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If an interviewer were to ask you questions about your performance at work, such as, “How well do you get along with your colleagues?” and “Do you have effective leadership skills?” you would probably have positive responses. This is normal. We as individuals tend to see ourselves in the best possible light, which means that sometimes we may exaggerate our strengths and overlook our weaknesses. This psychological phenomenon is referred to as “self-serving bias,” described further in an article Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

Individuals self-enhance. They believe that they are more trustworthy, moral, and physically attractive than others and that they are above-average teachers, managers, and leaders. One mechanism through which individuals maintain such unduly positive beliefs is the self-serving bias (SSB). The SSB refers to individuals taking responsibility for successful task outcomes but blaming circumstances or other persons for failed task outcomes. For example, students will take credit for passing a difficult examination but will attribute failing the examination to its difficulty or the instructor’s tough grading policy.

A recent Harvard Business Review post by Scott Keller explores the occurrence of self-serving bias in the workplace. According to the author, many senior leaders in companies fall into this trap of rating their own behavior more optimistically than it is in reality. Because they fail to see that their actions could be part of problems in the organization, they fail to accept personal accountability and make necessary changes.

Keller writes:

The fact is that most well-intentioned and hard-working people believe they are doing the right thing, or they wouldn’t be doing it. However, most people also have an unwarranted optimism in relation to their own behavior. Consider that when around one million students were asked how good they were at getting along with others, 85% rated themselves above the median and 25% rated themselves in the top 1%. Of course this is mathematically impossible. This isn’t only true for students getting along with one another — far more than 50% of people rank themselves in the top half of driving ability, although it is a statistical impossibility… Whereas conventional change management approaches surmise that top team role modeling is a matter of will (“wanting to change”) or skill (“knowing how to change”), the inconvenient truth is that the real bottleneck to role modeling is knowing what to change at a personal level.

Keller recommends 360-degree feedback to mitigate this problem, a process that would allow senior leaders to hear specific observations from not only their supervisors but also their peers and employees. Unlike a traditional performance review, 360-degree feedback opens up a wider conversation and can give a fresh perspective on how to improve the workplace. Even if your company doesn’t have an existing 360-degree feedback process set up, you can use introspection to take a more honest look at how you can make positive changes as a leader.

Questions to Ask Yourself for Personal Accountability

1. What are the core values of the company? What are my individual values? In the last week, what are specific examples of how I have embodied these values? What are examples of how I have not demonstrated them?

2. What are my strengths when it comes to working with others? How do I need to improve my interpersonal relationships?

3. What are my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to decision making, communication, mentoring, professional development and employee feedback? Think of examples for each.

4. In what way would I most like to improve or change in my role at work? Why? What does success look like? What steps do I need to take to get there?

Learn more about EDSI’s change management resources

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