We’re all engineers, so naturally we think we’re above average when it comes to cognitive abilities, math, spatial reference, and host of other aptitudes that others can only imagine (or not imagine). By far that makes us above average in the IQ department, and maybe a few other to boot. Or does it?
The vast majority of us suffer from something called the “above average effect”, “superiority bias”, or “illusory superiority”. In short, we think we’re better than others because of experience, skill, knowledge, or simply because we’re breathing. Think this is a stretch? From a number of studies conducted from the early 1970’s through early 2000’s, those who were most confident in their level of expertise or skill should not have been. These surveys found that one’s perception of ability is often only moderately correlated with actual ability whether it be in the classroom or the workplace. In a survey of engineers at one company, 42% thought their work ranked in the top 5% among peers. Mathematics aside, this isn’t possible and it's the type of belief that can drive someone to stop improving.
Whatever you want to call it, cognitive bias (i.e. thinking we’re better at something when in reality we’re not) affects everyone to some degree or another. It’s the successful person that understands this, then make allocations for the fact that they’ll bias their performance towards “awesome” in certain undertakings. The successful person also knows that their intelligence is malleable and can be formed, built, and reduced by their actions. Knowing that their intelligence is changeable gives them the added insight to more accurately rate their performance.
Why would you want to care about any of this? Your performance on the job, whether for someone else or as an entrepreneur, requires you to be good at self-assessment in order to grow and adjust to your client’s needs and your environment. Thinking yourself better than the competition, or your peers, deflates your perceived need to improve. When you give up on improving, you give up on becoming the best version of you that can be. This ultimately leads to poor performance and a certainty in your ability when it’s really anything but.
“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” Bertrand Russell
Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leadership coach, civil engineer, and author and an accomplished professional specializing in A/E/C work internationally. Read more from Christian at The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici and FreeDitigalPhotos.net.