Friday, 20 January 2017

How good are you?

Are you a good driver? Or a bad one? Or just average?

Do you even think you’re in a position to comment on your driving skills? Are you impartial and honest enough to evaluate your own skills? Am I? Are any of us?

I suspect that most of would say the quality of driving in Botswana is poor. In particular, those of us who’ve been lucky enough to travel to other countries would probably agree that our levels of driving can charitably be described as “not the best”.

So maybe we should ask?

I recently posted a simple question in our Facebook group. It said “Be honest. How would you rate your driving skills?”. I gave people just three options for their answer: “Above average”, “Average” and “Below average”.

Before I give you the results, here’s a very quick maths lesson regarding the word “average”.  My dictionary defines an average as “a number expressing the central or typical value in a set of data.” You might remember this from school but the most important aspect of an average is that it describes what’s typical or normal. In various ways, averages represent the middle of a group.

Here’s an example. In a survey some years ago it was reported that the average height of adult South African women was 159 cm (I couldn’t find any statistics for Botswana so they’ll have to do). Assuming that’s true, if you then measured every South African woman’s height with phenomenal accuracy, down to the nearest atom, you’d find that half of all women were taller than the average and the other half were shorter than the average.

If you were less accurate you’d find quite a lot of women who were 159cm to the nearest centimetre but still, the number who were 160cm or taller would be the same as those who were 158cm or shorter. The definition of an average demands that the number above average is the same as the number below average. If not, you’ve calculated the average incorrectly.

In this little test I asked people to rate their driving skills by saying how they compared to “average” driving skills. I think it again follows the reality is simple. If we tested people and measured their actual driving skills, the number of people we found to be “above average” would be the same as the number we found were “below average”.

But our little survey didn’t show this. Of the 300 people who responded, 35% described their driving skills as “average”. However, twelve times more people (60%) said their skills were “above average” than those who said they were “below average” (5%).

This simply can’t be true. If you assume that one third (35% in our case) actually are “average” then the reality must be that half of the rest (32%) are above average and the other half (another 32%) are below average. That simply MUST be the case.

There are various explanations for this but the most important is simple. Very few people are prepared to announce in public that they’re bad at something. Would you? Whether it’s driving, intelligence or something more personal, would you be brave enough to say you’re lower than average? No, few of us would. But what’s interesting is how many people say they’re above average compared to those who say they’re average. There’s nothing embarrassing about saying you’re an average driver, of average intelligence or average at maths. But in our silly little test twice as many people said they were above average than said they were average. Something is clearly wrong here.

The real truth is that people are really bad at estimating their own driving skills.

Do you want to know the truth? When this question has been asked before, all over the world, the results are the same. People consistently rate their driving skills as better than average. And they can’t all be right. Yes, some people are better than average drivers but it’s fewer than you think. And you have to ask yourself this. Am I a good driver? Really? Or are you deluding yourself?
Are you falling victim to a fallacy that psychologists call “illusory superiority”, a cognitive bias that gives you the sense that you are better than the average? It doesn’t make you a bad person but it does mean you should think again about how good you are.

The truth is that this survey isn’t really about driving. It tells us precisely nothing about how good or bad we are as drivers. Instead it shows us how bad we are at saying how good we are. At anything.

And here’s the other big question. What about all the other areas of life where abilities vary? What about customer service? Just how quickly do you answer the phone when customers are calling? Just how friendly and helpful are you to your customers? Just how good is your product knowledge? Do you have an illusion, or perhaps a delusion, of superiority?

And what about your company? Does your company suffer from illusory superiority? Do all the silly awards your company paid to receive give them a sense of ability they don’t deserve? Do all the advertisements in the newspapers announcing how wonderful the company is just serve to boost managerial egos rather than the quality of service? Does your company really deserve to see itself as better than the competition?

Well here’s the bad news. It seems that we’re even worse at assessing our customer care skills than we are at judging our driving. Shortly after asking the question about driving I asked another question. “A question just for people who regularly deal with customers. Be honest. How would you rate your customer service skills?”

The results were even more eccentric. Twenty-four times as many people said they rated themselves as above average than said they were below average. More than three times as many people said they were above average than said they were average. Like with the driving question, it’s obvious that people are unwilling to publicly state that they’re bad at serving their customers but I think at least in part, people are deluding themselves here as well.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to think more carefully about how good we are at the things that matter? Maybe it’s time to stop be delusional and be a bit more honest with ourselves? It might save some lives and it might save your business.

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