by Justin Standfield
Assessing our own abilities is a critical aspect of personal and professional growth. It’s essential for managers to have a realistic understanding of their leadership capabilities and skills in order to effectively lead their teams and contribute to organisational success. A great way to achieve this is by undertaking a 360° appraisal programme within your leadership population, seeking qualitative and quantitative feedback data from a range of ‘raters’, including the individual themselves. However, I’m sometimes asked by HR Directors whether I think that most managers tend to underestimate or overestimate their abilities.
According to research, it appears that managers generally have a tendency to overestimate their own leadership capabilities and skills. Several studies have highlighted this phenomenon, shedding light on the potential blind spots and biases that exist in self-assessment among managers (I’m also aware of at least one study* that revealed that the tendency to overestimate our own effectiveness as a leader was greater for men than for women).
One of the key reasons behind this general overestimation is often attributed to the cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. This describes the tendency for individuals with lower levels of competence to overestimate their own abilities, while those with higher levels of competence may underestimate themselves. In the context of leadership, this means that managers who lack the necessary skills and expertise may wrongly believe that they’re more capable than they are.
Another factor contributing to this overestimation is the inherent difficulty of objectively assessing our own leadership capabilities. It can be challenging to separate our own self-perception from reality, especially when personal biases and self-justification come into play. Additionally, external validation and feedback from others often play a crucial role in providing a more accurate assessment of leadership capabilities, which may be lacking in a manager’s self-assessment. Luckily, these are included within 360° tools as standard.
At Incendo, I work with leaders across diverse sectors and as a result I’ve noticed that the organisational culture and context can also influence a manager’s self-perception. For example, in a competitive work environment that values confidence and assertiveness, managers may feel pressured to overestimate their abilities in order to appear competent and in control. This could lead to an inflated sense of their own skills and capabilities that shows up in their 360° results.
On the other hand, it’s worth highlighting that I’ve also witnessed managers that have underestimated their abilities due to imposter syndrome. They may struggle with self-doubt and believe that their achievements are a result of luck or external factors rather than their own competence. This lack of confidence can hinder their leadership effectiveness and limit their potential for growth.
When checking for the Dunning-Kruger effect in managers using 360° feedback data, I recommend that you consider the following steps:
Identify a diverse group of raters: This is likely to be part of any standard 360° set-up process, but it’s worth emphasising the importance of ensuring that the raters assessing the manager’s performance come from different backgrounds and perspectives, such as peers, direct reports, other stakeholders (internal and – if appropriate – external), plus their own manager.
Evaluate self-assessment ratings: Compare the manager’s self-assessment ratings with the ratings provided by others. Look for any significant discrepancies between how managers rate their own abilities and how others perceive their competence. Open up a conversation about this during the 360° feedback meeting, which is best conducted by a trained professional with experience of 360s.
Analyse performance trends: Take a look at the manager’s performance trends over time. Check if there is a consistent pattern of over-estimating their abilities or skills in certain areas, despite receiving feedback or low ratings from others.
Provide coaching and development opportunities: If a manager consistently overestimates their abilities, it may be beneficial to provide them with targeted coaching and development opportunities beyond the 360° debrief itself. This can help them gain a more accurate understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and work towards improvement.
Where I’ve observed managers in organisations consistently rating their leadership competence with scores that are in agreement with most their other raters, this has given me an additional insight into the company’s culture – especially with regard to learning, growth and development.
For example, earlier in 2023 I implemented a 360° programme with one of Incendo’s clients in the technology sector; this organisation had an existing culture that encouraged their people to undertake self-reflection and self-awareness. Because the managers involved in the 360° already worked in an environment that inspired them to engage in self-reflection and become more self-aware, it helped them to recognise their biases and limitations, and cultivate a more realistic self-assessment when it came to the 360° programme.
Experience has shown me that 360° exercises work most effectively in organisations that have a culture of constructive feedback embedded already. This could be as a result of regular performance evaluations, anonymous feedback surveys and open channels of communication in general. Although 360°s can work in all organisations, they’re particularly valued in cultures that welcome feedback and see it as an opportunity to learn. Additionally, higher levels of psychological safety in an organisation will support 360 programmes being used honestly and professionally.
Finally, I’d add that 360°s work best in conjunction with leadership development programmes, rather than being conducted as a standalone project. Organisations reap the expected rewards from 360° processes when they run alongside leadership development programmes that focus on enhancing self-awareness, emotional intelligence and critical self-reflection. These programmes will provide managers with the tools and resources needed to accurately assess their own abilities and continue their growth as leaders in the future.
When we provide managers with honest feedback via a 360°, we hope that they can gain a better understanding of their leadership capabilities and areas for improvement. As part of this, it’s important for managers to have a realistic perception of their own leadership skills and behaviours. By recognising and addressing any tendencies to overestimate their abilities, as well as any imposter syndrome or lack of confidence, managers can cultivate effective leadership skills and achieve personal growth.
*Source re gender differences: Agreement in Self–Other Ratings of Leader Effectiveness, Vecchio & Anderson, 2009