Skill - Building Robust Self-Assessment Skills (not as easy as you think)


All people, but especially junior personnel in any organization, need the ability to self-assess their performance so they can make an active effort to improve their skills to produce enhanced performance. Obvious? Sure, but it is not so obvious that human nature cripples our ability to self-assess well, trapping us into a life of possible mediocrity unless we take an active interest in understanding why we are blinded to our own deficiencies and tend to live in a world where “everyone is above average.” Even if you think “those other guys” are in serious need of counseling, “they” don’t share your opinion. Worse yet, you may be just as deficient in your capabilities, but refuse to accept it. Even if you think you are blessed because you work for a very critical boss, you are likely to take his/her suggestions/mandates for improvement much less seriously than you should. This post identifies the results of some recent research on this topic and suggests things you can do to reduce your ignorance of your own shortcomings.


There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one's self.

“—Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Improved Almanack (1750)”

As researchers have documented repeatedly, people systematically misjudge their capabilities (intelligence, skill, personal traits, etc.). These errant views can retard a person’s development, risk your health, damage relationships with others, and cause a host of other problems.

People typically think of themselves as brighter, more fortunate, more attractive, and more influential than than they are in reality. This leads them to believe their marriages will last when others fail, they won’t die in car crashes in some other accidental form, and they won’t gain wait as they pass from their twenties to forties like all those other “schlubs.”

The least skilled people (like junior Engineering Duty Officers or people working for the Navy just starting their civilian careers) have the most exaggerated sense of their abilities.  Studies show that incompetent people are doubly handicapped because they lack not only the requisite skills but the ability to recognize their own deficiencies (ouch).

Your Intuition is Not Helping You

In the choice between changing ones mind and proving there's no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof. 

John Kenneth Galbraith 

People are prone to unwarranted optimism, believing they are invulnerable to common misfortune and are egocentric. They think their actions, absences and contributions are much more conspicuous than they actually are. Social psychologists refer to this the "spotlight effect." Other people are more oblivious to our appearance, emotions and behaviors than we imagine (they are to engrossed in thinking about themselves, typically, and the brilliant contributions they are making). As the Talmud says, "We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are."

Being blind to the way things are also leads us to overestimate our ability to meet deadlines (a particularly pernicious aspect of ship overhaul). The formal name for this is the planning fallacy (I have some really good scholarly papers on this topic). People fail to assign adequate weight to other commitments when focusing on their likelihood of meeting a specific one. They also fail to use past experiences with factors that impede their progress. The problem seems farcical when put in terms of a description of someone else, but nearly all of us are guilty of such sins. We overestimate how much time we will have for a particular project, we underestimate the time required to do it well, we underestimate the impact of intervening factors (illnesses, family issues, and personal matters, to name a few), we forget to factor in the importance of our mood if the process is a creative one, and as a net result, we are late.

People tend to define competence in a way that places their own performance in the best possible light. For tasks with multiple components, people neglect what they do poorly, focusing instead on what they do adequately or well. They pay little attention to what portion of overall potential proficiency they display. The specific skills of others are undervalued, and sometimes not even recognized, as every dramatic or vocal coach can attest.

Unlike their unskilled counterparts, the most able subjects in studies are likely to underestimate their own competence. in the absence of information about how others were doing, highly competent subjects assumed that others were performing as well as they were -- a phenomenon psychologists term the "false consensus effect." 

The data on the great disparity between how people see themselves and how others evaluate them are so compelling that no one (not even me) is exempt.

Why we are blind to our limitations

There are many reasons why people would tend to overestimate their competency, and not be aware of it. I will just hit the highlights here.

First, people typically do not possess all the information required to reach perfectly accurate self-assessments and gaining an accurate view of self is difficult. There are too many factors that are unknown, unknowable, and undefinable for people to make adequate evaluations of their performance or accurate forecasts about how they will act in the future. If you are a senior officer, you outrank most of the people in the room when your performance is on display and there are professional social norms associated with criticizing people in public, but senior leaders particularly.  Faced with incompetence, social norms prevent most people from blurting out "You are highly marginal!"

Second, even when people do have very useful information that would assist them with clear-headed self-evaluations, they have a tendency to neglect it or give it too little weight. These are avoidable errors (see my recommendations below).

People think of themselves as superior to their peers when thinking about traits that are construed as controllable, but not so much when thinking about uncontrollable traits

In some cases, developing an awareness of flaws in one's own inability is easy: When I play golf (if what I do with a long metal rod to a small white ball on grass, or in more often in sand, can be called “golf”), I have no trouble evaluating my performance when I have missed hitting the ball three times in a row or send several shots in a row into a water obstacle. The howls of laughter from my companions is another good sign.

Consequences in life

People commit systematic errors in perceptions that can jeopardize their health, sabotage careers and even threaten world peace (also known as "whirled peas").

People with unrealistic optimism are less likely to say they intend to get a flu shot. They are more likely to chance high-risk sex or disregard doctors' orders. They also risk wasting money on gym memberships by overestimating how often they will work out.

Employees with flawed self-views might reject their supervisor's valid, but negative, reviews. Then they feel cheated with their "paltry" raises."Incompetent individuals were less able to recognize competence in others," researchers have concluded. 

Inflated self-views aren't all bad. They can buffer people from stress and depression and motivate them to keep working to master challenging tasks. The trouble is that unrealistic views of one’s performance has serious side-effects.

Reality check

The act of self-assessment is an intrinsically difficult task, and I have listed some of the mainobstacles that prevent people from reaching truthful self-impressions, but poor self-knowledge does not have to equal destiny. Since no one is exempt from serious blind spots about the quality of their performance or capabilities, a key distinguishing characteristic is how actively you seek information on your performance and what you do with that information. External feedback is critical because recognizing your own biases is intrinsically difficult.

So how do you get a true, or at least truer, picture of yourself? 


  • One way to get a truer picture of your performance is to seek regular peer and supervisor feedback. Not just any feedback, but feedback from people that you know share critical opinions freely or for very specific situations (“How well did I ...?”). Keep pressing for specifics because providing specific feedback does not come naturally to most people. Before you ask for feedback, do your own, written self-assessment so you can make objective comparisons to it and the external assessment you get. Write the feedback you get from others down so you can refer to it later.
  • Work on specific skills that you want to improve, but just a few at a time. I have (just a few) proteges that do this. They tell me the skill they are trying to improve, develop a plan to build their competence that we discuss together, and then they give me feedback on how it is going and how they know so.
  • Learn from others that appear to do things well (benchmarking). Recall Thomas Jefferson's assertion that "he who knows best knows how little he knows." Write down specific features of their performance that you think are admirable, then go ask them how they do it . It might take some time and a few probing questions, many people are not instantly articulate about reasons for their own performance.
  • Work hard not to be overconfident when you are trying something new or facing a test of your abilities. Being a little insecure about your performance and abilities is likely to help you practice harder and be better prepared.
  • If you are a senior leader, work hard (because most people won’t believe that you want it) to get frequent, specific, critical feedback. Make it a practice to explain your rationale for making big decisions in public forums and seek pro/con information from your team.
  • Seek input from a mentor or personal coach. Say what you are trying to do and why, how it is going, and get their response (take notes).
  • Set written goals and make them part of your preparation for an event (speech, presentation, project, etc.). Make improvement from past performance part of your plan as well as getting feedback on your performance.
  • Practice. Practice. Practice. If you are trying to improve or learn a new skill (I have a blog post on the skills that senior Engineering Duty Officers should develop), practice it a lot. People often ask me why I write so well or how I developed such good critical thinking skills. It is because critical thinking has been a hobby/interest of mine since I was a teenager. I do things like blog posts and create summaries of news events for my wife (like the Wisconsin public employee unions conflict with the state governor over collective bargaining for benefits, which I did this weekend [can share on request]).
  • Drop your shields when you get harsh criticism (much harder than it sounds, but you can get better with practice). I have the same tendency to “stiffen up” and be skeptical or dismissive about painful personal feedback. To overcome this, I take the time to write a short summary of the feedback and develop a written plan to do better. I periodically review the feedback and the plan to see how well I am doing. I can send some examples of notes like these upon request. I can tell a person that has a weak capability for self-assessment when they wander off with a dazed look on their face when I provide them email composition feedback. I can just tell they are devastated because they probably thought they were a "great communicator." The people that come back to me for tips, incorporate the ideas i freely share into their emails, and take advantage of the mentoring I provide on "ninja" email skills are the ones that are truly remarkable.
  • Listen to the Career Tools podcast, “My Boss Finds Fault with Me” (parts one a two). This was posted to iTunes in January. Many of their recommendations are similar to what I have provided above.



Lots of material from the web using the search term, “blissfully incompetent.” 

For Further Reading

Dunning, D., Heath, C. , & Suls, J. (2004). Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 69-106. (can be downloaded for $35, I have posted some notes I found on the web from the article here)

Skill - Understanding What Your Key Success Factors Are

Skill - Improve Your Understanding of Human Error (Part 3)