidence.

The evidence of illusory superiority has been found in many studies, for example:

  • High school students evaluate their leadership ability as above average 70% of the time, while only 2% of them see themselves as below average.
  • When MBA students were asked to estimate their contribution to a team effort, the overall total came to 139%.
  • 94% of university professors rate themselves as above average.
  • In one company, 32% of the employees saw their performance as being in the top 5%.

Leaders are especially susceptible to the tendency to overestimate their skills and contribution, because the delusion affects people most when the traits required are ill-defined – which is definitely true of leadership! That enables us to set up comparisons in a way that favours us.

This comprehensive article examines the power of reflective capacity, or mindfulness, to increase self-awareness because of the way it improves our ability to observe ourselves objectively. It examines the importance of giving consideration to our “inner self”, which is separate to our thoughts, looks at some of the benefits of self-awareness, and offers some simple practices for improving it.

Read the Article: What is Self-Awareness and Why is it Important?

My Advice

A powerful way to reduce our sense of illusory superiority is to become completely intolerant of our own excuses for our shortcomings, especially those which are based on the idea that poor results were “outside our control”. I call this desire to take personal responsibility, “getting to cause”, rather being “at effect”. Then, taking advantage of the fact that we are generally pretty accurate in assessing other people, seek third party input any time you find yourself making excuses, and make sure that you give full consideration to their responses. It won’t be comfortable, but you will increase the speed of your learning and immediately improve your decision making.

Home Working Lessons from Cockroaches

Home Working Lessons from Cockroaches

After weeks of lockdown, science suggests that significant numbers of those being forced to work in isolation could be finding it progressively harder to maintain their motivation. Part of the problem is the double-edged sword of a human trait described by a psychological theory called Social Facilitation Theory, which explains the well-known tendency for people’s performance to change when being watched by others.

One of my all-time favourite studies examined this phenomenon with cockroaches as the test subjects. It was led by professor Zajonc of Stanford University, and it demonstrated that behaviour modification in social settings is not a uniquely human occurrence. First, he created two different tunnels – one easy and the other much more difficult – for the cockroaches to run through. He then timed how long it took the cockroaches to get from start to finish under two conditions: 1) while being observed by other cockroaches, and 2) when on their own (I’d give him an award just for the creativity of it!).

Amazingly, the results showed that being observed affects cockroaches in the same way as it does human beings! Compared to their performance when on their own, the presence of observers caused them to do better at the easy task (running more quickly through the easy tunnel), but worse when challenged with the task of navigating the difficult tunnel. Similar studies have now found this trait in many other animals as well.

This illustrates the basis of social facilitation theory, which is that our natural dominant response is amplified in the presence of an audience. This term – natural dominant response – refers to anything that we do automatically as a result of instinctive human reactions or practiced behaviours and actions. For example, in the presence of observers or competitors, people are likely to:

  • Perform better if they are doing something that they are already good at. For example, athletes put in more effort and are much more likely to achieve a personal best in front of a crowd. Similarly, cyclists are faster riding against each other than against the clock.
  • Make errors when undertaking tasks they are not familiar with. For example, individuals taking their driving test are often much more prone to errors in front of the examiner.

The explanation for this change in behaviour is that the presence of others heightens arousal and thus increases our ability to perform habitual or well-learned tasks. However, the same arousal leads to stress and produces social inhibition, reducing performance in areas where we are not confident/competent.

Studies have found that people in groups tend to perform better than those who are alone, and that has significant implications in the current era where huge numbers of people are required to work from home. Quite simply, in areas of competence, we are motivated to work harder when people are watching us. This article explains this phenomenon in greater detail and provides some ideas about how its effect may be reduced.

Read the Article: We Work Harder When We Know Someone’s Watching

 My Advice

The essence of the recommendations in the article is that accountability needs to be maximised. An extremely powerful way of achieving this is to create a forum within which tasks and deliverables can be shared, which leverages a powerful psychological driver: that commitments made public become central motivators of behaviour.

More generally, maintaining an awareness of social facilitation theory can convey benefits at any time, not only during this pandemic. Whenever people are outside their comfort zone, I’d suggest making additional efforts to ensure they feel supported, which can do much to calm their evaluation anxiety.

“Because the Answers Have Changed”

“Because the Answers Have Changed”

The title of this section is probably one of Einstein’s less well-known quotes. Nevertheless, I believe it’s also one of the most powerful and important things he said, particularly because of the way it relates to our ability to learn, grow and handle change.

The story goes that, while administering a 2nd year exam at Princeton University, his teaching assistant noted that Einstein had set the same paper as the previous year. Dr. Einstein, he asked, “Isn’t this the same exam you gave this class last year?”

Einstein paused, then replied, “Yes, it is.”

Puzzled, the assistant enquired, “Why would you give the same exam two years in a row?”

“Because,” Einstein replied, “the answers have changed”.

This observation highlights a critically important concept: what we hold as “true” now can, and very often will, change. For leaders, there are two sides of this coin, one relating to maximising future potential, and the other to do with over-relying on the past:

  1. It is essential to be able to recognise new insights and discoveries as they emerge, because this awareness can open up new possibilities, creating the potential to gain a competitive advantage or improve results.
  2. Changes in the external environment can have the effect of making any current solution less effective, or even invalid, irrespective of its usefulness in the past. Strategies, systems and processes that were once “best practice” can become past practice virtually overnight, and this is happening right now, at a rate that has never been seen before.

Most people have already become fairly well aware of this challenge. However, understanding the need to remain alert in order to spot changes as they occur is the easy part. Being able to put that awareness into practice is a completely different matter, because of the way our unconscious mind prefers the familiarity of the known. This can create a feeling that we “know”, or are “right”, even when our certainty has no basis in reality whatsoever.

Unfortunately, we get no mental or emotional “warning bell” as we pass the point where ‘knowing” turns from strength to weakness: when we are wrong, but feel certain we are right, the way we feel matches the belief, not the fact. This article provides six recommendations, with details as to why each can be of great help to overcome our tendency to over-rely on expertise and/or knowledge, these being:

  1. Maximise learning by listening attentively and reading critically.
  2. Cultivate diverse sources of trusted advice who are willing to disagree with you.
  3. Avoid your experience becoming too narrow.
  4. Seek to overcome biases by actively looking for differing perspectives (stay detached).
  5. Keep questioning when options are offered.
  6. Think carefully about the risks during delivery/implementation.

Read the Article: The Elements of Good Judgment

My Advice

To respond more effectively to changes in the business environment, it is essential to remember that even practices that worked very well in the past may not get you to where you want to go tomorrow. The most powerful approach for overcoming the ‘knowing/being right’ trap is also the core principle of scientific thinking: take what you believe and actively seek to disprove it, especially if you feel certain! Doing so will help to protect you against out-dated assumptions and be hugely transformation to your decision-making.

As the Einstein example highlights, to stay in front it is essential to keep questioning your beliefs, because you never know when the answer will change!

Zoom Fatigue: A Hazard of the Times

Zoom Fatigue: A Hazard of the Times

Don’t automatically assume that video will be better than a phone call – the overloading of the brain as it strives to make sense of information which it expects to be there, but can’t find, has a mental cost which needs to be taken into account.

In the context of the need for psychological safety, that was highlighted as being so critical in the last article, these barriers to effective collaboration create a significant additional hurdle. It is much harder, for example, to monitor non-verbal feedback from other attendees in order to determine how a message is being received, making it difficult to know when it would be beneficial to ask for feedback or adjust course.

This article looks at some of the ways that video conferences can create mental stress through their unique impact on our unconscious mind, leading to poor concentration during, and unusual levels of tiredness after, the meetings. One interesting point highlighted by the article, which serves to illustrate that this environment is different in a fairly fundamental way, is that people who have a restricted ability to handle interpersonal situations, such as autistics, may actually benefit from the switch from physical to video conferencing!

By becoming aware of these factors, we can prepare ourselves differently, thus making such meetings more effective.

Read the Article: ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.

My Advice

The advantages of video conferencing in the current environment are obvious; however, it is important to be aware of the additional risk of exhaustion that it can create. The cause of this tiredness is the unique mental challenges involved in online collaboration, especially as we attempt to pick up social nuances and maintaining attention. These practical steps can help:

  • Don’t automatically assume that video will be better than a phone call – the overloading of the brain as it strives to make sense of information which it expects to be there, but can’t find, has a mental cost which needs to be taken into account.
  • Ensure that everyone in the meeting is fully engaged, encouraging them to show up with energy and to give good visual feedback. This makes the presenter’s task much easier and eases the load on the unconscious mind of everyone in the meeting. For even greater benefit, it helps enormously if cameras are arranged so that participants fill their screens with their face and upper body, thus providing stronger non-verbal signals. This might sound like common sense, but it is not common practice!
  • Because the mind is working harder, it is likely that attention spans will be significantly shorter on video calls than face-to-face. To offset this, more breaks are necessary. As a rule of thumb, I’d recommend taking shorter breaks at least twice as often as you would normally.

Leading When Uncertainty is Pervasive

Leading When Uncertainty is Pervasive

That leadership is about dealing with change – handling difficulties as they arise and adjusting course when necessary – is not news, or new. It involves diagnosis, then action, and it involves a great deal of resilience.

The problem is, the nature of decisions, even the approach needed to make them, varies hugely depending on the level of complexity and uncertainty in the environment. The more volatile and ambiguous the circumstances we face, the greater the difficulty of diagnosis becomes. As this happens, decision-making becomes less science and more art.

This is a real challenge, right now. If there is a simple way to describe the operating environment of the last few months, it is the absence of predictability and increase in ambiguity. Complexity has been spiralling out of control, and this has fundamental implications for leaders, many of whom have leaned heavily on their market, technology or industry expertise in reaching their level of seniority. The problem is, as uncertainty increases, so does the risk that expertise will become more of a hindrance rather a help.

“I know that I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing.” ~ Socrates

The most compelling warning that I’m aware of, which highlights the dangers of over-reliance on expertise and being blinkered by certainty our knowledge is correct, comes from the largest study to date on this subject, completed by Professor Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania. Over 20 years, and involving 82,361 forecasts by a large group of experts, he investigated their thought processes as they made predictions about future events, then he followed up to assess their accuracy.

This piece of work has become quite famous, perhaps because the high-level conclusion that Tetlock drew from it is rather memorable: that the average expert “is not much better at predicting the future than a dart-throwing chimpanzee”. Many of them, he found, would have done better if they had made random guesses!

I believe this should strike a note of caution for all of us…

What makes this study extremely important, is that Tetlock was able to identify a small group of experts who consistently defied the odds. They made startlingly better predictions than everyone else, even in the face of massive uncertainty.

What differentiated this group was their thinking style: they were comfortable with complexity and uncertainty and did not allow themselves to become overconfident. This allowed them to constantly seek new perspectives and to avoid getting locked into the rigid mindset of what they already “knew”.

This article suggests that responding to the pervasive and unprecedented uncertainty that we all face today requires a whole new style of leadership: one built on humility, openness and commitment. I like this suggestion, not least because strengthening these traits does much to overcome the problems associated with over-reliance on expertise outlined above.

Read the Article: Leading in Uncertain Times: Be Real – Not a Hero

My Advice:

Remember, one thing that history demonstrates conclusively is that almost everything, even the most widely accepted scientific “facts”, will be disproven eventually. Unfortunately, we naturally tend to resist the idea that we might be wrong, because falling back on our expertise is comfortable and almost effortless. On the other hand, learning requires commitment and can be very uncomfortable. That’s where resilience comes in. We must learn to welcome the discomfort inherent in facing new challenges to maximise our ability to cope with highly complex and ambiguous situations. By practicing humility and openness, which will help you to see things from a new perspective, while displaying confidence and commitment, you will dramatically improve your resilience, thereby transforming your ability to adapt effectively.