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Study shows leaders and workers disagree about their skills

When we’re asked to rate ourselves and others, we get glaring differences of opinion, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, writes Jim Bright.

One of the most frustrating and exciting aspects of life is that we never have the full story. Life is too complex to be able to reduce it to a single perspective. That is what makes it exciting.

Leaders and managers think they are doing a pretty good job. If only the team members agreed!

There is always something new to discover, there are always new possibilities, there is always hope.

Most problems and disputes in life arise when we fail to appreciate that our knowledge is incomplete, our perspective not all-encompassing.

I was reminded of these truths when reading the results of the recently published Leadership Employment and Direction survey from Leadership Management Australia.

The survey of 1300 people working largely in private companies reveals stark differences in the perspectives of staff at different levels in organisations.

If you want to get an optimistic view of how things are going, talk to the executives or senior leaders.

ETD-banner-vertical2A remarkable feature of the results is the degree of similarity between the executive leaders and the senior managers. For instance, their responses are more or less identical in agreeing that teams are sufficiently empowered.

Try telling that to those who are not managers. They have a significantly more negative view – they don’t feel the empowerment.

A similar pattern emerges for open communication, rewards, ownership and responsibility. The top brass think it is all tickety-boo, further down the hierarchy, there is less enthusiasm.

When it comes to rating those lower down the hierarchy, surprise, surprise, the pattern of results is reversed.

Team members are three times more likely to rate themselves as totally committed to their purpose, compared to senior managers’ and leaders’ ratings of those team members.

Leaders and managers think they are doing a pretty good job, only one or two per cent think they are not very competent. If only the team members agreed!

Sadly, more than one in four think their leaders and supervisors are not very competent.

On the face of it, these statistics point to problems in organisations.

It would be easy to conclude that there are widespread communication problems in Australian organisations.

However, I think it reflects the tendency for ambitious supervisors to endorse and proclaim the views of senior managers — in other words the “yes man” syndrome. It makes sense if you want to be promoted to be seen to share the leaders’ perspective.

That a quarter of staff see the leader as not competent is not necessarily such a bad thing.

It reflects a different perspective afforded in part by the position they hold in the hierarchy. Things look different from there.

The perspective is not necessarily any more valid than the leaders’ optimistic view. The key may be to recognise that there are always multiple perspectives and seeking to understand or at least appreciate these perspectives may be helpful for leaders and team members alike.

We all might benefit by being reminded of the observation by the late Sir Peter Ustinov, that certainty divides us and uncertainty unites us.

Jim Bright is professor of career education and development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates.  Article originally published in the The Age online on June 27, 2015