Why Do Great People Think They’re Great?

man in the mirror

Man in the Mirror - Image by catbagan via Flickr

Excellence is in fashion. And excellence is what everyone wants to hire.

Consider two examples:

  • Mark Zuckerberg, talking about the price paid for FriendFeed which averaged to $4M per employee, said in the New York TimesSomeone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good,” he said. “They are 100 times better.”
  • Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor, in a piece in the Harvard Business Review – Great People Are Overrated recalled Marc Andreessen’s comment, “”The gap between what a highly productive person can do and what an average person can do is getting bigger and bigger. Five great programmers can completely outperform 1,000 mediocre programmers.

Whatever your take on Zuckerberg or Andreessen (I‘m with Taylor: Zuckerberg has built an amazing company, and Andreessen is an exceptional businessperson and technologist but they’ve missed the boat on this topic) but the performance of all-star talent is that much better (see Taylor’s piece here for that part of the dialogue) and the presumed distribution of talent limits the supply of “A” players to just a very few people.

Is everyone – as we ask ourselves – just plain great?

It starts with how we assess ourselves, and extends to how we assess the others that are part of the (pick one) group, team, firm, or neighborhood. Chip Heath and Dan Heath ably demonstrate in their book Switch that when most of us look in the mirror we think we’re great. It’s a trait called positive illusion, and it’s a natural human tendency to overrate ourselves. Any doubts? Just ask us.

Some easy examples of positive illusion at work:

  • The average American male thinks he’s in the top quartile of physical fitness.
  • Only 2% of high school seniors believe their leadership skills are below average.
  • 25% of people think they’re in the top 1% of their ability to get along with others.
  • 94% of college professors rate their work better than the norm.

This “adaptive overconfidence” may have benefits, but boy does it have downsides. And as Eric Paley, Managing Partner of the Founder Collective notes in The Curve of Talent, normal distribution rules still apply; very few “A” players, lots of Bs, Cs, and Ds, and few Fs.

What’s the rub?

Change starts from a reasonable assessment of how skilled you are. If you think you’re in the top 1% – and you’re likely not – then you’ve got a surprise or two coming. Apart from the great work done by Carol Dweck (e.g. worst thing you can do to someone is call them “great” – it likely degrades their ability to perform ), improvement starts from understanding where you are, and the changes you need to make.

Craig Chappelow and Jean Brittain Leslie, senior faculty members at the Center for Creative Leadership and co-authors of the CCL guidebook “Keeping Your Career on Track,” note that asking for instant feedback and developing greater self-awareness are two ways to get a more accurate self-image.

High achievers – or people who think they are high achievers – need feedback just as much as anyone else. Jean-François Manzoni, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Development at IMD International and co-author of  The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail points out in the Harvard Business Review “Everyone has some room for improvement, in this job or the next, within our current set of capabilities or a broader set that will likely come in handy in the future.

Other ways? Ask multiple people for feedback, not just the favored few. Even better, hire a coach, someone who has strengths in assessment, communications and behavioral feedback; somebody who can walk you through your behaviors, their impact, and ways to make changes to improve your performance.

After all, it’s only about improving your performance and advancing your work.

And you won’t get progress and feedback by just looking at yourself in the mirror.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


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