Why do we Overestimate Our Competence and How is this Affecting Our Performance?

mocha momentsThis week I visited a popular Chinese restaurant for an early dinner with my best friend. Got to the restaurant around quarter to five with a book, because I knew I’d have at least a 15 minute wait. There was no one in the restaurant when I got there. I sat at a table just past the entrance, off to the left, with my back to the wall, facing the empty restaurant. The person cashing could see me and so could the girl who was obviously the one designated to wait on my table – except she didn’t see me enter because she was on her phone.

I read, and read, and read. Out came the owner’s grandson, then the owner. The owner even came over to say “Hi.” He obviously didn’t even realize that I had neither water, nor a drink on my table. He chatted about how smart his grandson was, and how he could differentiate the keys to his wife’s car and those to his, even though they both drove the same make car.

After our short chat, he turned on his heels and walked right past the server, still on her phone. I read for another five minutes and then my best friend arrived. Still, no one approached our table AND the restaurant was still empty. So finally I shouted across the room to the cashier, (too “in shock” to move) who then signaled to the phone toting server that there were customers in the restaurant.

She came over, said nothing, placed two menus on the table, poured water and left. At this point it was either explode or laugh. We chose the latter, and I explained to my best friend that this was one of the features of the restaurant – that the servers provided a mime show for customers so don’t expect words.

The service improved and the server was OK from there on to the end. My assumption was that perhaps she had not been trained but also that she clearly was not seeing her poor performing self.

It made me think about if she actually THOUGHT that she was providing great service. ALL she did was ignore me but once she acknowledged my presence, she wasn’t rude, quite pleasant – albeit quiet, she brought out what I ordered and she packed the food I couldn’t eat, in a take-away box.

Was this enough? If you’ve read this far you’ll probably be appalled. One group that I was coaching this week, who I relayed the story too, couldn’t even believe that I stayed and had a meal. Call it an occupational hazard, but I was curious to see what would happen next, which is why I remained. What was interesting about those in the group I was coaching was their ability to see exactly what might have been missing over at the Chinese restaurant: training, service standards, lack of passion, lack of awareness/attentiveness to one’s environment/surroundings but not be able to see their own individual and collective blind spots and the effect it had in their business.

I’ve realized most people think they’re performing much better than they actually are. Why is this?

The tendency that people have to overrate their abilities fascinated Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning, PhD. enough to begin researching this phenomenon – “People overestimate themselves,” he says, “but more than that, they really seem to believe it.

We’ve all seen it: the employee who’s convinced she’s doing a great job and gets a mediocre performance appraisal, or the student who’s sure he’s aced an exam and winds up with a D. Where does this certainty of belief come from?

Knowing yourself isn’t as easy as many of us think. There are many reasons why it’s hard to “know ourselves” Dunning says.

In a subjective area like intelligence, for example, people tend to perceive their competence in self-serving ways. A student talented in math, for instance, may emphasize math and analytical skills in her definition of intelligence, while a student gifted in other areas might highlight verbal ability or creativity.

Another problem is that in many areas of life, accurate feedback is rare. People don’t like giving negative feedback, Dunning says, so it’s likely we will fail to hear criticism that would help us improve our performance.

“It’s surprising how often feedback is nonexistent or ambiguous,” he asserts. “It’s a pretty safe assumption that what people say to our face is more positive than what they’re saying behind our backs.” People also overestimate themselves out of ignorance, Dunning says. Take the ironic example of an elderly man who thinks he’s an excellent driver but is a hazard on the road, or the woman who reads a book about the stock market and is ready to compete with a professional stockbroker.

feedback 1

Loretta Malandro Ph.D, author of Fearless Leadership says “We think we talk straight but in practice, we fall far short of the mark. We dance around the real issue and dole out information as though we are dealing with the infirm, who in their weakened state are incapable of handling straightforward communication. We think we are “protecting” people from hurt, so we do not talk about things that add to their distress.



One antidote to inaccurate self-assessment is high-quality feedback if not issues will remain hidden from sight, unresolved and waiting to explode with devastating consequences for you and your organization. How many times have you found out too late that there is a problem? And how many times do you find yourself intervening to get things back on track?

Dr. Malangro cautions “If you don’t have a methodology in place for handling breakdowns and talking straight responsibly then that sequence of events is going to be a daily occurrence for you.”


What would your life look like if you could power your own success, never feel confused about what you need to do and never hesitate to do it?

  1. Do you have clarity around WHO YOU REALLY ARE?
  2. Are you being noticed for your contribution in your current role?
  3. Do you know WHAT you need to do to get the results you want?

Find out how much you really know about yourself…

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