Every manager’s above average

Lesson Learned #23

There is an interesting phenomenon called the “above-average effect” which is the tendency of most people to believe they are above average, despite the obvious math contradiction that introduces. There is also a theory that suggests the less skilled you are at doing something, the more likely you are to overestimate your own performance, precisely because you don’t really know how to judge it properly. We have learned that most managers, our own company included, think they are better than they actually are at managing.

In defense of all of us managers, managing is extremely difficult no matter what industry, and requires an uncommon blend of skills. Organization design and circumstance are also stacked against most people. Perhaps the most common problem is that most managers get to where they are due to their technical proficiency, not their management skills. Another significant issue is that the key tools designed to support management, the various information systems available, usually don’t support management nearly as much as they were intended.

So is this a big deal? So management is tough and our own self-assessments are a little high. Turns out that it is a big deal if you are trying to drive performance up. A key part of most performance improvement efforts is getting managers to change how they interact with their people. How they set expectations, follow up and coach. If managers don’t see a need to change, it’s very hard to get them to change.

We address this issue by doing what we call management studies. We spend a day observing a manager and then break their time into categories. To compare what people actually do to what they think they do, we ask the manager at the end of the day to do their own categorization. Almost invariably managers misjudge how they spend their time. But if you do the same study but stop every 30 minutes and briefly discuss what happened, you can relatively quickly re-calibrate someone’s perceptions. The study doesn’t change behavior but it does help a manager understand that there may be a better way to allocate their time, which as mentioned, is a necessary component to broader performance improvement.