How managers rate themselves v how their employees rate them

The idea that most of us think we’re above average – which is of course statistically impossible – is well documented (just search ‘illusory superiority’ if you’re not sure). Most of us think we’re beyond the mid-point of the standard distribution curve, whether it’s how attractive we are, how good we are at driving – or how we manage colleagues.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that when the employees who are managed by these ‘above average’ managers were asked to rate their managers, there was something of a gap. New research by consultancy firm Penna found that no fewer than 82% of managers agreed with the statement that they are definitely, or sometimes, ‘good at supporting their direct reports with opportunities for promotion’ – but a significant percentage of their employees (39%) disagreed.

The ‘above average effect’ didn’t stop there: 51% of employees said they could or may be able to do a better job than their manager. It’s not that they don’t like them; that’s an element of the research where there’s good news: employees strongly or slightly agree that they like (64%) and respect (66%) their managers. But there is a gap between how managers see themselves and how those they manage see them.

The existence of the perception gap may not be surprising. But what’s in the gap reveals some simple steps that managers – good, average or struggling – can take to improve how well they work with employees.

Set direction and clarify goals

People look to managers to share the vision and objectives that employees are working towards. I think it’s vital they do this (although Penna’s research suggests direct reports perceived this as lacking), and break those goals into achievable actions that relate to individuals’ everyday work. This can be done by keeping up with the organisation’s leadership and sharing the direction via weekly team updates and 1:1 performance discussions to help employees form the link between what they do all day and the bigger picture of their employer’s performance.

Balance task with process

Only 31% of employees in the Penna research agreed that their manager works hard to make the team work more effectively. It’s my hunch that this can be down to the relentless pace of contemporary work and the resultant focus on task – at the expense of process. Smart managers need to widen their scope beyond the immediate job in hand to encompass how that work is being done and how it can be done more efficiently. Why not build this into on-going project management and get input from team members?

Work on the team as well as in the team

The research wasn’t flattering when it came to employees’ views of how accessible their manager is (23% said they were, compared to 40% of managers) and how supportive they are (25% said they were, compared to 44% of managers). Again that may be due to their workload. This perception gap is something I often hear managers voice with comments like, “Oh but I have 1:1s with my team” when what actually happens is they have a 1:1 conversation with them – but the focus is actually on a task. The big difference here is that the 1:1s employees really want focus on them, their performance and development. These coaching conversations need not be long, or exhaustively documented, but they do need to happen and they need to be two-way.


For more on Penna’s research, follow this link.

You may also find this blog post useful: “I’m a manger, and now I’m being told to coach – just when am I supposed to find the time?”


Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon.

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