Know Thyself? We Only Think We Do.

"The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none." – Thomas Carlyle

"We know accurately only when we know little. With knowledge, doubt increases." – Goethe

This research comes as no surprise. Most of us tend to overestimate our abilities on just about everything. (Paper sections are here. Specific section on the workplace is here.)

In "Flawed Self-Evaluation: Implications for Health, Education, and the Workplace," investigators David Dunning (Cornell), Chip Heath (Stanford), and Jerry M. Suls (University of Iowa) summarized current psychological research on the accuracy (or rather inaccuracy) of self-knowledge, across a wide range of studies in a range of spheres. Their report is published in the December 2004 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

A consistent and sobering picture emerged from the team's analysis: On the job, at school, or even in managing our own health, it is as though we all live in Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, "where all the children are above average." People's opinions of themselves, their abilities, and their health outlooks are generally skewed quite strongly in a positive direction.

Of course, most of you find that interesting, but think it applies primarily to other people. That's part of what the study is pointing out.

How does this affect work? Here's a partial answer.

The work world is full of overconfidence and flawed self-knowledge as well. Employees underestimate how long they will take to complete tasks. And CEOs and entrepreneurs are famously (sometimes disastrously) overconfident in making business decisions, particular when venturing into unfamiliar territory such as a business startup or an acquisition — a problem the authors called "the problem of the new."

Although a degree of self-deception may be just part of human nature, individuals aren't completely to blame for their lack of accurate self-knowledge, according to Dunning. There are social and institutional barriers to self-knowledge, such as the difficulty of giving honest critical feedback in workplace settings, as well as to the simple fact that people don't have access to the full range of human competence and skill against which to evaluate their own.

At job interviews I always ask to get feedback when I receive the decision. People look at me like I'm crazy. But really, I want to know how I came across in the interview so that I can get better the next time.

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The first performance review I received after graduation was excellent, and the feedback was something like "continue to learn and improve technical skills." Yes, of course, that applies to almost anybody. I actually asked my manager for more feedback, which he wasn't able to give (in part because I never worked with him, which is a whole different issue). I can look back now from the perspective of all the new knowledge I have, and I can see that I had a lot of things to work on that were non-technical. I had a huge performance issue in that if I liked a task, I would do an awesome job and impress the hell out of everyone and if I didn't like a task, I would do just enough to get by. It took almost three years before a manager finally suggested at one of my reviews that I "learn to tackle simple tasks with the same enthusiasm I used for challenging ones." I didn't realize what a problem it was until she pointed that out.

I have a very heavy orientation towards problem solving, and I struggle with tasks that don't take much cognitive effort. I thought that because I was good at the really tough things (that most people didn't like to do) that I was good overall. But I was only halfway there. I didn't have the self-awareness to see my major fault in terms of how it affected others. Since then, I have developed many tricks to help myself attack the boring tasks, but if it hadn't been pointed out to me, I may never have been able to improve.

There's a problem with feedback – we don't like it. We think other people should change, not us. But no matter how good you think you are, you have faults (as those of you that are married have learned!)

So how do you evaluate yourself accurately? Well, quantitative data helps. But what about evaluating the softer things? That is tougher, and I don't have any good solutions, but keep in mind that you are fallible and be ready to offer a mea culpa when you've made a mistake. That's a big step in the right direction.