Misinterpreting your work performance? You're capable of much more

08 Sep 2016

Partner Content, Provided with the support of AGSM. 

Do any of these sound familiar:

I’m not quite ready for that yet  . . .
I need more experience first . . .
I just need to do this course before I . . .

I have a friend who spent weeks convinced she was going to be fired from her job. So convinced in fact that she nearly resigned. She couldn’t believe it when the very next week she was actually given a pay-rise, put on an accelerated leadership program and given shares in the company.

True story.   

How did she get to this wildly inaccurate and unjustified place of misery?

Two key circumstances coincided for my friend. Firstly, she had lost a team member from her team and had been working extra-long hours for several weeks to try and get through her growing ‘To Do’ list. 

Secondly, her boss wasn’t the forthcoming type and, in the absence of any feedback from above, her own inner critic started filling the feedback vacuum . . . and it was ruthless in its criticism of her work, how she was coping and what others were supposedly thinking of her. I call the inner critic our ‘Evil DJ’ – it plays incredibly unhelpful soundtracks inside our mind all too frequently!

In the space of about two months she’d gone from being confident in her position and her performance to exhaustedly believing her days at the organisation were numbered.

Thanks to the inclination of our ever-present Evil DJ’s to default to worst-case scenarios, my friend completely misread her situation. And I mean completely! 

Whilst this is an extreme example of misinterpreting work performance, research and experience shows that time and time again women unknowingly underestimate their performance and contributions. It may come as little surprise to hear that this is not the case with men. 

Having worked with women around Australia and overseas, it’s the most common factor I see: women underestimating their performance and potential. 

Try asking any HR executive about the differences in self-assessments completed by men compared to those filled in by women. While you’re at it, ask them who applies for more jobs and asks for pay rises more often. (According to Professor Linda Babcock from Carnegie Mellon University, men initiate negotiations such as requests for pay rises about four times more than women.)  

The phenomenon of men genuinely believing their performance and capabilities are greater than they really are is so common that academics from Columbia University have even coined a name for it: ‘Men’s Honest Over Confidence’. In other words, the researchers found that men aren’t intentionally exaggerating their skills or performance; they genuinely believe their performance is better than it actually is.

What’s more, Columbia Business School Assistant Professor Ernesto Reuben and his colleagues’ studies have found that on average, men over-estimate their abilities to the tune of 30%. 30%!! 

Sound familiar?

Reuben and his colleagues say this over-estimating trait helps explain why more men get the top jobs: “We find evidence that suggests that gender differences in overconfidence concerning their own performance explain a significant proportion of the lack of female leadership.

So we have men who typically think they have done better than they really have and we have experience and research showing women typically will under-estimate their performance. 

Imagine an interview scenario where both male and female candidates are doing their best to be honest. However, as the research shows, a man is very likely to have inflated his abilities (by up to 30%) and a woman is very likely to have discounted hers. One study shows women rated their performance 20% lower than it actually was.

Who is more likely to get the job?

To use a sporting analogy, it’s as if men and women are both working on the same playing field but women’s boundary and scoring lines are in a completely different (and more difficult) position to men’s.  

But why does this happen?  How do we explain this internationally familiar pattern of women holding themselves to higher standards than men do and underestimating their performance?

One theory is that for most young girls particularly at primary school, the expectation is that they will get good marks, stay neat and tidy, obey the rules and be polite. Whilst at the same time, boys their age are almost expected to get dirty, misbehave or be more mischievous in class and are not expected to get such stellar grades.

So in these formative years, society’s norms and expectations have a major influence on how we think and behave in our adult lives. With this influence, women are still striving for the highest mark possible and trying to please everyone at work not just in the classroom. 

Renown Professor of Psychology from Stanford University, Carol Dweck, and the author of a powerful book called Mindset, is quoted saying that: “if life were one long grade school, women would rule the world”. She is referring to the notion that if workplace success was predicated on the same factors as school success then women have that mastered. 

Of course, most workplaces usually operate completely differently to a classroom.

So what can we do about this?

Don’t trust your own assessment of what you are capable of

One of the biggest favours we can do ourselves is to seek feedback from trusted peers, friends, superiors and advisors. We all need our own ‘support team’ or ‘Personal Advisory Board’ in life and work – a mixture of people we can turn to for feedback and advice on different topics. Put together your own personal advisory board and be sure to canvas them before you turn down an opportunity that scares you or you believe you’re not ready for.

I so frequently see women who are convinced they are not ready for an opportunity or a promotion whilst everyone around them knows they are both ready and would be a great success.  

Remember my friend and her experience at the beginning of this piece? What she needed was independent feedback and a healthy mistrust of that voice, that Evil DJ, inside her head.  

So before you say ‘No’ go seek out some independent views from your own Personal Advisory Board.

Learn how to maximise your potential at Full Potential Labs’ women’s program in Sydney on September 30. See here for more details.

Greta Thomas

Greta is Co-Founder of next-gen leadership development company Full Potential Labs and is also a non-executive director of listed financial services company, OneVue Group. She is an expert contributor to Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn organisation and graduate of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM).


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