Performance Management

Knowing Not What One Does: Implications for Low Performers

Research has shown that, when compared to others, most people overestimate their own performance. Many, if not most, workers often say that they are above average or in the top percentage of performers. However, most people cannot be above average (i.e., only 50% can), which indicates that many people are overestimating their abilities. Overestimating abilities seems to be most common for low performers. People with low levels of knowledge and skills have been known to grossly over-predict their performance in a variety of performance domains. This overestimation occurs even when people are given incentives to be more accurate in their self-performance assessments, which indicates that people are truly unaware that they are overestimating – they likely wouldn’t sacrifice compensation or rewards by intentionally distorting their assessments upward. What makes this effect particularly troubling is that it occurs even when low performers are engaging in activities they routinely perform and receive some feedback on. Also, overestimation can occur in performance domains where low performers can be a danger to themselves or to others. Why Does This Occur? Low performers who truly overestimate their abilities may do so because they lack the metacognition necessary to accurately gauge how well they are (or aren’t) doing. In other words, these people overestimate their performance because they are unable to accurately recognize and distinguish between good and bad performance. Such an overestimation of ability, combined with a lack of metacognition, can cause great difficulties for organizational attempts to improve performance. It can especially present challenges for productive performance appraisals and training interventions.

Implications for Practice

The following tips should help bring low performers’ assessments closer to reality, which is important for them to be able to regulate their actions and continue to improve their performance.
  • Improve selection procedures. Improving on the organization’s hiring and selection system better places the best skilled or most knowledgeable applicants into matching job openings, as well as identifies those employees who are most likely to benefit from training if it is needed (i.e., have the requisite ability to profit from learning experiences).
  • Frequent and productive performance appraisal. While some organizations have yearly performance appraisals, it can be beneficial for all employees (especially low performers) to have substantive appraisals more often. Low performers need to understand as soon as possible where they are underperforming and what actions can be taken to correct the problem.
  • Increase/Improve training and development. Some low performers may not have learned the knowledge and skills required for success. While it is an important element to employee training and development, feedback alone does not increase employee learning. Acquiring knowledge and increasing skills are also important aspects of training and development. Rehearsing and repeating information, combined with elaborating on how pieces of information tie together, encourages in-depth thinking about information which leads to a deeper understanding of material.
  • Comparative frames of reference. Providing clear examples of what constitutes poor, average, and excellent performance can help employees judge the quality of their own performance relative to a standard.
  • Encourage positive thinking. Hearing bad news is hard for many people to take, especially if they feel there is little hope for improvement. When training underperforming employees, it is important to emphasize that their knowledge and skills can be improved.
By improving how applicants are hired, evaluated, and trained, organizations can help ensure that all employees are in better positions to assess their own performance and adjust their behavior accordingly to increase productivity.

Interpretation by:

Donnie Johnson

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Ehrlinger, J., Johnson, K., Banner, M., Dunning, D., & Kruger, J. (2008). Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 105, 98-121.