Be honest. You think you are a better-than-average worker, right? But, you know what? So does your cubicle neighbor, your friends, and your manager? Yes, they both think they also are better than average. Everyone seems to think they are an above average employee. Do you see the conundrum here? Everyone can’t be above average because then average would no longer be, well, average. Perhaps you wouldn’t think as highly of yourself if you were open to critical feedback.
Most of us believe we are better than average because we humans have a widespread case of illusory superiority. This is a fancy word for the fact that we overestimate our abilities relative to other people. We overestimate our intelligence, driving abilities, work performance, looks, personality, and … you get the picture. And we likely surround ourselves with co-workers who pose no threat to our self-concept. We surround ourselves with people unlikely to provide us with critical feedback.
Here’s a little thought experiment. Think about the people in your inner circle of work friends. The people who provide you the greatest emotional and personal support. How often does anyone in this group provide you with critical feedback about work? How many offer you truthful, direct constructive feedback?
Francesca Gino bets your answer to this question is “very few.”
Gino believes this because his research indicates it is true. He and Paul Green, both of Harvard Business School, along with Brad Staats of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conducted research culminating in a working paper called Shopping for confirmation: How threatening feedback leads people to reshape their social network.
Their research opens with the following: “To improve and advance in their careers, employees must be able to identify their own deficiencies. But humans are notoriously self-deceptive in their self-appraisal efforts, consistently ignoring their flaws in an attempt to maintain a positive self-concept.”
Sounds like a widespread case of illusory superiority.
How Far Will We Go to Protect Our Self-Concepts
The research paper has numerous hypotheses, one of which states that if our self-concept is threatened by any type of employee or managerial critical feedback, the threatened employee will search to replace the “critical” network with a less critical and more complimentary or confirming employee network.
In one of the studies, researchers used four years of archival data of a company where employees provide feedback to coworkers. Each year the company conducts a self-assessment and then a peer-review assessment.
The findings were remarkable. In a single year after a co-worker provided critical feedback, that which was lower than the self-assessment, the “threatened” employee was 44 percent more likely to discontinue a relationship with the “threatening” reviewer than a relationship with a confirming reviewer.
Critical Feedback Can Help You Become a Better or Even Excellent Worker
The study revealed, through numerous tests and indicators, that we tend to enhance or concentrate on the positive traits of every aspect of ourselves. In doing so, we either have to ignore our negative traits, consider them outliers, or just plain discount them.
We tend to be poor judges about the person we know best—ourselves.
How can we improve our skills, character, and personalities with our extremely effective rose-colored glasses?
If we want to be a top performer at work, we should not avoid critical feedback, we should seek it out.
Ensure your network of co-workers includes a straight-shooter or two—those that tell it like they see it. Without critical feedback, how can we determine what we truly need to improve upon to become that great employee we already believe we are?
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