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.

“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!

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.

Developing Inner Agility

Developing Inner Agility

This article, from McKinsey & Co., suggests that, “To navigate effectively, we must learn to let go—and become more complex ourselves“.

The concept of developing greater personal complexity encapsulates the approach that I’ve adopted in virtually all of my work. Because great leadership is critically dependent on emotional intelligence (EI), we can see that it has more to do with our mindset than any skills we might possess. This means that it must be constructed, from the inside out, by creating learning environments, not instructed from the outside in, as has traditionally been the case when teaching skills.

Let’s look at this in the context of one key point from this article, which is the statement that, “The problem isn’t the problem; our relationship to the problem is the problem”. In relation to resilience, this would suggest that it is not stress that is the problem, but our perception of the situation that is the problem. This recognition is incredibly powerful, because it puts us in a better position to find a solution.

At the heart of this challenge, of changing our relationship to our environment, is one of the biggest paradoxes of dealing with the unknown.

Current thinking in psychology, which is supported widely by research, suggests that we all experience stress when faced with change or uncertainty, to some degree. This is thought to be the result of deep conditioning that evolved to aid our survival.

The problem today is simple: very few situations we face are genuinely life-threatening, but our mind reacts to uncertainty as though faced with a predator: by triggering our fight-or-flight response. We experience this as stress, and it drives behaviours that may be highly inappropriate, such as acting on instinct, falling back on old habits, or to becoming so preoccupied with seeking more information that we cannot make any decision at all.

So, what is the paradox I referred to above?

Let’s assume for a moment that our stress is not the result of misperception. The root cause of the stress that arises when we face the unknown is that we don’t know how to resolve the situation we face, and we therefore worry about the outcome. If we knew what to do, we wouldn’t feel stressed!

It follows that what we most need in such situations is a new solution; however, that would require creativity, and – here’s the paradox – creativity is blocked by stress. How ironic! Because our brain is maladapted to modern challenges, just when we most need to be creative is when this mental resource is least available to us. It occurs because the part of our brain that triggers our fight-or-flight response, the amygdala, also suppresses activity in our prefrontal cortex, which is the part that gives rise to our creativity (as well as many other higher human functions).

To remain agile and creative when confronted by unpredictable change, it is essential that we learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty. I believe that this article conveys some useful insights to help you move towards this goal.

Read the Article: Leading with Inner Agility

My Advice:

When we resist a situation, wishing it would go away because it feels uncomfortable, that resistance increases the stress we experience. This puts us into a vicious cycle where, as the article highlights, our poor relationship to the problem only increases the magnitude of the problem as we see it.

Try to shift your perception of challenges, to see them as opportunities to learn and grow. Every world-class athlete knows the importance of this mindset, having achieved success by continually pushing him or herself into situations where they are stretched beyond their current physical, mental and emotional limits. Without the stress this creates, the growth they seek is impossible. If you can use your challenges in a similar way, as melting pots that create the conditions necessary to become stronger, they will immediately feel less stressful.