Recently I worked on a change readiness survey for a large employer replacing their payroll and human resource systems. Among the interesting results, one area caught my attention: Employees’ perceptions of their own, their departments’, and their organization’s adaptability to change. The table shows what they said.
It made me wonder: If so many employees consider themselves adaptable to change, how is it possible that their departments and the organization as a whole lag so far behind?
I’ve had some experience with cognitive biases, errors in thinking that influence how we make decisions. A long list of biases includes “illusory superiority,” often referred to as the “above-average effect,” “superiority bias,” and my favorite, the “Lake Wobegon effect,” named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
Many studies document the human tendency to rate ourselves higher than others in academic, work, and social settings, on intelligence, job performance, and positive personal characteristics. However, most research lacks an objective standard to determine if, in fact, respondents are rating themselves accurately—that is, if they really are above average. To address that gap, one study used a population considered irrefutably negative: prisoners convicted of robbery or violent crimes.
Researchers asked the prisoners to assess themselves against the average fellow inmate and the average free man on nine positive traits. The result: The prisoners rated themselves above average on eight of the nine traits—moral, trustworthy, honest, dependable, generous, compassionate, self-controlled, and kind—against both standards. On the ninth trait—law-abiding—they considered themselves only average.
Not surprisingly, the researchers declared these results conclusive evidence that the above-average effect is caused not by rational judgments but by people’s self-enhancement needs. Other studies have shown that the tendency to evaluate oneself more positively than other people is more apparent for important traits than for unimportant ones. So, consider my client, in the throes of major change. What trait could be more important to its employees than individual adaptability?
I can’t prove it, but I’m willing to bet that the above-average effect is at work in the results shown above, and in many surveys that ask employees to report on themselves and their abilities. In the case of a change initiative, taking employee responses at face value could be a huge mistake. It might cause leadership to become complacent; or the change team to back off project communication; or employees who overrate themselves to take training efforts less seriously than they should. It might cause the change effort to fail.
In short, organizations should err on the side of caution, knowing bias creeps in. To do anything else would be to succumb to another type of bias—the tendency to believe what you want to be true.