But Then How Do You Get Better, Dan?

Dan Ariely, everyone’s favorite behavioral economist, gave an interesting answer to one of this week’s letters to him in the Wall Street Journal.

Here is the letter:

After performance reviews at work, many of my colleagues started boasting about how much they had excelled. Since I didn’t do as well, I couldn’t help feeling discouraged. I just didn’t feel motivated any more to improve. Is that a common response? Or do most people want to do better when they discover others are thriving?

And here was Dan’s response:

Your feeling is perfectly normal. We instinctively compare ourselves to other people who are thinner, richer, more successful and so on. Once, during an online course, I had students anonymously grade the work of their peers, so that good and not-so-good students saw firsthand how others were measuring up. The not-so-good students who saw the better performance of their peers were 16% more likely to quit the course than if they had graded students at their own level. I would suggest that you work to control your exposure to personal comparisons, so that you don’t feel inferior and stay motivated. You may need to surround yourself with a new mix of people. That could mean spending more time with friends outside work. As for the office, find some colleagues who perform at your level or worse. Switching water-cooler talk away from workplace competition might help, too.

I agree 100% that a person should not get so caught up in such comparisons. I think the best way to judge your performance is against a set of pre-defined measures that were mutually agreed upon by an individual and his or her boss. This allows the individual to focus only on his or her own performance; if you exceeded the expected measures, they you have a right to feel good about yourself. If not, then a person needs to know how to make things better moving forward.

That being said, I do believe there is value in having an idea where a person stands relative to his or her peers. Otherwise, no one would have any idea of what type of performance they are capable of. But this should be done in aggregate, using just averages and no identifying data.

For example, at Villanova, our students rate the teachers on multiple characteristics using a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being excellent.

Let’s assume that I get an overall score of  3.5 one year, and after meeting with my chair we set a goal of 3.7 for the following year. If I then get a 3.8, I should feel good about myself, and hopefully I am compensated appropriately for reaching the goal.

However, if I find out that the average for the department I teach in is 4.4, then my 3.5 does not look so good. I think that is important to know. In my case example, having that knowledge about the average of my peer group tells me that I need to up my teaching game, and I would be motivated to learn how to become a better teacher.

That’s why I was quite surprised when Ariely mentions a research study where students were 16% more likely to quit a course after being exposed to the work of students who were performing better than them, as compared to being shown the work of people of equal or lesser performance.

Why would students react such a way?

Are they afraid of competition? Are they not used to being considered less than the best? As noted above, I would find such results helpful in making me aware of that such high performance is possible, and motivate me to achieve at that level.

As a result, I disagree with Ariely’s advice to surround yourself with people who have the same or lesser ability than you. Whatever happened to the expression “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”?

If you surround yourself with people who have the same or lesser ability than you then it seems like you are not going to improve. However, if you are part of a group of high performing individuals, it seems like that high performance would rub off on everyone, and people would be motivated to continuously improve.

In summary, when trying to improve one’s self, a basis for comparison is needed. There are two basic type of comparison – ourselves over time, and to ourselves relative to our peers.

Each type of comparison has value, and should be used in performance evaluation.

However, it may be necessary to also have an awareness campaign prior to implementing such a plan so that employees understand how to take advantage of knowing the average score of their peers, and to not shy away from knowing that others are currently outperforming you, but to use that as motivation to get better.

Bottom line:

If you don’t want to get any better at a task than you currently are, then yes, surround yourself with people of the same ability and same mindset. But if you want to get better, find out what the best are capable of, and try to become part of that group.

Your future performance review will thank you.

4 thoughts on “But Then How Do You Get Better, Dan?

  1. There’s that comparison is thief of joy thing again. It’s tricky because we are buoyed when we come up on top compared to our peers…
    But if you’re feeling subpar at work it does help to hang out with friends more who love you for your other qualities. I think that’s what he meant… and you can network horizontally or downward and make other contributions by helping those people with their professional development… most jobs have lots of duties. If you doing poorly in certain areas it helps your ego and motivation to try to see if you can use your strengths elsewhere.
    I’m sure you’re a good professor if your lectures are like your blog!

    If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,
    for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
    Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
    Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
    it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.


    1. I guess my point is that it’s hard to get better if you don’t know how much better you can be. I think of a swimmer training with a goal of not only seeing his or her personal times improve, but I think knowing what the world record is offers additional motivation to improve.

      thanks for the desiderata quote!


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