Classic: Behaviors Managers Hate, Performance Cluelessness

Originally published 12/23/11

Ninety percent of employees believe they are in the top ten percent of performers in their company.

I first heard this “statistic” at a seminar focused on recruiting top talent and even though the source was not quoted, it rang true to me.  I’ve looked a few times for the exact reference, but searching the internet hasn’t resulted in any success.  Maybe the figures are exaggerated.  Maybe there is no study supporting this at all and the statistic is simply made up.

But based on my years of experience in Corporate America, it feels just about right.

How can this be?

Because while employees are reasonably good a judging the work of others, they seem to be exceptionally poor at judging their own performance.

I’ve observed this time and time again with clueless employees – laser sharpness when it comes to identifying the flaws and shortcomings of peers, but absolutely no insight into how others view them.

Why would this possibly happen?  On the surface it seems like a person should understand themselves better than anyone else.

But they simply don't.

Not surprisingly, I have a theory.  When thinking about your own behaviors, experiences, and characteristics, each person has the chance to examine both an internal and external reference point.  When thinking about others, only the external view exists.

Our internal viewpoint includes our knowledge and understanding of the motivations, interferences, special challenges, and other hardships that we have to overcome to reach the level of performance we have actually achieved.  We tend to live in this viewpoint pretty much all the time.  We know that we came to work today despite that migraine.  We are aware that the project we were partially successful at implementing was virtually impossible to complete.  And we made a major personal sacrifice to attend that conference, which should count for something, right?

The external viewpoint generally ignores all of these qualifications (because they are largely invisible) and focuses strictly on outcomes.  Did the project get done on time?  Was that person late a dozen times last quarter?  The external viewpoint doesn’t (often) accept excuses.

Our own internal viewpoint colors the external perceptions of ourselves in a way that simply can't happen with other people.  So even when you think you’re being objective about your own performance, you probably aren’t.

Here is an example -- you fail to win a new account for your employer.  The external viewpoint others have of you is as a failure, at least on this particular project.  You failed, end of story.

You, however, know that your manager assigned eight other projects to you.  You also know that calling on that particular customer is very difficult -- they are condescending, and are already predisposed to buy from someone else because of a rocky history with your predecessor.  If you bring these points up, they tend to sound like excuses and whining to your peers or bosses.  Are they real?  Yes.  Do they matter?  Yes.  Will they count when it comes time to tally up your performance for the year?  Not so much.

So which view (internal versus external) is correct?  The answer is “both,” but if you are identifying the company performers it is the external viewpoint that matters.  This same thing happens with the coaches of top tier of sports teams – it is the “win” that matters, not the struggle or the obstacles that must be overcome, etc.  Nobody has patience for excuses, they expect success.  As an employee, you are judged just like the coach – and even if your manager cuts you some slack, your peers will rarely do the same.

If you want to be realistic about your own performance, you need to ignore the internal viewpoint -- something that is hard to do.

Because of the distortion caused by the internal view, it's not hard to understand why a large number of people might be clueless about their own performance.  This would be fine if you worked for yourself, but becomes a problem when your boss has to deal with your misperceptions.  Employees that overvalue themselves are much more prone to an entitlement mentality or to become fairness complainers.  And when cluelessness underlies either of these consequent behaviors, managers dislike them all the more – cluelessness is usually deeply rooted and nearly impossible to fix.

Now I know that a lot of managers will wimp out and allow an employee’s overinflated view of himself to persist through many a performance appraisal.  Doing so is definitely the path of least resistance, and the majority of managers hate confronting their employees with facts they already know won’t be acknowledged or accepted.

When a manager actually attempts to explain to the clueless employee “how it really is,” the employee usually gets defensive, complains, becomes angry, argues, or simply blames everything on the manager’s “incompetence.”  Once a difficult performance discussion is finished, a good portion of clueless employees run back to their co-workers looking for affirmation of their “superior” performance.  Coworkers, also wanting to maintain relationships and avoid conflict, usually take the easy path and simply agree with their clueless peer.

In this way, the internal viewpoint is reinforced (as if it needed reinforcement!) and the external viewpoint is ignored or even categorically rejected.

But what's really going on here?  Is there more likely to be truth in the kind, supportive words of a colleague, or the tougher words of your manager?  As a rule of thumb, any criticism you actually receive in a review is probably just the tip of an iceberg your boss is already quite familiar with.

If you want to avoid being clueless about your own performance, then here are few things you ought to do:

...Try -- really hard -- to see how your performance looks to the outside world.  Do your best to set aside your internal viewpoint.

...When your manager has the courage to tell you the truth, listen with an open mind and try to figure out what you need to do to improve.  Don't justify, rationalize, argue or go into denial.

...Don't fool yourself into believing that just because co-workers you’re “wonderful,”  you're right and your manager is wrong.

...Don't stick around if, after making a concerted attempt to view your performance from an objective viewpoint, there is a huge mismatch between your perception of your performance and your manager’s perception.  Such a situation is not likely to be easily changed.

And managers -- suck it up and be honest, for crying out loud!  When you give an employee an unrealistic, overly rosy review (particularly because you’re just wimping out to avoid unpleasantness) it just perpetuates the cluelessness which frustrates you.

There is another type of cluelessness, one that revolves around ignorance of the business, which I will address in my next post in the series (despite the fact that it will be new material).

Posts in the “Behaviors Managers Hate” Series

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To the right is the audiobook cover of LEVERAGE.  This novel explores the theft of sensitive DOD designs from a Minneapolis Tech Company, and the dangers associated with digging too deeply into the surrounding mystery.  The tale features first level manager, Mark Carson, and the struggle he experiences as he finds the resources of the corporation aligned against him.  Its sequel, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, was released in May of 2014.  A third book in the series, OUTSOURCED, is in the works.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.